Eagles Fall in Vancouver Semis, Fiji Claims Cup
The Eagles headed north following a monumental victory on home soil in Las Vegas. Having overcome injuries to Madison Hughes, Stephen Tomasin, Maka Unufe, and Joe Schroeder, the short-handed team USA was still looking for an unprecedented consecutive cup victory in Vancouver. While that did not happen, the team came away with hugely important ranking points and having reached a third semifinal on the season
Reaching three semifinals in a year is a remarkable statistic and one that well encapsulates the impact of the Mike Friday era on USA Rugby. As I’ve noted many times before, but it bears repeating: prior to Mike Friday, team USA had reached three semifinals in its history. The first was in 2001 at the Wellington Sevens. The second did not come until the 2009 USA Sevens. And the third was en route to a first-ever appearance in a final at the 2010 Adelaide Sevens. That is it. Since then, Mike Friday came in and made it three in 2014–15, including a cup victory, three in 2015–16, and five in 2016–17. Sixty percent of the way into his fourth season in charge, Friday has already claimed three semifinals, including one cup, and has four tournaments left to build on that mark.
Even better, the next four tournaments may well see the return of some of the players from injury to bolster an impressive lineup. There was one worrisome injury in the semifinal loss to Kenya. Carlin Isles came up limping after his try. Although he looked able to continue, he was out of the lineup for the bronze-medal match against South Africa. In came Chris Mattina as the thirteenth man. That means that team USA has called in the thirteenth man in four of six tournaments on the season, and one of those–Hamilton–the team was only playing with twelve men after losing both Hughes and Tomasin in Sydney and bringing Nick Boyer in to make even twelve for Hamilton.
What we can take away from Vancouver is clear: team USA is really good but not flawless. In order to make the next step, the team will need to clean up its decision making on offloads. As Coach Friday pointed out after the tournament, it is easy to look at the three losses and think it was a breakdown in defense. But, as he said, the reality is that it’s the product of poor decision making on offense that sets up the gaps that world-class teams can exploit. That is what happened in the second half against Australia, the second half against Kenya, and the last three quarters of the match against South Africa.
That said, the depth in the program that has been assembled by Friday, Chris Brown, and Alex Magleby is like nothing we’ve ever seen before. This year, Perry Baker was out for two tournaments. That stunned the team in Dubai and led to an abysmal 0–5 outing. But the same team just one week later was in the fifth-place match. Losing Hughes and Tomasin, and the team still reached the Sydney semifinals. Without Maka Unufe and Jose Schroeder, the team completed a cup final win in Las Vegas and reached the semifinal in Vancouver. In have come names like Kevon Williams, Malon Al-Jiboori, Matai Leuta, and Chris Mattina who may have been overlooked in the past but are making their presences felt in their expanded roles.
And, with usual goal kicker, Hughes, on the sideline, we’ve gotten to see both chuckle brothers, Isles and Baker, make a conversion in the past two weeks. Add in Danny Barrett’s conversion in Hamilton, Maka Unufe’s in Dubai, Cody Melphy’s in Vancouver, and Folau Niua’s 49 on the season and the team has been able to overcome losing two talented kickers in Hughes and Tomasin, giving us a virtuoso kicking display in the process.
How it happened
First up for team USA was the non-core invitee, Uruguay. With both Perry Baker and Carlin Isles getting starts, the Uruguayans were in for a tough match. It was not easy going for the United States through the first quarter of the match, but at the 3:35 second mark into the match, Carlin Isles got the ball out on the left wing and escaped for his 100th try. Folau Niua’s conversion was off the mark. On the restart, Perry Baker stole the kick, offloaded to Perry Baker, who hit Ben Pinkelman to get to the Uruguay five-meter line. From there, it was Folau Niua from the ruck hitting Martin Iosefo for the try to extend the lead just to the left of the post. Niua’s conversion pushed the advantage to 12–0. A try a minute later following a takeaway by Iosefo saw Matai Leuta cross for a third first-half try. Niua again drilled the conversion to make it 19–0 with time for one last restart. Uruguay got the restart and even worked inside the USA half to win a penalty, but while trying to kick to touch, the kick went through the USA goal for an American twenty-two drop. The United States went from there to a try y Carlin Isles, again on the left wing, for a score to end the half. Niua’s conversion made it 26–0 at halftime.
The second half saw the United States finish off the dominate win. First it was Malon Al-Jiboori cutting through the defense to offload to Baker on the right wing for a try. Niua was again good for the conversion. That brought in subs for the Americans. Uruguay then made a strong defensive effort before looking like it might be through for a try, but a forward pass brought back what would have been Uruguay’s lone score. Instead, the next try was for the Eagles, this one coming by way of Al-Jiboori. Cody Melphy added the conversion. That score came while Uruguay was playing down a man for a dangerous hit in a lineout against Brett Thompson. And the last score came with just over a minute left as Kevon Williams intercepted a pass following the restart for the five-pointer. On full time, it was USA 45, Uruguay 0.
With one match down, team USA turned its attention to arch-rival Canada. As tough as Canada generally can be, on home soil the nation can be even more difficult. While the United States was throttling Uruguay, Canada forced a draw with Australia. The Eagles won the opening kick, but a sloppy pass forward by Perry Baker out to Danny Barrett gave Canada an attacking scrum just outside the USA twenty-two. From there , Canada was free for a try under the post by Connor Braid to start the match up 7–0. Canada then won the restart kick to really put the Eagles on their heels, but a penalty shortly after gave the Eagles a chance to level things. Having charged into the Canada twenty-two, it looked like team. USA would level it, but instead, a turnover and hard run by Justin Douglas saw Canada extend the lead in the fourth minute of the contest.
Down 14–0, the Eagles needed to get something going. And for that, who better suited than Baker, who took an inside offload by Folau Niua for a streaking try under the post. Niua connected on the kick, cutting the deficit to seven heading into the final minute of the half. The rest of the minute saw Canada with ball in hand, but a penalty with no time left gave the ball to the United States. A kick through the defense and Perry Baker was in for the try to end the half. Niua’s conversion was true, making it square at halftime.
The second-half kickoff was tapped by Barrett and ended up in American hands, finishing in the Canada try zone for Matai Leuta, giving the Eagles their first lead of the half. Again, Niua drove the conversion between the sticks to complete the seven-pointer. A steal of the next restart gave the Eagles a shot at a fourth try, but a penalty inside the Canada twenty-two kept the United States off the board. From there, it was John Moonlight with a stiff-arm and cracking try for Canada. Nathan Hirayama’s conversion not only tied it up, but also saw him overtake Waisali Serevi on the all-time’s points list.
All level with just under three minutes left, the Eagles won a penalty on the restart. Baker found some room on the left wing, but was close to stepping into touch, so threw back inside, the pass inside could not find a clean receiver, leading to a knock-on and Canada scrum ten meters out from the Canadian line. The Eagles did not win the scrum, but they hammered the Canadians, forcing Canada back against its own line. But Canada survived a turnover from Kevon Williams with a penalty call at just thirty seconds left in the half. Hirayama kicked to touch just inside his own half, with the throw coming in single digits left on the clock. Canada had all the momentum and the vocal home crowd. Canada’s hopes rose with a penalty inside the USA half. But Hirayama’s kick to touch did not find touch and the Eagles got back. A horrid pass soon sent Baker back inside his own goal but he managed to hold off and, moments later, Kevon Williams had the ball and ninety-five meters of open territory for a try under the post. Baker added the conversion for the 28–21 victory.
The win over Canada secured a spot in the quarterfinal, but the match against Australia would decide whether the Eagles would finish atop the pool. With New Zealand toping South Africa in Pool D, a loss would mean playing New Zealand and a win leading to a match against the Blitzbokke. For Team USA, New Zealand has proven the better matchup in recent years. Nevertheless, the Eagles came out looking for a victory over Australia, as they had in pool play the week before. For Australia, after a resounding victory for Canada over Uruguay, a loss would mean falling to the consolation bracket.
The Eagles could scarcely have started better. Ben Pinkelman forced a turnover in the first minute and team USA got on the board first with a try by Carlin Isles at the start of the third minute of the match. Folau Niua made short work of the conversion. Australia ended up with the second restart and a penalty at the USA ten-meter line, then Jesse Parahi managed to carry enough momentum through the Matai Leuta tackle for the try. James Stannard’s kick evened it up in the fifth minute. Australia then kicked deep, but Isles was home. The Eagles then got it out to the right flank to Danny Barrett who hit Niua on the inside. Niua then fed Baker for the try to retake the lead. Niua capped it off with a conversion in front of the posts. But the Americans were not yet done. Barrett stole the restart and the Americans looked to extend the lead, and extend the lead they did when Barrett hit Baker for a try to the right of the post. Niua’s third conversion made it 21–7 at the intermission.
As good as the first half was for team USA the second half was bad. Australia started by conceding a yellow card with a hit against Martin Iosefo on the restart. But the Eagles failed to capitalize on the man advantage. Instead, it was Australia scoring a short-handed seven-pointer from John Porch managing to get around Perry Baker of all people. Then on the restart, Lewis Holland was away for the try to make it twenty-one all. And things got worse when Perry Baker was sent to the bin with 3:09 left for rolling the ball away after being tackled into touch. With the advantage, Porch scored the go-ahead try with just over a minute left for Australia’s first lead of the match. But the conversion was off the mark, keeping the United States within striking distance and back to a full complement. But on full time, it was Porch completing the hat trick for the try to seal the victory: Australia 31, USA 21.
The result was far from the worst thing that could happen to team USA, but it did not snap a remarkable twelve-match unbeaten streak spanning from a loss to Samoa in Hamilton pool play until the loss to Australia in Vancouver.
On Day 2, the Americans had everything left to play for with a matchup against New Zealand. The loss to Australia may have snapped the undefeated streak, but it did not dampen the hopes of a second consecutive cup victory. After years of suffering at the hands of New Zealand, the United States entered with confidence that they could defeat the All Blacks Sevens, as they had numerous times in recent years.
The match started with New Zealand kicking deep and the ball rolling in-goal with Folau Niua touching it down to set up the free kick at centerfield. But a drop off a pass from Niua by Matai Leuta gave New Zealand the early possession. The first half saw little going for either side. The Eagles defense was stiff, but New Zealand’s offense was methodical, allowing the All Blacks Sevens to dominate possession for the first four minutes. In the fifth minute, Ben Pinkelman forced a penalty turnover to finally give his side a taste of possession. A minute later, Perry Baker looked poised for one of his world-class tries, but good defense on the outside forced him to turn inside and he knocked on in the tackle just shy of the line. A minute later, Baker again looked like he might be in to get the first points of the half but could not win the race on the left wing, being drawn into touch at the New Zealand five-meter line. The Kiwis won the lineout as the hooter sounded but could do nothing with it before the half drew to a close.
In the second half, the United States woke up. New Zealand won the restart but Danny Barrett was quick on the tackle, and Baker followed for the turnover. A penalty soon gave the ball to New Zealand, and the Kiwis looked to break up the right flank. The turf monster got the runner and the Americans won a penalty. Niua kicked for touch and Carlin Isles came in to replace Martin Iosefo. That led Baker to shift into the centers and Isles moved out to the wing. Backed up at their own five-meter line. The Eagles faced stiff resistance, but Baker gapped two tacklers and did the one-handed dish to Isles on the wing for the try right under the post with 4:08 left. Niua’s conversion made it 7–0. That lead grew with an unconverted try by Danny Barrett coming in the right corner in the thirteenth minute. And, as the final seconds ticked off, Kevon Williams made it three tries to nil for a remarkable quarterfinal for the United States: USA 17, New Zealand 0.
With a favorable matchup against Kenya, the United States was almost certainly expecting a fifth ever trip to a final. Unfortunately for the Americans, it was not to be. The United States was the first to threaten as Ben Pinkelman got the Eagles inside the Kenya five-meter line. The ball worked back to Perry Baker in the center and he managed to wrap through the Kenyan defense for the try in the third minute of the half. Folau Niua on the conversion for the extra two points. The Eagles then won the restart when Danny Barrett smacked the ball back to the charging Baker for a try under the post directly off the restart. Niua’s kick made it 14–0 in the fifth minute.
The Americans again stole the restart, but Kenya fought hard and stole the ball from Pinkelman to set up an attack just inside the USA half, which resulted in the first converted try fro Kenya of the half through Nelson Oyoo with still a minute left in the half.
As the half came to a close, the United States won a penalty at midfield and kicked to touch inside the Kenya half. After winning the lineout, the Americans were a completed offload by Niua to Baker at the Kenya twenty-two away from extending the lead. But that offload was intercepted by Collins Injera and the half ended with Oyoo scoring his second. Carlin Isles tracked down Oyoo to keep him in the corner, preserving a two-point American lead to start the second half.
The second half again looked like it might start well for the Americans. They earned the restart with Martin Iosefo going up to win it for the Eagles and Baker tried to have a go on the outside, but was brought down and turned the ball over in the offload. Kenya was deprived a score by being dragged to touch inside the USA five-meter line.
A minute later, the Eagles again missed out on a favorable opportunity as Martin Iosefo’s pass out to Isles on the wing was behind the winger, giving the ball back to Kenya with only thirty meters to go for the lead. A knock on by Kenya relieved the pressure and the ball worked down the chain to Isles on the wing for a try in the left corner. Niua’s conversion was astray, making it 19–12 as the restart came with 1:45 left in the match. Twenty-four seconds later, Collins Injera carved up the defense and hit Willy Ambaka for the try to level the match.
Knotted up with two dozen seconds left, the Eagles won the restart and set to work. Niua hit Pinkelman in the middle of the pitch to get up to the American ten-meter line, but the Eagles had to work the ball back to set up a second go at the defense. It worked to get Kevon Williams inside the Kenyan half, but a remarkable counter ruck and steal by Injera got the ball to Kenya and the Kenyans managed to get the try in the corner with no time left to take the final bid: Kenya 24, USA 19.
Left to the bronze-medal match, the United States finally stood face-to-face against a South Africa team that the Eagles had avoided since losing to the Blitzbokke in Sydney. No team on the Series has proven a worse matchup for the Americans in the past four years than South Africa.
Coach Friday, as he’s done before in bronze-medal matches, went for a new look lineup as usual starters Ben Pinkelman, Dnny Barrett, Matai Leuta, Perry Baker, and Martin Iosefo on the bench. Further complicating matters, Isles came up limping after his last try against Kenya and was replaced by Chris Matina for the match against South Africa.
Even without the usual starters, the Americans got on the board first when Kevon Williams made some room and hit Malon Al-Jiboori for a try under the post in the second minute. Folau Niua’s conversion made it 7–0 just two minutes it. But those were the final points for team USA.
South Africa’s first try came from Zain Davids midway into the fifth minute. With the dot down between the sticks, the Cecil Afrika easily leveled the match. The Blitzbokke then retained the restart and gashed the defense for another score between the posts, making it 14–7 with one last restart to end the half. South Africa again won that restart and moments later were in for another try.
Down 19–7 to start the final half of play, the Americans needed to do what they do best and win the restart. But South Africa continued to dominate in that phase of the game and took just thirty-four seconds to extend the lead to 24–7. And with 4:34 left, a second consecutive try for Ryan Oosthuizen made it 29–7 with a quarter of the match remaining.
A penalty on the restart gave the Americans a shot at getting back into the matchup. Cody Melphy’s excellent kick to touch moved the attack to the South Africa twenty-two. But South Africa won a penalty to stop the attack. With the ball back at midfield, the Eagles were looking at too little time to likely pull this one out, but even if they could it would mean a quick strike and the South African defense would not give. A pass to Kevon Williams on the wing may have given the Eagles some points, but the ball was off the mark, missing Williams and skirting to touch. In the end, neither side added any more points and the Blitzbokke were the victors and the podium finishers.
When all was said and done, the United States inched to within a mere four points of Argentina for fifth place and just eleven points back from Australia in fourth. South Africa and Fiji are almost certainly out of reach, but a potential run at New Zealand for third could be in the cards if the Eagles continue to fly high.
And, speaking of flying high, for the fifth time this season, an American name was listed in a dream team selection. First it was Ben Pinkelman in Sydney. Then it was Pinkelman, Perry Baker, and Danny Barrett in Vegas. That left many stunned and rightly annoyed by the exclusion of Folau Niua. While Niua is still left to wait for his greatness’s first recognition in a dream team selection, Baker made the list in Vancouver.
A part of me wonders if the World Rugby selectors will continue to overlook Niua in the next four tournaments only to reach the end of the season, look back on his marvelous year, and name him in the season’s dream team. There really is no way to look at the remarkable rate for winning restarts that the Eagles post tournament after tournament without looking at the man who places the ball. At least the broadcast team in Vancouver was quick to acknowledge that Niua is the Swiss Army Knife of restart kickers, let alone everything else he brings to the game. His day will come, but until then, he will have to settle for winning big matches through excellent execution.