Eagles Land With a Thud in Wellington
The Eagles landed in New Zealand with strong hopes of building on a seventh-place finish in Cape Town and looking to return to form. Instead, team USA registered a performance that tied for the team’s worst finish since Mike Friday took over the program in 2014. For only the third time in the past three seasons, the Eagles finished eleventh, dropping the team to its lowest ranking in the series standings since December 2014. Ironically, on Day 1, the Eagles were a few mistakes away from a solid performance. In the end, however, it was a tournament the team will need to quickly forget as they prepare for Sydney less than a week away.
Despite a fairly tough draw in Pool C, which included France, Samoa, and New Zealand–three teams that combined for four cup victories, one runner-up, and two third-place finishes last season, joining team USA’s two third-place finishes–the Americans could realistically have targeted topping the pool. In order to do so, the Eagles needed to start well against France. The French have been extremely inconsistent the past two seasons, but have won more than they have lost against the Eagles dating back to last season.
The match began well when Madison Hughes was able to convert an early try by Martin Iosefo. Perry Baker poached the ensuing kickoff and the Eagles looked set to add another score when a pass from Folau Niua failed to find its intended receiver, Iosefo. Soon after, France drew the match level from a strong inside run forcing a missed tackle, five minutes into the match. The next two scores went the way of France, both coming by major American mistakes. The first try came on the ensuing restart with Danny Barrett knocking the ball on and France scooping for the score. The second came again from Barrett who would later find his form after a rough start. Barrett knocked an offload pass from Iosefo, which France was able to boot under the post for the score, leaving the halftime lead 21–7 in favor of France.
The second half started much the way the first ended, when Baker erred by touching the restart before the ball traveled ten meters; Baker’s long body was across the ten-meter line, but the ball was not. France was soon in attacking position ten meters out from the USA line. Fortunately for the Eagles, a poor exchange down the French chain squandered the opportunity. The ball soon worked to Baker who danced through two tackles to score under the post for the quick reversal of fortune. Hughes added his second conversion to pull within seven. With the sides drawing near, the important restart again failed to go ten meters, giving France a free kick at midfield. Barrett, having shaken off his early mistakes, won the ball back with an excellent turnover and penalty. Niua kicked to touch just shy of midfield. The Eagles won the lineout and worked the ball to Hughes. Hughes broke through the French defense, dragging a tackler for several meters. Misfortune struck Hughes, however, as the dragged tackler forced him to ground the ball inches shy of the try line, resulting in a knock.
France won the resulting five-meter scrum and looked to kick for touch. The French kick failed to find its mark, instead being picked up by Niua. Iosefo, soon with ball in hand, drew the French defensive line tight to the left wing before sending the ball back right. Ultimately, the ball made it to speedster Baker who found space down the right wing. Baker strolled into the right corner, shook an in-goal tackle to cut inside, and then passed to Andrew Durutalo for a try by the post. Their appreciative captain, Hughes, slotted his third conversion to draw the sides level.
The final kickoff came with fifty-two seconds remaining. Barrett was able to tap the ball back to Baker, but Baker’s pass sailed over Durutalo, into French hands. France looked to make a break up the left wing, but Niua made an excellent play from the sweeper position, dragging the runner into touch, and preventing the offload to the largely unmarked trailing runner. With no time remaining, Coach Mike Friday sent in his lone sub of the match, Carlin Isles, for Baker. The Eagles won the lineout and worked the ball to Isles for his first touch since the Olympics. Isles was unable to find an attacking angle. The French defense stood strong and worked the Americans back into their own goal. Barrett tried a dangerous pass to give Durutalo a chance, but the ball was knocked on to end the match.
Although team USA avoided a disastrous loss to France, the result left the Eagles needing to beat Samoa and either claim a rare victory over New Zealand or count points along the way, hoping New Zealand would keep France winless through the first two rounds of play. The draw was also a tough result because it was the product of numerous unforced errors. It is not uncommon for such a drastic time-zone shift to cause difficulties for the United States abroad. But the team was given four days to try to acclimate.
The second match was more in line with expectations. Baker got the scoring started with a try on the right side of the field. It was Baker’s eighty-eighth career try. Hughes added the difficult conversion for a 7–0 lead. Baker looked to steal the following kickoff, but was grabbed by the shoulders and slammed to the ground. The ill-positioned official called a knock on Baker instead. What should have been a yellow card, more likely red, instead gave Samoa a feed to the scrum. Samoa won the scrum, but surrendered a penalty on the following ruck, which likely should have been followed by a second penalty for laying on the ball after the penalty. Barrett, much improved over his struggles to start against France, powered down the right touchline, breaking a tackle before offloading to Niua for a score in the far right corner. Hughes’s conversion failed, leaving the score 12–0. Samoa won the restart and a penalty a short while later. The Samoans capitalized on the position and added a converted try after a Samoan runner broke two arm tackles. The following Samoan kickoff went directly to touch. After the free kick, the ball worked out to Baker who, although struggling to pick it up, collected the ball and managed to make a break up field. He then passed to Niua, who offloaded to Iosefo for a try by the post. Hughes added the conversion to send the match to the break.
The Eagles knocked the restart, giving Samoa an attacking scrum. Samoa turned the ball back with a bad drop of a pass down the chain. Hughes soon stormed into Samoan territory, winning a penalty for a high tackle in the process. Samoa seemed hard done by the call, especially since it prevented a turnover. Samoa would get the ball back shortly after, when Barrett was pinged for holding on after a tackle. Samoa kicked for touch, won the lineout, and then was rewarded with a penalty from Matai Leuta, fresh off the bench. Samoa looked to have something going, but again felt the rub of a dodgy call, giving the ball back to the Americans when a ball carrier was deemed held in a tackle. A short while later, Leuta would redeem himself with a run up the left wing, where he offloaded to Stephen Tomasin, who passed to Durutalo, who passed back to Leuta for a try on the left side. Hughes again was unable to convert, but the Eagles stood comfortably ahead 24–17 with 1:19 left. The restart again plagued the Americans as the ball went directly to touch. The once sure-footed Niua has struggled in his kickoffs ever since Rio. Samoa was ultimately able to add an unconverted try with twenty-five seconds left after breaking a tackle attempt by Carlin Isles. A knock on of the final restart ended the match.
The late try by Samoa, although meaningless to the outcome of the game, loomed large in a battle likely to come down to points differential between the United States and France for the second seed in the pool. Of note, the try allowed for debutant Connor Wallace-Sims and Wellington local Pago Haini to trot on for caps. Neither would see any other time during the tournament.
With France losing by seven to New Zealand then pounding Samoa by twenty-three, the points differential for France was +16. For team USA, the differential was a mere +12. The difference left the Eagles needing at least a draw against New Zealand. For New Zealand, the match was an opportunity to work in some depth from the bench. The All Blacks Sevens had already clinched a bid to the top eight–a task the side has never failed to meet–and the difference between winning and losing meant only the difference between facing Fiji and South Africa, each an equally imposing challenge for New Zealand. The Americans ran out the strongest side that they could muster. In the end, a lack of depth and execution was the undoing for team USA.
New Zealand took the opening kick cleanly and set into a methodical offense. Baker looked to have finally forced a turnover by dragging a New Zealand player into touch, but was ruled to have himself knocked the ball into touch. Ultimately, the Eagles persistent defense paid off with an interception at midfield. From there, the Americans struck quickly. From the interception, Barrett passed to Hughes, who passed to Niua, then on to Iosefo, and finally to Tomasin for the try. Hughes added the conversion for the 7–0 lead. Iosefo looked poised to steal the kickoff, but coughed the ball up upon landing on his back. New Zealand soon managed to draw the match level when youngster Vilimoni Kori danced around Tomasin for the score. Off the restart, the Americans looked set to retake the lead when Iosefo found a gap and drove inside the New Zealand five-meter before his offload pass to Baker was mishandled. New Zealand won the scrum and kicked for space. Niua tracked back to recover the ball. All Blacks Sevens captain Tim Mikkelson chased and stumbled with a knee into Niua. Niua looked to be in great pain and Mikkelson was sent off with a yellow card. Contrary to what American fans have become accustomed to, on this exchanged, it looked like the tier 1 nation was the recipient of a poor call. The man advantage allowed Barrett to power over for a try in the left corner to end the half. Hughes’s long-distance conversion was left wanting, leaving the halftime mark at 12–7 in favor of the United States.
Still playing seven on six, the Eagles were unable to build on the lead to start the second half. On the knock on to end the penalty, Baker came off with an injury, sending Isles in to finish out the match. Between the 2014 London Sevens and the 2016 USA Sevens, Isles featured for team USA in every tournament. He then left the team to contest for Olympic qualification in track and was soon after hampered with injuries. Since the 2016 USA Sevens, Isles has only seen international action at Rio this summer prior to returning in Wellington. Before Isles’s injuries, the difference between him and Baker was fairly small. In the interim, Baker has exploded into a bona fide sevens star. Isles, on the other hand, despite a fairly strong showing in Rio, looked extremely rusty in Wellington. New Zealand exploited that rust Isaac Te Tamaki stepped by Isles for the go-ahead score. New Zealand blew the match up moments later with a third try in the corner, the first unconverted, extending the lead to a full seven points. With time running out, the United States got the ball back, still only down seven points, but never looked to have any hope of breaking the stiff defense. In one instance, the ball got out to Isles, but he looked uncomfortable trying to back himself in the spot. Not necessarily the wrong decision, but would become characteristic in Isles’s limited time in Wellington, which is atypical from the Isles of old. The last hope for team USA to pull a draw was a late penalty at the American twenty-two. The opportunity was lost when Leuta lost the ball forward, allowing New Zealand a scoop and score to end the match: New Zealand 24, United States 12.
The loss sent the Eagles to the bottom tier competition for only the seventh time under Coach Friday, but the fourth time in the last six tournaments. The result also meant that the Eagles, who entered in a three-way tie for seventh, would lose ground to at least France if not others. Nevertheless, Day 2 left the challenge trophy to play for, which, as it had in Dubai, can leave the Eagles ending on a high note.
Day 2 started for team USA against Japan. The Japanese shocked the world finishing fourth in the Olympics but have recently looked more like the side unable to maintain core status two years ago. In brutal Pool B, Japan registered only 12 points against 122. The Eagles would have expected to steamroll Japan, but found themselves scrapping to survive. Four minutes in, things were looking good for the Americans after Barrett scored a try under the post. Hughes’s conversion made it 7–0. The rest of the first half, however, favored the Japanese, adding two converted tries for the 14–7 lead to start the second half.
In the second half, Japan got out to a strong start, but was unable to add another score. Instead, Barrett was able to bring in an overthrown Japanese lineout to run for the unassisted try breaking a couple tackles on the way. Hughes added the conversion to draw the match level. After losing the restart, the Eagles won the ball back with a penalty. The Eagles took the tap from the penalty and passed out to Isles who finally found space for a score in the far right corner. Hughes was unable to convert, keeping a victory within touch for Japan. The kickoff was uncontested and Japan soon won a penalty, as Iosefo was forced to exit with an apparent shoulder injury. Japan kicked the penalty to touch inside the USA twenty-two. With a minute and a half left, Japan won the lineout and won another penalty, setting up a lineout just ten-meters shy of the line. Despite a temporary steal by Barrett, the Japanese found themselves with the ball with under twenty seconds remaining. To make matters worse, Durutalo was shown a yellow card with five seconds remaining and Japan knocking on the door. The American defense held stiff and forced a turnover, allowing Tomasin to boot for touch to escape with the victory. Japan ended the competition winless, after falling to Russia (15–5) in its next match.
Having escaped Japan, the Eagles faced always-dangerous Kenya for a birth in the challenge trophy final. That honor would prove elusive for the Americans in Wellington. Kenya struck first off an Eagles’ error, when an offload from Baker missed its intended target, Barrett, and Durutalo was unable to clean up the loose ball. Kenya kicked the restart deeply, where the Eagles picked it up and passed out to Baker who tiptoed down the right touchline for a breakaway try under the post. Hughes’s ninth conversion of the tournament gave the Eagles the slim lead. It looked like a second score might be on offer for the Americans when Barrett found some space and slammed into the Kenyan sweeper, winning a penalty. The Americans took the penalty quickly, but when the ball reached Hughes, he dropped it forward to end the half and squander the opportunity.
The second-half kickoff by Kenya was deep that it bounded across the dead-ball line, giving the Eagles a free kick at midfield. The Americans tried to break the Kenyan defense with a kick through from Iosefo to Baker, but Kenya covered the kick and Niua was penalized trying to assist Baker in the chase. After some back and forth play, Kenya finally broke through the American defense on the left wing for a try under the post, to retake the lead. The following kickoff again went extremely deep, but this time, bounced into touch inside, backing the Eagles up for a five-meter lineout. Niua’s lineout throw drifted to Kenya, ultimately leading to another converted try. With no time remaining, Kenya’s final kickoff went directly into touch. Hughes would ultimately give the USA an unconverted consolation try to finish the match 19–12, with two Kenyan players unfortunately slamming heads trying to tackle Hughes at the end.
The loss ended an extremely disappointing tournament for the Eagles. In light of recent budget concerns, injuries, and the unavailability of series regulars such as Zack Test, Garrett Bender, and Maka Unufe, the immediate future for the Eagles does not seem as bright as fans might have hoped coming into the season. Team USA will need to show up in full force this upcoming weekend in Sydney. Due to a startling semifinal run for Canada, the team’s first since the 2014 Scotland Sevens, the United States is in one of the weakest, at least on paper, pools that the side has seen in quite some time. Joining the Eagles and Canada are Argentina and Russia. This is a pool that an in-form team USA would expect to dominate. The slightly out-of-form team needs to target at least a second-place finish.