Eagles Bounce Back; Scotland Claims First Ever Cup
If you wanted a single tournament to epitomize the entire season, you could not ask for a better example than this year’s London Sevens. Heading into the 2015 London Sevens, only eight teams had ever won a cup title on the series (New Zealand, Fiji, South Africa, England, Samoa, Australia, Argentina, and France). One year later, three have joined those ranks. At the 2015 London Sevens, it was the United States breaking through for the first time. In Singapore, last month, it was Kenya. This year’s London Sevens brought a first ever cup to the nation that started it all: Scotland.
Many will say that no one saw this kind of run coming from Scotland, but then that would not be correct. In our preview for the London Sevens, I said, “Scotland is also poised to make a deep run.” In any other season, thinking a team that had only one cup quarterfinal to its name would win the final leg of the series would be madness, but 2015–16 was unlike any season in recent memory. This year, a non-core team (Japan) broke into the cup round for the first time since the inception of the 15-core team format. Perhaps more telling is that only three teams–Fiji, South Africa, and New Zealand–reached the quarterfinals in all ten tournaments. Even more astonishing is that two teams that finished thirteenth or worse in a tournament each won a cup. In the end, the final three cup titles went to teams ranked 7th, 9th, and 10th in the final standings.
For team USA, which held the crown last year, London 2016 was a crucial event to stop a slide that saw a nine-tournament streak of cup quarterfinals snapped and replaced by consecutive losses in the bowl competition. The Americans began the season on a high by twice vanquishing New Zealand to win a first ever third-place medal. Although the United States had never defeated New Zealand before this season, by year’s end, the Eagles did it four times and actually claimed the season series lead (4–3).
Right out of the gate, France and Scotland, both teams looking to finish the season strong and with the talent to do so, battled to a draw (14–14). The draw looked a dangerous blemish for both teams in a difficult pool that included Singapore Sevens champion Kenya and desperate Portugal, finding a run of improved form and in need of a cup quarterfinal to avoid relegation. Portugal held an impressive (17–5) lead at the half and was level into the final seconds, but Kenya added an unconverted try to avoid the embarrassing defeat: Kenya 22, Portugal 17. In the second round of matches, France crushed Portugal (45–14) and Scotland exposed Kenya (24–12). The result left Scotland needing only to defeat Portugal to advance along side the winner of Kenya v. France. Scotland dutifully topped Portugal (31–14) and France hammered Kenya (29–12). On points differential, France took the top seed in Pool C followed by Scotland. This left Scotland to face the top seed from Pool B on Day 2.
On paper, Pool B was the clear favorite for the home crowd fans, as it was home to series leader Fiji, fourth-place Australia, England, and Wales. Australia brushed aside an improving Wales (22–10) to start things off. England soon resurrected British pride by thumping Fiji (31–10), causing serious speculation whether Fiji might miss the quarterfinals and open the door for South Africa to claim the series title. Undaunted, Fiji bounced back to put Wales to the sword (42–5). With Fiji having lost to England, a win over England by Australia would really put the pressure on the Fijians. Instead, a late yellow card and score saw the home nation over its southern hemisphere rival as England all but secured a quarterfinal birth with a 10–7 victory over Australia. England topped the pool, setting up a match with Scotland after thrashing Wales (24–5). This left the winner of Australia v. Fiji as the second seed. A Fijian win would also secure the series title. With everything on the line, Fiji took the comprehensive victory: Fiji 26, Australia 0.
Pool D was the easily overlooked draw of London. Argentina struggled a bit with Russia (12–12 at the half), but found its legs before too long to win 22–12. New Zealand blanked Brazil (31–0) in the other opening match. Against Brazil, Argentina was more methodical than against Russia, but still left much room for improvement: Argentina 28, Brazil 7. New Zealand took care of Russia (33–10), to set up a winner take all pool decider against Argentina. In the consolation decider, Russia edged Brazil (14–5). It merits note that Brazil has come a long way this year, but should still be expected to go winless in Rio. In the decider, Argentina gave up a late converted try to concede a draw (14–14). New Zealand claimed the top seed on points.
In Pool A, team USA drew a tough, but winnable pool. With South Africa consistently proving a tough matchup, the Eagles would need to start with a victory against Samoa, fresh off a cup victory in Paris. The United States scored first when a penalty deep in Samoan territory gave the Eagles possession and Perry Baker was able to score a try in the far left corner. Team USA would squander a few scoring opportunities and Samoa was able to string together enough class to add an unconverted try to level the match at the break. In the second half a great tackle by Baker to drag the runner into touch inside the USA five-meter line stopped Samoa from taking the lead early in the half. The Eagles won the resulting lineout and worked the ball to captain Madison Hughes who began on his own try line and broke tackles to midfield before passing to Baker who carried it another thirty meters before going into contact and offloading to his captain who started it all for the try. Hughes converted his score to push the lead to 12–5. The Eagles put Samoa under good pressure but were unable to add another score. Instead, Samoa broke through the American defense and looked set to level the match. An inspired effort by Martin Iosefo to catch the runner and force a bad pass, leading to a knock on, prevent the leveling score. With thirty seconds remaining, the Eagles had a scrum on their own twenty-two but managed to lose possession with twenty seconds left. Despite the position, the Americans forced a turnover and kicked to touch to end the match on top.
The next match for team USA was the vaunted South African Blitzboks, who defeated Canada 21–7 in their opening match. South Africa took a 7–0 lead to the half courtesy of a try from Seabelo Senatla and a marvelous conversion kick from Cecil Afrika. In the first half, the Eagles struggled for possession but remained firm in defense, most notably when Perry Bkaer forced a knock on by Senatla in what looked like a certain try for the series leader. In the second half, Afrika managed to add a second try for his side after shaking off tackles from Folau Niua and Garrett Bender. With the conversion, South Africa was in front (14–0). With time running out, South Africa had a lineout throw at its own twenty-two. The throw sailed over the line and was scooped up by Nate Augspurger on the run for the quick try to the right of the post. With Madison Hughes off, Folau Niua took the kick. Despite having roughly a minute left in the match, Niua seemed to rush the important kick, and was unable to close to within one score. The Eagles won the restart with forty seconds left and would add a second score from Ben Leatigaga on full time. With the match out of reach, the score was little more than a consolation. Niua’s conversion attempt slammed off the right post to end the match: South Africa 14, USA 10.
In a surprising turn of events, Canada defeated Samoa (24–19), setting up a winner take all match against the United States. Team USA entered as the favorite in this classic rivalry match and the benefactor of points differential, meaning a tie would send the United States to the cup round. The United States scored first with a try in the left corner from Perry Baker, who broke a couple tackles on the way. Hughes was unable to add the conversion. Just before the half, Canada was penalized inside its own five-meter line, but the Eagles could not capitalize. Instead, Canada was able to add a converted try to take the narrow lead into the second half. That lead would be short lived when Baker added his second try in classic Perry Baker style. Baker took possession inside his own twenty-two and turned on the speed to dot down under the posts. Hughes added the conversion for the 12–5 lead. With two minutes left, Canada answered back when a sloppy ruck left a clear path for the Canadian score. The conversion drifted just wide and the match remained tied at 12–12. Team USA won the restart with 1:20 left and earned a penalty inside the Canadian ten-meter. The Eagles looked for a set play with thirty seconds left but could not break through the defense. With time expired, Canada surrendered another penalty and Hughes kicked for touch to end the match.
In the final match of Pool A, South Africa shut out Samoa 22–0, to send last week’s victor away winless on Day 1. This meant South Africa topped the pool and the United States finished second, setting up a date with New Zealand in the quarterfinals.
Before Dubai this season, team USA had never beaten New Zealand. Thanks largely to injuries for the All Blacks Sevens, the United States started the season 3–0, but had since fallen back to reality, losing the last three. If the Eagles were to soar back to the cup, they would need to top the Kiwis. Throughout most of the first half, New Zealand looked the better team, despite losing playmaker Sonny Bill Williams early in the match. New Zealand worked the opening possession methodically for a converted score. Perry Baker brought things back level with his first try of the match. Madison Hughes added the conversion. The Americans regained possession a short while later with a penalty at midfield, but a poor pass from Martin Iosefo to Hughes fell right into Kiwi hands for a second converted try. The restart came as the hooter sounded, but there was still enough time for Baker to add his second try of the match. Hughes added the conversion to tie the match at half.
In the first half, the two sides played fairly evenly, with New Zealand generally looking the better team. In the second half, the Americans thoroughly outclassed the perennial powerhouse. The first score of the half came when Hughes chipped through the defense and backed himself for the recovery and try. Hughes, as he did with each conversion in the match, slotted it through. A little later, Baker added his third and fourth tries. With Baker finally off for a rest, the Eagles added a sixth converted try when Maka Unufe stole the restart, leading to a strong run from Thretton Palamo, and capped off for the score by Ben Pinkelman. With no time remaining, New Zelanad continued to play for pride, but Hughes got his hands on the ball and kicked it to touch to secure the historic victory: USA 42, New Zealand 14.
In the other quarterfinal matches, South Africa almost squandered a 21–7 halftime lead over Argentina and survived due to a missed conversion on a full-time try by the Argentines: RSA 21, Argentina 19. Fiji destroyed France (40–7). And Scotland blanked England (17–0). The Scottish victory meant a rematch with the United States after surviving a missed conversion to win the Paris bowl semifinal match. The winner would go on to play South Africa after the Blitzboks defeated Fiji (26–21).
Scotland looked to score early, but a near try in the corner was prevented from a hit that knocked the ball loose just shy of the line. The Scots would get there score almost immediately after. The Eagles won the resulting scrum, passed out to the line and a kick was blocked for a converted Scotland try. Danny Barrett soon got the Americans on the board after slamming through two tackles. Hughes was unable to add the conversion. A second unconverted score would follow from the restart. Martin Iosefo picked the kick out of the air and passed to Zack Test for the score in the left corner. Again, Hughes’s sure foot did not get the job done, leaving the match 10–7 at the half. Notably, the half ended with Scotland being forced to touch in a strong attack position. Zack Test was injured in the play to end the half.
In the second half, the United States spread the lead to 17–7 when Thretton Palamo found a seam and dove through for a try under the post less than a minute into the half. Hughes added the conversion. That was the high-water point for the Eagles. Scotland answered back with a converted score three minutes into the half. With two minutes left, Scotland added a second, this time unconverted, score of the half to take the slim 19–17 lead. With the match still in reach, the Eagles won the contested restart but a pass from Baker to Barrett was fumbled, causing Barrett to throw the ball behind his back to avoid going into touch. The ball was intercepted and Scotland added a third try of the half to end the match 24–17. USA Coach Mike Friday would go on to describe the final two minutes of the match as gift wrapped for Scotland.
The result left the United States needing a first win of the year over Fiji to end on a high note. The match could not have started better for the Eagles. Nate Augspurger kicked, Fiji bobbled the ball, Martin Iosefo grabbed the deflection and cruised between the posts for the opening score. Madison Hughes added the conversion for the quick lead. On the ensuing kickoff, the Fijian pod again struggled, leading Danny Barrett to get the ball and win a penalty. Soon after Ben Pinkelman powered through three tackles to score just to the left of the post for the easy Hughes conversion. Fiji answered back to pull within seven. The next score went the way of the USA as Perry Baker crossed in the right corner. Hughes was unable to add the conversion. Fiji again struck back with a converted try on the stroke of halftime.
In the second half, the Americans won the restart but soon gave up a penalty. Fiji then quickly added a try to level the score. The resulting restart failed to go ten meters and the Eagles had a centerfield restart. From there, Madison Hughes was able to repeat his chip and chase from the New Zealand match to add the go-ahead score. After converting his own try, the Eagles were in front 26–19. Fijian pod on the final kickoff again struggled and the ball ended up in touch off a knock on by the Americans. Fiji chose the scrum and would eventually gain possession, but the Americans forced a turnover at midfield and soon won a penalty inside the Fijian ten meter with under a minute left. Looking to burn clock, the Eagles kicked to touch. The lineout came with thirty seconds left and was taken cleanly by the United States. As the hooter sounded, the ball bounced loose, but Hughes was able to get a boot on it and kick to touch to secure the win.
The result meant bookends of third place finishes for the season, and sixth place finish overall, which ties last year’s mark. A few points of note: Prior to Coach Friday taking over ahead of last season, the United States had been to three semifinals and one final in its history. The team had also never defeated New Zealand. Both last season and this season, the Americans reached three semifinals, for a total of six in that span. The Eagles also claimed third place medals for the first time since the creation of the third place match, and finished a mere two points behind Argentina in fifth.
Also of note is that in the span of two and a half seasons, Madison Hughes has become the all-time points leader in American history (725 points), has twice shattered the single season record which had previously been 130 points for Chris Wyles in 2007–08. Last year, Hughes scored 296, this year 331. Hughes claimed the top spot for points on the series this season and on goals. Perry Baker (48) also shattered the American record for tries in a season, which was set by fellow chuckle brother Carlin Isles last year (32). In the span of two seasons, Baker has climbed to third on the career try board.
To put things even more into perspective, in the 2013–14 season, team USA posted a 14–33–2 record. Last year, that improved to 31–19–2. This year, though a drop, it was still a winning record at 28–26–2 (we love two draws for some reason). Although the hardware count was zero for the first time 2011–12, that is not a big deal. It is much better to be losing in the plate final than winning the shield. In a time where the series has seen greater parity than ever before, with eight different winners in the last fourteen events, team USA has remained a consistent threat to beat anyone. Over the past two seasons, there is not a single team the USA has not beaten. Only Scotland managed to blank the United States this year.
Although there was much less stability in the side this year than last, part of the reason was the increase in talent in the squad not making every tournament. The other reason was simply a matter of injuries and fluke circumstances. Bender missed a tournament to attend a wedding, Pinkelman had to finish up classes at Colorado State ahead of graduating, Isles competed in a track competition to try to qualify in two sports for the Olympics. There was also a serious amount of injuries that generally were avoided last year. Kevin Swiryn was lost early in the season as was Brett Thopmson. Since then, Isles has been sidelined since Hong Kong, Test was out for a bit, Will Holder suffered a concussion in Vegas, and Maka Unufe has struggled a bit with the injury bug, not to mention the scores of niggling injuries that accumulate over a season.
After the victory over Fiji, Coach Friday discussed the future for the team heading into Brazil, and the future sounds bright. After a while to rest his players, look for the team to be rejuvenated with talent. In a squad that is already as competitive in depth as any in the nation’s history, Friday signaled that two familiar faces will be back to compete for a spot, along with Isles returning to the mix. Those faces are Chris Wyles, who announced his retirement from Eagles XV consideration earlier in the year but who returned to the sevens squad for the first time in years to help win the NACRA qualifier last year, and Andrew Durutalo. Durutalo has been competing for the newly formed Japanese Super Rugby team after impressing at the Rugby World Cup. Durutalo was an every-tournament guy last year and his physicality at the break down was dearly missed at times this season. A team without Isles and Durutalo was still able to be one meltdown away from returning to the London final. A squad with Wyles, Isles, Durutalo, and relative new comers like Pinkelman, Palamo (who this year has focused on sevens), and Nate Ebner is a squad that can compete for gold in Rio.
Turning back to the rest of the London Sevens, in the bowl competition, Canada sent Brazil to the shield semifinal (19–7), Wales stunned Kenya (21–19), Samoa survived Russia (22–17), and Australia got by Portugal (17–12). In the shield competition, Brazil finished winless after losing to Kenya (38–5) and Russia made sure Portugal remained winless in its final tournament as a core team (26–7). Unsurprisingly, Kenya cruised to an easy victory for the shield (31–7). In the bowl semifinal, Wales ended Canada’s disappointing season (21–17) and Australia edged Samoa (22–21) in what many expected to be a de facto bowl decider. Contrary to expectations, Wales ended on a high note, winning 24–19 over Australia to claim the bowl on British soil.
In the plate competition, Argentina destroyed France (31–5) and New Zealand crushed England (35–10). In the rematch of the Pool D decider, New Zealand put any memory of a draw behind it with a 29–14 victory to claim the plate. The cup final was an instant classic on the heels of a great one last week. Scotland had the surprising lead at the half (10–7) but fell behind 26–15 in the final minutes. With time as an enemy, the Scots scored a converted try to get in striking distance, but needing to steal the restart or face certain defeat. Scotland did just that and scored a try in the corner with no time remaining to claim a first ever cup victory for the nation that gave birth to the short code: Scotland 27, South Africa 26. It was the first time Scotland had ever reached the final and only the second time the side broke into the cup round this season, the other a clean sweep out in the plate semifinal. Previously, Scotland’s best finish was fourth place.
The HSBC Sevens World Series is at an end, but things are only just getting started. With the XVs club season coming to a close and the Olympics just a couple months away, things are just now getting interesting. Make sure to check back in to keep up with all the news and excitement, and don’t miss out on the upcoming Collegiate Rugby Championship to see the future Eagles who, like Madison Hughes, Danny Barrett, and Thretton Palamo, can shine on the collegiate level before carrying our national team to unprecedented heights.