Eagles Finish With Heartbreaking Silver; Canada Gold
Ahead of the 2017 Singapore Sevens, I wrote, “This year has largely been more predictable and consistent than last. Singapore seems primed to add some chaos to the mix yet again.” As chalk full of surprises as Singapore was last season–or even as chaotic as the whole last season was at times–Singapore in 2017 was a tournament like none we have ever seen in the history of the World Series, and it sure did not look like it would be at the start of Day 2.
Team USA entered Singapore on the second best run in the team’s history. For only the second time, the Eagles had reached three straight semifinals–a feat done previously in the last two tournaments of the 2014–15 season and the first tournament of the 2015–16 season. The prior run included the victory at the 2015 London Sevens. Although the Eagles would finish with the silver, the heartbreaking loss in the final to archrival Canada could not have been a more cruel finish.
Team USA entered the dangerous Pool D looking to continue the semifinal streak to four. Wales would likely be the least formidable threat, but is a nation that started the year in a semifinal. Perry Baker got the Eagles on the scoreboard first less than a minute in. Wales was on the attack when Martin Iosefo was able to force a turnover, pass to Baker, and, in an instant, Baker was free for a try under the post. Madison Hughes added the conversion for a 7–0 lead. Iosefo then stole the restart and passed inside to Andrew Durutalo for a second straight try under the post. Hughes again had no trouble with the conversion in front of the post. Wales answered back with an unconverted try two minutes later. (A penalty against the Eagles off the restart gave Wales its second taste of possession and just about a second try. A knock on forced by Danny Barrett in a tackle at the try line, gave the Eagles a five-meter scrum. The Americans won the scrum, worked the ball to Baker on the USA line, then Baker found a gap and was gone for his second try of the half. On halftime, Hughes’s third conversion pushed the margin to 21–5.
The second half began as the first ended, Barrett collected the restart, passed out to Iosefo who passed to Stephen Tomasin for a fourth try under the post. Hughes extended his perfect kicking streak to make it 28–5. Yet again, the Eagles stole the restart and one last try was on offer for Maka Unufe for the fifth try under the post. Hughes made it five from five to put the match well out of reach at 35–5 with four minutes remaining. After Coach Mike Friday brought in the subs, Wales was able to add two converted tries as a consolation, but a thirty-point deficit could not be overcome: USA 35, Wales 19.
Having overcome Wales to start the day, a win over Scotland would secure a quarterfinal birth. After a great finish to 2015–16 and a solid start to 2016–17, Scotland had fallen on hard times. Nevertheless, a challenge trophy victory in Hong Kong showed that Scotland is still a serious obstacle. Scotland entered the match after a 1-point loss to New Zealand earlier, in the day. Scotland scored first after a peculiar penalty call against Perry Baker, prevented what would likely have been a Baker try. Baker knocked a pass from Scotland down, and was penalized for doing so intentionally, however, the ball was knocked backward by Baker, so was not an intentional knock on, which would have merited at the penalty. Scotland won the restart and got to the USA twenty-two before losing the ball forward, giving the Americans a scrum. The Eagles won the scrum, worked the ball wide with an excellent tap pass by Martin Iosefo to Baker on the wing for Baker’s first try of the match. With the pace, Baker stormed away from the field for a try under the post. Madison Hughes slotted his sixth conversion of the tournament to put the United States in front.
A tremendous steal of the restart by Danny Barrett, led to a second try moments later. This time, it was Stephen Tomasin for his second try of the tournament, and far from his last. The kick coming from far outside, Hughes finally failed to add the two-pointer. With a minute remaining, Scotland was able to bring in the kickoff. Following a penalty and lineout and two more penalties in attacking territory, Scotland drew the match level on halftime.
The Eagles retained the second-half restart and began to probe for a gap. Baker finally made a gap and then the ultimate example of a team try: Baker offloaded inside to Martin Iosefo, who passed out to Folau Niua, and then offloaded to Tomasin for a try under the post. Hughes’s conversion made it a full seven-pointer. Despite a long kickoff from Niua, Barrett was able to contest the kick, scooped it off the deck and dotted it down in the right corner. Hughes added the long-distance kick for the 26–12 lead with under four minutes remaining. Scotland answered right back with a try from Jaimie Farndale to cut the Scottish deficit to seven.
The Americans won the restart and soon sent Baker through for yet another try, this one thanks to a kick to space by Niua in attack. Hughes notched another conversion to make it 33–19 in the final minute. With just enough time for Scotland to strike twice, the American defense stood just strong enough to churn away the clock. Scotland eventually broke the defense, but not before the hooter sounded, marking the end of the Scottish threat to win the match. On full time, team USA had booked another quarterfinal bid: USA 33, Scotland 26.
In the final match on Day 1, team USA took the pitch looking to top Pool D. Not knowing what Day 2 had to offer, it looked to all of the world that the winner of Pool D, who would face Canada in the quarterfinal, would have the considerably easier path to the semifinal, with the Pool D runner up facing Fiji to start Day 2.
There was a time when the Eagles never expected to beat New Zealand. Prior to the 2015 Dubai Sevens, New Zealand boasted a 28–0 record over team USA. Heading into this the Pool D decider, team USA held the 5–4 edge over New Zealand since, including the 19–15 victory in their last meeting, which came in the bronze medal match at the USA Sevens.
Joe Ravouvou took the kickoff perfectly and tried to tear down the wing, but was dragged to touch by Perry Baker just inside the USA twenty-two-meter line. The Eagles won the lineout and worked the ball out to Baker who looked to have something going before the ball slipped loose of his hands, to give New Zealand an attacking scrum inside the USA half. The All Blacks Sevens capitalized on the territory for a try two and a half minutes into the match. The conversion made it a full-score lead. An Eagles turnover inside the American twenty-two gave New Zealand another great attacking opportunity, but Danny Barrett was in for the try-saving tackle, giving team USA a five-meter lineout. New Zealand stole the throw and looked again likely to score, but a tremendous turnover by Maka Unufe squashed the New Zealand hopes momentarily. The Eagles won a penalty and kicked to touch. New Zealand once more complicated the restart, forcing an American error, giving New Zealand a lineout throw, from which Joe Ravouvou looked to just barely cross the line for New Zealand’s second try of the half. After a call up to the TMO, the try was not awarded, with Ravouvou’s boot just tapping the touchline before the try. New Zealand once more stole the resulting lineout, and this time the try could not be stopped from Regan Ware. A solid conversion from the right side of the pitch put New Zealand ahead 14–0 at the break.
New Zealand’s kickoff went deep and bounced right out of in-goal, to give the Americans a free kick at midfield. After multiple turnovers from each side, and two penalties against New Zealand, the United States finally got on the scoreboard with a try from Danny Barrett thanks to a perfect pass out of a ruck by Folau Niua. Madison Hughes’s conversion pulled the Eagles within seven, with more than three minutes to play. Less than a minute later, Ware got an angle on Mike Te’o to add a third converted try for New Zealand in the twelfth minute. With forty-eight seconds left, a cracking run from Martin Iosefo kept the USA hopes alive, but the offload to Andrew Durutalo bounced into New Zealand hands. Although the Eagles got the ball back a short while later, the lost time could not be overcome. Te’o crossed for a consolation try with two seconds remaining. A conversion from Niua made the final score: New Zealand 21, USA 14.
The United States came out of the tunnel for the first time in their Adidas alternate blue kit, and, perhaps, even more eye-catching was Folau Niua’s scrum cap, hiding his usually massive hair. Wins over Fiji are rare for team USA, last having come in the 2016 London Sevens bronze medal final. After winning the kickoff and several phases of disciplined rugby, Ben Pinkleman crossed for a try in the right corner to give the Eagles the early lead. Madison Hughes’s conversion clanged off the post, to keep it a five-point margin. Unfortunately, Martin Iosefo, who proved invaluable on Day 1, was forced off with a shoulder injury on the phase leading to the try. Maka Unufe came on to replace Iosefo. The Americans stole the restart to keep Fiji under pressure. But the next score came to Fiji. The Eagles looked to have a great attack going, but a huge tackle on Ben Pinkleman led to a turnover at the ruck, and Fiji exploded down the field to take the two-point lead. Unufe came up limping after the exchange.
Team USA took the contested kickoff and looked again to have an attacking opportunity, but lost possession when Stephen Tomasin was dragged into touch, a quick lineout gave Fiji a good look, but a useless kick was taken by the American sweeper and after back-and-forth rugby, Tomasin found space on the right wing for a try in the corner on halftime. Hughes’s second chance at a conversion from the right corner found its mark, to put team USA up 12–7 to start the second half.
Baker started the half with a huge steal and won a penalty for the Americans. Niua kicked for touch to for a lineout fifteen-meters out. After struggling in lineups against New Zealand, the Americans came through a tough contest and just about scored from Barrett, but a penalty moments later led to yet another try for Tomasin to push the lead to two scores. Hughes’s conversion drifted wide. Unufe stole the restart again giving team USA an attacking opportunity. Three quarters of the way into the match, the startling statistic was team USA with 55 passes completed versus Fiji at 1. A minute later, Pinkleman completed the brace. Hughes added the long-distance conversion for a 24–7 lead with a minute and a half left. Fiji finally came up with the kickoff, but the ball squirted to the deck and Baker got a boot on the ball, though the ball bounded across the dead-ball line before Baker could get to it.
Fiji drove the twenty-two dropout deeply and stole the ball for a try in the right corner. With twenty-two seconds remaining, the Eagles came up with the kickoff. Despite Fiji being awarded an attacking scrum inside the USA twenty-two, there was no time left on the clock, which meant two scores was an impossibility. Fiji added seven consolation points to end the match, but the semifinal birth went to the United States, not the Olympic gold medalists: USA 24, Fiji 19.
The win over Fiji sent the United States to a fourth-consecutive semifinal match. For the first time in that run, however, the match was not against South Africa, a team which has proven to have the Eagles number the past several seasons. Instead, it was a date with Australia, in a rematch of the HK7s bronze medal final.
Team USA, still wearing the blue strip, that they’d wear all day, entered the match against Australia looking to reach only a third-ever cup final. Australia struck first a minute and a half in when John Porch was able to collect his own grubber for a try under the post. It was the last points for Australia in what would prove to be one of the most comprehensive victory in American rugby history. On the stroke of three minutes in, Perry Baker burst down the left wing for a try under the post. Madison Hughes added the points to even the score. A stolen restart put Stephen Tomasin over for a try in the left corner after fending two tackles. Hughes was able to overcome the tough angle, making it 14–7. Danny Barrett snagged the restart, giving team USA yet another attacking opportunity. The possession turned into points when Martin Iosefo shook off a tackle for a try under the post. Hughes added his third conversion for a 21–7 lead at the break.
As strong as the Americans finished the first half, the second-half was still more heavily dominated by the Eagles than the first. The first try of the half was Tomasi’s second of the match, seventh of the tournament. The score in the right corner went unconverted by Hughes. Baker stole the restart and Hughes came up just short on the ensuing kick and chase, giving Australia a twenty-two dropout, which Folau Niua took easily from the sweeper position. Moments later, the semi truck in a jersey with a license plate reading BARRETT crashed through some unfortunate Australian souls for a try of his own. Hughes notched his fourth conversion for a 33–7 lead in the eleventh minute. The man who would become the leading try-scorer at tournament’s end, added the final USA try of the half, as Baker tore up the left wing for the try. Hughes added his final conversion.
With the match in hand, the only major note was Malon Aljiboori earning his first cap. Aljiboori, who was the designated 13 for Vegas, Vancouver, and Hong Kong, came in on Day 2 in Singapore as an injury replacement for Andrew Durutalo.
In the other semifinal, the shocker of the tournament, Canada defeated England and reached only the second final in Canadian history. No one could have imagined that the United States and Canada would meet in the Singapore Sevens final. To get there, the Americans had to beat Fiji and Australia. Canada had to beat New Zealand and Australia. Heading into Singapore, the Americans and the Canadians combined for a total of three final appearances and one cup title. The teams they defeated to get there combined for 208 finals appearances (of 306 all-time), and 111 cup titles (of 153 all-time): New Zealand (55 cups, 89 appearances), Fiji (31, 65), England (19, 35), and Australia (6, 19).
There have been a great many important matches between the North American rivals, but none bigger than this one. Canada’s lone final appearance was at the 2014 Scotland Sevens, a loss to New Zealand. Team USA first reached a final at the 2010 Australia Sevens, losing handedly to Samoa. The only other final for either team was the 2015 London Sevens victory for team USA over Australia. A win for Canada would mean a twelfth team to enter the prestigious list of cup winners, and third first-time winner since team USA won in London (Scotland and Kenya the others), and third in the last eleven tournaments.
Folau Niua got the match started. Canada came up with the sloppy kickoff. Canada’s Matt Mullins broke through two poor tackles to get the opening score in the left corner. Nathan Hirayama’s conversion attempt failed. Danny Barrett took the restart cleanly and won a penalty in the resulting ruck. Niua, with his nose bandaged kicked for touch, but failed to do so, instead giving Canada possession again. In the early minutes, Canada certainly looked to have a great deal more energy than the Americans. Harry Jones popped free for a try under the post, for a 12–0 lead four minutes in.
Barrett again won the restart, and Canada put Tomasin under pressure, leading to a loose pass and Canada scoring a third try with only two minutes left in the half. The conversion made 19–0. If team USA was to get back into the match, the Americans would need to score before the half. Barrett again won the restart and was taken to ground by Canada. Finally, the Americans were able to break into the Canada half, but the another turnover, gave Canada the ball, yet again. A turnover at midfield got the ball to Perry Baker who finally put team USA on the board with a try under the post. Madison Hughes added the two points to make it 19–7 with time for a restart. Canada took the restart perfectly, but team USA forced a turnover and Stephen Tomasin got a try in the left corner to end the half. Hughes’s conversion just hooked, missing the points. At halftime it was Canada 19, USA 12.
The Eagles took the kickoff and won a penalty. The Americans went quickly and Baker found space on the wing for a try under the post thirty-three seconds into the half. Hughes added the conversion to draw the match level. The restart went the way of Canada but a Canadian knock on, gave the United States a scrum feed inside the Canada ten-meter line in the middle of the pitch. The Eagles won the scrum and worked the ball through the chain to find space. A penalty against Canada ten meters from the try line with four minutes left saw the Americans slow things down. Barrett took the tap and passed inside to Niua who passed to Tomasin wide who came within inches of the line before being buried in a pile on the line. The official went up to the TMO to determine whether the ball was held up. It was, and the Eagles had a five-meter scrum. The Eagles won the scrum, but a loose pass from Hughes under pressure gave the ball back to Canada with space. Canada quickly tore into the USA half, and Canada continued to force multiple players to commit to tackles. The American defense looked gassed and Lucas Hammond found the gap for a try under the post with 1:50 left. Down seven points, the United States’s hopes of a second-ever cup were ticking away as the restart came with 49 seconds left. The Americans knocked the restart on, giving Canada a scrum feed with under thirty seconds left. Canada won the scrum, passed back, and kicked it to touch for the win: Canada 26, USA 19.
Team USA should be proud, but the sting of the loss to Canada in the final cannot be salved by a silver medal. The United States will have two more cracks at the gold this season, and still have the increasingly realistic target of overtaking New Zealand for fourth in the series final standings. Team USA (101) pulls to within nine points of New Zealand (110) and seven points clear of Australia (94).
The Singapore Sevens Dream Team lineup was dominated by Eagles: Perry Baker, Stephen Tomasin, and Danny Barrett were each included. It is the third time this season for both Baker and Barrett and Tomasin’s first selection to the dream team. Baker and Tomasin finished tied at eight tries.
After a loss like that, it is important to put a few things into perspective. For the first time, the United States has reached four semifinals in a single season. For the first time, the United States has reached four semifinals in a row. For only the third time, the United States has finished in the top two. This is the latest point in the season with team USA in the top five. The Eagles managed to put together a tremendous Day 2 without the beast, Andrew Durutalo, in the lineup.
Although it didn’t happen in Singapore, team USA’s next cup title looks to be just around the corner. The red-hot Eagles will have two more cracks at the gold before the end of the season. However, the pool draw for Paris will once more make it a tough task to even reach the quarterfinal. Despite finishing second, team USA will once more be in an extremely difficult pool for the next tournament. Pool B is headed by the Eagles, followed by New Zealand, which defeated South Africa in the fifth-place final, Wales, which won the challenge trophy, and Argentina, which won the shield. Aside from team USA, which is the second highest 1 seed, the 2, 3 & 4 seeds are each the highest ranked at that slot.