#DefendTheGold, A Preview
Now that the women’s competition has concluded, the men will take the pitch on Tuesday (August 9). Each team will play their first two matches of pool play on Tuesday and conclude pool play on midday Wednesday. Each team will then advance to the knockout rounds. For the bottom four teams, that will mean a two match ninth-place competition finishing Thursday. For the top eight teams, it will be to the quarterfinal with a chance at Olympic glory.
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Pool B, with arguably the most difficult draw, gets things started. The pool is topped by 2015–16 Sevens World Series runner-up South Africa, followed by fourth-place Australia. Prior to the season, each team was surrounded by the expectations and excitement of stars of XVs jumping into the mix, with Bryan Habana and Quade Cooper the most notable names. In the end, neither was able to crack the squad. Nevertheless, each is a team that can reasonably expect to compete for a medal on Thursday. In the third seed is France, which looked like a dangerous squad by years end, including two semifinal appearances on the year. France also boasts one of the most in-form players currently in sevens in Virimi Vakatawa, who was included in the season’s dream team selection. With two other dream team members in Pool B, each from South Africa (Kwagga Smith and Seabelo Senatla), it promises to be exciting.
The seemingly inevitable last-place finisher of Pool B should be Spain. After being relegated from the World Series two years ago, few expected Spain to be here. The smart money was always on 2009–10 Series champion and 2016 Paris Sevens champion Samoa to claim the final Olympic spot. If not Samoa, then Series core member, two-time Pan Am gold medalist, Canada or a more veteran XVs nation like Ireland. Instead, Spain shocked the world and earned the final spot. Sadly, it looks like the Spanish saga ends with the invitation to the party. Nevertheless, Spain has proved us wrong before.
In many ways, Pool C is the most interesting draw. The presumptive pool champion will be the team with the most accomplished history in 7s: New Zealand. The Kiwis have won twelve of seventeen World Series titles, with only Fiji, having won the last two titles, joining New Zealand as multi-season champions. New Zealand is also the reigning World Cup Sevens champion. Nevertheless, New Zealand has been out of top form the past two seasons, though still able to win three tournaments this year. New Zealand also boasts the most famous name in XVs convert and double World Cup champion Sonny Bill Williams.
The second seed in Pool C is the biggest question mark. Team Great Britain, a conglomerate of England, Scotland, and Wales will be interesting to see how well the creation of an all-star team can do against veteran squads. Two seasons ago, England finished fourth to earn the automatic bid for team GB. This past year, England fell to unprecedented lows, Wales, the one-time World Cup Sevens champion (2009) struggled to break into the quarterfinal, and Scotland similarly struggled, only twice reaching the quarterfinal. Nevertheless, it was Scotland who shocked the world in the final leg of the series to win a first ever cup title in an instant classic over South Africa.
Similarly, Pool C includes a Kenyan team that was stricken with budget and doping scandals the past two years prior to finally winning a first cup victory this season. Despite winning the 2016 Singapore Sevens cup, two tournaments later, Kenya was left as the lowly shield champion in London. The Kenyans are always dynamic and exciting. Along with their fans, they symbolize in a single squad why 7s is perfect for the Olympics. If team GB does not gel well, Kenya could surpass the British, but should not be expected to overtake both team GB and New Zealand.
Finally, Pool C includes Japan. Ahead of last season, Japan was relegated from the World Series, posting a single quarterfinal appearance. This past year, Japan competed in half the tournaments and reached the plate final in Vegas. Still, Japan finished last in its next World Series tournament, one week after winning the right to rejoin the Series as a core team. Pool C will likely finish: (1) New Zealand, (2) Great Britain, (3) Kenya, and (4) Japan.
This leaves the all-important Pool A. At the top of the pool is 2014–15 & 2015–16 Series champion Fiji, followed by the 2015 London Sevens champion and two-time defending gold medalist United States, Argentina, and host Brazil. For team USA, topping Pool A is a real possibility, so is coming in third. In five matches this season against Fiji, the Americans went 1–4, winning the final meeting in London (26–19). The loses were often close, including a sudden-death loss in Vancouver. The Americans can beat Fiji, but will be underdogs. Unfortunately, whatever the outcome, the match promises to be a grueling battle and will be on Wednesday ahead of what should be a quarterfinal match.
Although the Americans can beat Fiji, a win over Argentina is far from assured. The United States has won three of the last four meetings, but the most recent was a 36–0 shellacking by Argentina in Paris. Coach Friday has since indicated at least some of the poor showing there is attributable to a dietary issue with his players that has been remedied. Ultimately, a late-season surge by Argentina allowed the Argentines (119) to finish two points clear of the Americans (117) in the final series standings.
In many ways, the most important match of pool play for the Americans will be against host Brazil. Although Brazil can look back to the 2011 Pan Am Games to find a 19–19 draw with the Americans, the side that thrice trotted out in World Series competition, went winless on the year and was only able to eke out a draw against Morocco (19–19) in the series qualifier, losing badly to Japan (36–0) and Tonga (26–5) on the way. It would be a mistake for the Americans to take Brazil lightly, as they did for a humiliating defeat in XVs months ago. The importance of the match stems from the possibility of going 0–2 against Fiji and Argentina. Should this happen, the United States will most likely need a strong points differential to reach the quarterfinal. The best way to do that is to dominate Brazil.
Carrying the banner for the United States are nine men who won the cup in the 2015 London Sevens and another who joined those nine to win the NACRA title. Heading the squad as he has the past two years is captain Madison Hughes. Along side are stalwarts Folau Niua, Maka Unufe, Zack Test, Perry Baker, Danny Barrett, Garret Bender, and Carlin Isles. Some things to know about these guys: Baker claimed a spot on the 2015–16 Sevens World Series dream team and finished second in tries scored this season. Test is the most accomplished American sevens player of all time. Barrett is a product of the original Collegiate Rugby Championship and carries the Olympic banner for the Cal Golden Bears. Garrett Bender, has competed in all but two of nineteen World Series tournaments this past year, and was a core part of the NACRA champion squad and Pan Am bronze medalists. Niua is one of only three Americans to feature in all ten Sevens World Series tournaments this year (Hughes and Baker the others). Niua has also become one of the best restart kickers in the game. Unufe, when healthy, is one of the most dynamic playmakers in the world. Isles is often called the fastest man in rugby and narrowly missed qualifying for the Rio Games in track as well. And Hughes had the distinction of topping the season series in points scored.
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Two players who have not been on the squad since the NACRA qualifier but return for Rio are Andrew Durutalo and Chris Wyles. Durtutalo (“Drew” as his teammates call him) was a major factor in the success of the 2014–15 team. His unique power and ability to force turnovers was missed throughout the season as he turned his focus to professional XVs in Japan after a dominating summer and fall with national XVs team at the Rugby World Cup. With the exception of Sonny Bill Williams for New Zealand, Wyles is likely the most accomplished XVs player in Rio. The former sevens captain had not played for the squad for many years prior to joining for the NACRA qualifier last year. Outside of sevens, he captained the XVs squad in the Rugby World Cup last fall and won the English Premiership and European Cup championships this season with professional club Saracens. This past year, Wyles retired from XVs international play and announced his intent to compete at Rio. After a tough training camp, Coach Friday determined that Wyles fit a need in his squad and tabbed him for Rio.
The two additions not in the NACRA squad are Ben Pinkelman, the youngest player in the squad, and Nate Ebner. Pinkelman received his first this year and quickly became a core member of the squad. The more headline grabbing selection was Ebner. He grew up a rugger before taking to American football while at Ohio State. Ebner was a standout star at the inaugural CRC, but has since found success in the NFL as a member of the New England patriots, winning a Super Bowl. Ebner took the bold step of asking for permission to chase his Olympic dream. He returned to rugby in the 10s tournament at Hong Kong and then slotted into the sevens roster to cover for an injured Isles. He saw no playing time in Hong Kong but eventually featured in limited play in Singapore and Paris. He was then shifted to a developmental squad to compete while the main squad competed in London.
The two men who do not return from the NACRA squad, Martin Iosefo and Nate Augspurger, will also travel to Rio as part of the three-man reserves squad. Iosefo’s omission was perhaps the most surprising, given a season that included a dream team selection at the Vancouver Sevens. He may yet see a role in Rio. Augspurger, who was part of nine of the ten tournaments this year and the NACRA and Pan Am squads last year, is a somewhat surprising but entirely understandable reserve. This was the product of Coach Friday using the system. Augspurger is the backup scrumhalf and would only be needed if there was an injury to Folau Niua or Madison Hughes. If such an injury happens, Hughes can fill in for Niua and Wyles can fill for Hughes. This would mean only one match where Augspurger would be preferred, but he could be brought in from the reserves.
The third member of the reserves is Shalom Suniula. Suniula was a regular for the squad, but last appeared on the World Series in 2014. He provides a reliable veteran, but is the least likely reserve to be called into the lineup.
The Americans have a realistic shot at a medal, and even gold. Anything short of a quarterfinal appearance will be considered an abysmal failure. The favorites for gold will likely be Fiji, New Zealand, and South Africa. Nevertheless, Australia, Great Britain, the United States, and others are all legitimate threats. The majority of teams will head into Wednesday evening with a chance to medal. How the ball bounces that night may decide everything.