Eagles Soar in Dubai, Fiji takes the Cup
The 2014–15 season was one of surprises and saw history made on numerous occasions. Series champion Fiji became only the second nation to claim multiple series titles–New Zealand with twelve the other. Most notably, after years of speculation of American potential, team USA broke through for a season that not only saw the Eagles post their highest season finish (6th) but also saw the United States become only the second northern hemisphere nation to ever win a World Series tournament.
The major storylines entering the 2015–16 season were whether New Zealand, Samoa, Kenya, and Canada could bounce back from disappointing seasons; whether Fiji and team USA could build on the success that they reached last season; is Russia, the newest core member, ready for primetime; could France build on a strong undefeated summer leading to Olympic qualification; and is Portugal able to avoid relegation yet again. Dubai gave insight, but not definitive answers to these questions.
In Pool A, Fiji began strong, throttling team Canada 63-14. Canada, the sixth-place finisher in 2013–14, came in with high hopes. The Canadians, though falling to the United States in the NACRA qualifier, managed to defend Pan Am gold and returned stars from the 2014 squad that was absent last season. Nevertheless, the loss to Fiji proved to be more of the same instead of the bright start that Canada had hoped.
The second match for Pool A paired Pan American silver medalist and South American champion Argentina against Japan. Japan was a core team last season but struggled all season long–with the lone exception of a cup-round birth at home in Tokyo. Argentina won the match, but Japan, the Asian qualifier champion, set a tone that would permeate Day 1: Argentina 31, Japan 19. In the second round of matches, Japan built on a strong showing against Argentina to raise some eyebrows as Fiji narrowly edged Japan 21-17. For Canada, the second round of pool play proved a reversal of the Pan Am final as Argentina bested the Canadians 19-14.
With Argentina and Fiji each sitting at two wins, and cup round births clinched, the Fijians proved why they remained the tournament favorites as they blanked Argentina 28-0. For team Canada, another bowl quarterfinal birth lay ahead, but first a seeding match against Japan. Unlike the Japanese side last season that struggled to win at all on Day 1, this side downed team Canada 21-7. The win as a non-core team broke a trend in which no invitee won a match last season.
Pool B lived more closely to expectations. South Africa, last season’s runner-up, had no trouble running through the pool, beating Samoa 33-7, Russia 45-0, and Scotland 26-12. For Samoa, a perennial power that fell off the radar last year, the day could not have started worse. After the tough loss to South Africa, Samoa righted the ship and bested Scotland 17-12 and Russia 19-10. The results saw Samoa through to the cup round but failed to answer the nagging questions about whether Samoa is back. The question of whether Russia was ready for primetime showed that the gap is not huge, but still not there after falling to Scotland 17-14 to end Day 1 winless.
In Pool D, the main story was a day of almosts for Kenya. Kenya, a proud rugby sevens nation that was rocked by financial issues last season and capped off by a doping scandal started the day leading Australia 12-7 into the final minutes before conceding a converted-try to save the day for the Aussies. Kenya’s second match proved similar as Kenya took a 5-5 tie into the half before conceding 14 unanswered points to England. Kenya added a try on full time to leave the score line a flattering 19-12. In the Kenyan’s final match, Wales managed to edge Kenya 12-10.
While Kenya’s return to glory was not on track on Day 1, England and Australia remained on a collision course for the pool decider. England started the day with a cracking win over fellow team Britain nation Wales, 26-5. Australia also bested the Welsh but by a more impressive margin: 43-0. In the Pool D decider, England proved to be better on the day and won convincingly 21-5.
The red-hot team USA entered Pool D as the second seed. Since falling to England in the third-place match in the 2015 Scotland Sevens, team USA won the London Sevens, NACRA Sevens, and took bronze in the Pan American games. On that run, the Eagles posted an astonishing 16-1 record in international competition. The top seed, New Zealand, entered on the heels of a season considered disappointing only by the vaunted All Blacks Sevens standards. For the Eagles, to top Pool D seemed an unrealistic goal despite recent successes. In 2014–15, team USA posted a win over all but one core team. The lone outlier, of course, was New Zealand. In all, team USA entered Dubai 0-28 against New Zealand in World Series play.
New Zealand started on the right foot with a 21-14 victory over a French team that has been trying to fend off an onslaught of XVs players pounding on the door to break into the sevens roster. For team USA, the day started against once proud Portugal. The Portuguese were fortunate to not be relegated after last season and, despite core-team experience, were unable to make any noise in the Olympic qualification process.
Portugal trotted out a lineup of seven newcomers. Team USA, though without Danny Barrett and Andrew Durutalo, brought a very experienced side. It didn’t take long for the Eagles speedster Perry Baker to strike. Thirty seconds in, and Baker was away on a run that started inside the American 22 and ended under the Portuguese posts. Madison Hughes added the easy conversion. Maka Unufe and Garrett Bender combined to steal the restart. Soon after, the ball found its way to USA all-time try leader and most capped sevens player, Zack Test for Testy’s first try of the young season. The Eagles already in front 12-0, Unufe and Bender again worked to steal the restart and lead to a try for Bender. The Hughes conversion pushed the lead to 19. Portugal answered back with a converted try, but Perry Baker would add his second try before the half to push the halftime lead to 26-7 with a third conversion by Hughes.
A point often raised by commentators and, at times, by Coach Mike Friday himself, is that the powerhouse nations get the benefit of the doubt on 50/50 calls. Just before the break, Portugal looked poised to score, but a great effort from Test led to a ruling that the Portuguese ball carrier had been dragged into touch mere moments before grounding in goal. The replay proved it a tight call that could have gone either way. Today, it was in the USA’s favor; an apparent acknowledgment of the rise of the sleeping giant.
In the second half, Portugal struck first to pull the match to 26-14. Portuguese hopes were on the rise until Carlin Isles reminded why he is often called the fastest man in rugby. With two and a half minutes left, Madison Hughes added his fourth conversion of the match and the Eagles pulled ahead to 33-14. The margin was certainly too great for a Portugal comeback, but the American bench was not done. Nate Augspurger scooped a loose restart off the deck and strolled in for another try. Adding his own conversion, Augspurger and the Eagles’ lead stood at 40-14. Not to be outdone, Brett Thompson, making his return to the series after pursuing a professional XVs career last year, executed a wonderful poach and added a final try to set the final score at 45-14 in favor of team USA.
Coming off a strong win over Portugal, the Eagles faced off against France. A win would lock team USA into the cup round. But wins never come easily against France. Last season, the Americans posted a 3-1 record against the French, but it wasn’t always easy. In London, where the Eagles went 6-0, they started with a slender 24-19 victory over France.
The match started with France capitalizing on several American penalties to take the initial 7-0 lead. France struck again a quarter of the way into the match to push the lead to 14-0. The Americans took the restart with Garrett Bender being elevated to grab it from the air. After several passes, Zack Test managed a strong run inside the French 22 before being dragged down. Several phases later, Maka Unufe broke through for the first Eagle try. Hughes added the conversion to pull team USA within seven at the half.
The kick to start the second half exemplified the sloppy play of the Eagles in this match. The ball went off Bender for a lineout throw to France. France built on the early momentum and added a third try to pull ahead 21-7. The resulting restart was allowed to hit the deck, but the Eagles recovered possession. From that possession, team USA scored a try thanks to a cracking run from Zack Test and an offload from his back to Brett Thompson running in support. Hughes’s second conversion pulled team USA back within seven. The Americans won the restart and sent the ball to the wing where Test dove through two tackles to dot it down in the left corner. Hughes’s virtuoso kicking display continued as he sent the conversion through to level the match with two minutes remaining. With less than a minute, Vakatawa for france stepped over a Perry Baker tackle, stiff armed Maka Unufe, and by the time Folau Niua could make the tackle was in the try zone. The score put France in front 26-21. With just enough time for the restart.
The restart had hope. France knocked the restart back and the bounced looked to be in the Eagles favor, but the rugby gods saw otherwise. The bouncing ball found its way to touch and the French claimed the 26-21 victory to make the task of reaching the cup round a tall order.
While the Eagles disappointed against France, New Zealand took care of business against Portugal 47-5. France finished the day with a 35-7 victory over Portugal. France led that match 35-0, but surrendered a consolation try to Portugal midway through the second half. The final score line meant that if team USA could do the unimaginable and finally beat New Zealand, the Americans and All Blacks Sevens would go through to the cup round and leave France fighting for the bowl.
In the history of Eagles-All Blacks Sevens matches, the Americans were winless in 28 attempts. The Eagles are not the only side historically dominated by the All Blacks Sevens. But that invincibility that has carried New Zealand for over a decade began to crack last season as Portugal pulled a famous draw against the Kiwis and Canada broke its o-for.
The United States started with early possession when the ball skirted into touch off a Kiwi. Taking the lineout slowly in an apparent effort to shorten the match–a tactic long used by underdogs–the Eagles won the lineout, and fed the ball to Perry Baker for the first try of the match. Hughes added the conversion and the Eagles stood tall with a 7-0 lead a minute and a half into the match. Garrett Bender was penalized on the resulting restart and was fortunate to avoid a card. New Zealand used the penalty to kick deep into the American half but were unable to capitalize thanks in part to a strong tackle from Baker. In regrouping, New Zealand surrendered territory back into its own half before earning another penalty. With the kick providing a lineout in the USA 22, the Eagles defense held strong, marked notably by a solid tackle by Bender on an island on the corner. The USA defense finally broke after Perry Baker was shown a yellow card for an intentional knock on. The replay showed that Baker may have been hard done by the call, but in that position, it was a call that 9 out of 10 officials make. The penalty gave All Blacks Sevens the break they needed to level the match at seven. The Americans survived another sloppy restart and ultimately booted the ball to touch to end the half.
Although back to seven men, the Eagles errors were not gone. The Eagles knocked the ball on setting up a New Zealand scrum just outside the USA 22. The Eagles soon conceded a penalty allowing New Zealand to kick inside the 22. A successful lineout and simple pass later and New Zealand took the 12-7 lead. With four minutes left, there was still time for a comeback, but the mistakes had to stop. That did not happen. Hughes took the restart cleanly, but the pass from the resulting ruck was dropped by Leuta for a knock on, giving New Zealand a scrum inside the USA 22. The American defense held strong an earned a penalty with three minutes remaining. Twenty seconds later, the US earned another penalty and a third shortly thereafter, but still did not gain much territory. The best opportunity for a score came when the Eagles finally worked inside the New Zealand half and a chip kick gave Baker a chance. Baker charging down the kick had a chance, but spilled the hard to scoop ball at the try line to give New Zealand a scrum. The play resulted in an injury to New Zealand captain Scott Curry causing him to leave the match. The ball came out untidy from the New Zealand scrum, but the Americans were penalized, relieving New Zealand of the intense pressure. New Zealand kicked to touch to burn the clock with less than a minute remaining.
The Eagles contested the lineout, but New Zealand pulled it in. New Zealand began cycling the ball through its line to feast on the remaining clock. It looked like yet another what-if for team USA. But fortune thought otherwise as Perry Baker executed a great tackle and earned a penalty in favor of the United States. Baker took the ball, hit the corner and scored the game-tying try. A noble effort to be sure, but it would be for naught unless Hughes could convert the tough kick. Miracles don’t end with the kick drifting wide, nor do efforts from team USA of late. Holding true to modern form, Madison Hughes’s kick was true and team USA claimed a first-ever win over New Zealand: USA 14, NZ 12. The win booked a spot into the cup round as the second seed behind New Zealand for team USA.
For team USA, a miracle finish saw the Eagles into the cup quarterfinal in Dubai for the first time since 2010. In the four tournaments in between, the Eagles have gone 5-16, including 0-5 in 2012. To build on a strong close to Day 1, the Eagles needed to get by South Africa. The moment that last year’s season swung from mediocre to something special could arguably be said to be when team USA battled South Africa to a draw in pool play at the USA Sevens. Despite the Blitzbokke winning four of six against the Eagles last season, that draw and a win over South Africa in London were both moments that catapulted team USA to great heights. On the back of that London win, team USA was looking for a first ever winning streak over South Africa.
The match started in favor of the Eagles when Perry Baker scored his fifth try of the tournament two minutes in. Hughes added the conversion and took the 7-0 lead. A potential second try looked in the works when South Africa through an interception in the USA 22. The next score, however, went the way of the Blitzbokke after a potential scoring pass from Test to Folau Niua hit the deck and was scooped up for the score to draw level. South Africa looked set for another try when a chip kick from Werner Kok took an unfriendly bounce and slid through the goal finding Blitzbokke hands too late for the score. Nevertheless, South Africa soon capitalized on good field position and scored on a 3-2 overload to take the lead. The USA knocked the resulting restart on and ended the half down a score.
In the second half, the hole got deeper when Seabelo Senatla made strong pressure payoff and pushed the lead to 19-7. Things finally turned in favor of team USA when Senatla was shown a yellow card for an unfortunate tackle on Carlin Isles when Isles elevated for a pass and had his legs taken out from under him in the air. Isles remained in the match, but Senatla was sent to the bin. Down a man, South Africa regained possession and looked poised to put the match away with pressure inside the USA 22, but conceded a penalty with 3:24 remaining. Mati Leuta made the Blitzbokke pay for the penalties and stepped through the undermanned South African defense and broke a tackle to strole under the post with Isles alongside for support. Madison Hughes added his second conversion and pulled the Eagles within five.
Brett Thompson soon ensured that South Africa pay the full penalty for the yellow card as he slapped the restart ball back. The Americans probed the South African defense before a series of passes from Folau Niua, to Zack Test, to Niua, to Garrett Bender, and ultimately inside to Carlin Isles sent Isles free down the middle to score the go-ahead try. Hughes’ conversion put team USA in front 21-19, but with plenty of time for South Africa to answer back. The restart left 1:43 on the clock with South Africa back to seven men. South Africa won the restart and were off and running. The USA defense was unable to pull runners to ground allowing quick offloads. Fortunately, the defense was enough to allow South Africa to make an error, and make an error the Blitzbokke did. Just outside the USA 10 meter line, South Africa was dinged for yet another penalty. The Eagles kicked to touch to burn clock. Winning their own lineout, team USA began to work the clock, but appeared to lose possession. Unfortunately for the South Africans, the ball sitting, waiting to be scooped for the game-winning score was knocked forward resulting in a scrum to the Americans. South Africa was penalized in the scrum and, with no time left on the clock, team USA kicked for touch.
With now consecutive wins over South Africa in hand, team USA was through to the semifinal. Joining the United States in the semifinal were Fiji after defeating Australia 19-12, New Zealand on the back of a 24-21 win over Samoa, and the USA’s opponent-to-be, England who defeated Argentina 14-7.
The match started well for the United States when Matai Leuta stepped through a tackle to add the first score. Hughes added an excellent long conversion to give the Eagles an early 7-0 lead. England dropped the resulting restart for a knock on setting up a USA scrum. The Eagles won the scrum, passed out to Garrett Bender who passed to Maka Unufe. Unufe broke through tackles a drove near the five meter line. The USA soon earned a penalty that allowed Folau Niua to take the tap, pass to Bender who drove to the line and left it for Zack Test to add a second try three minutes into the match. The tough conversion missed its mark, but team USA led 12-0 with England not having had any possession. The Eagles won the restart but finally yielded possession with a knock on at under three minutes to go in the half. England capitalized on the possession and after drawing the American defense to the center of the pitch, worked it out to an unmarked runner outside to cross for the first English try. With 17 seconds left, England stole the restart clearnly and ran straight on for the try to level the match at the half: USA 12, England 12.
The second half began favorably for team USA. The deep kick was taken by England but sure American tackles kept England backed up. England conceded a penalty just outside its own 10 meter line. Matai Leuta capitalized on the ensuing Eagles possession and stepped through English defense to offload to Maka Unufe for the try under the post with 5:45 left in the half. Hughes’s kick was good to pull the lead to 19-12. Minutes later, England capitalized on Eagles penalties inside their own 22 and tied the match. The final restart came with 43 seconds left. It became a back and forth match with each side gaining and losing possession. Ultimately, it was England who would earn the famous victory. The ending was not without controversy. The final phase came from a ruck that it looked like should’ve resulted in a penalty in favor of team USA. Carlin Isles made a tackle and appeared to be deprived possession by the tackled England player not releasing. Isles, as an apparent result of trying to drag the ball out of England’s hands lost his feet and was called for the penalty. The penalty never manifested, however, as England was able to take the ball from that ruck and score the match winner with no time remaining.
After a heartbreaking loss to England, the Eagles entered the third-place match for only the third time in the team’s history. The prior two occasions were both last season and each resulted in a loss. Their opponent would be New Zealand thanks to a 19-5 victory for Fiji in the semifinal. The matchup gave team USA the opportunity to prove that the first win was no fluke.
Facing a depleted All Blacks Sevens lineup, team USA started a lineup of primarily bench players, with only Folau Niua and Zack Test featuring from the lineups that had started the past two days. New Zealand struck first to take the early 7-0 lead. The Eagles answered back when Kevin Swiryn, featuring in the World Series for the first time since 2010, broke through the New Zealand defense and passed to Folau Niua for the try. Niua’s conversion attempt was no good, leaving the Eagles behind 7-5. Matai Leuta stole the restart and flipped it to Will Holder. New Zealand was then penalized at its own 22. Leuta took the tap and tried a blind pass to Nate Augspurger. The pass hit the deck, but Augspurger scooped it up and passed it to Kevin Swiryn for the try. Augspurger’s conversion was good and team USA held a 12-7 advantage. The Eagles added a third try thanks to a strong charge into the New Zealand defense by Niua and offloaded to Will Holder for the socre. Augspurger hit the kick and set the halftime lead at 19-7.
At the break, the usually reserved New Zealand coach, Sir Gordon Tietjens, was livid with his side. The show of force failed to wake the depleted All Blacks. A second half that went several minutes without a score looked to go New Zealand’s way when a cross kick left Zack Test alone to contest against Augustine Pulu for the high ball. Test went high and Pulu went underneath him. Test brought in the ball and was slammed hard to the deck for his efforts. Pulu was shown a yellow card for the foul. Playing up a man, Perry Baker added his sixth try of the tournament as he effortlessly slid through two New Zealand defenders to score under the post. Augspurger added his third conversion to push the lead to 26-7. The Eagles won the restart and worked the ball to Will Holder for his second try and a certain victory. With nothing but pride on the line, the All Blacks Sevens added a try after the hooter, but the outcome was decided minutes ago. In the end, the Eagles claimed a first-ever third-place finish and a second-ever win over New Zealand 31-12.
In the consolation brackets, Kenya got by Japan (17-12) to advance to the bowl semifinal. Joining Kenya was France (38-5 victor over Russia), Wales (24-14 over Canada), and Scotland (21-14 over Portugal). France hammered Kenya 33-7 to reach the bowl final. France’s opponent was Scotland after a game-stealing try on fulltime to beat Wales 17-14. In the end, the Bowl went to France 24-14 over Scotland.
In the shield bracket, Japan scored after fulltime and slotted through the conversion to break Russian hearts (21-19). Joining Russia in the winless column was Portugal after Canada eased by 31-14. Finally stringing together wins, Canada claimed the shield for the fourth time in the last two seasons: Canada 19, Japan 17.
In the plate bracket, Samoa showed that the apparent struggles on Day 1 were not left in the past as Australia defeated the Samoans, 28-10. Likewise, South Africa hammered Argentina (26-5), to advance to a match with SANZAR foe, Australia. In what may have been the match of the tournament, the Blitzbokke added the golden points in extra time to claim the Plate: RSA 19, Australia 14.
The cup final saw Fiji continue to dominate the sevens landscape. The Fijians stormed out to a 28-7 first half lead. Although Fiji was unable to add any second half points, the margin was too much for England. In the end, Ben Ryan’s world champions claimed Dubai 28-17.
With team USA posting a top-4 finish, the Eagles will be the top seed in Pool C in South Africa next weekend. The pool should include Australia, Wales, and Portugal. No pool is ever easy, but it is a draw that favors a fourth straight trip to the cup quarterfinal.