England defeats South Africa in Cape Town
England defeats South Africa at the 2016-17 Cape Town Sevens
After Cape Town, four things are clear: England is back, fears of Australia regressing look to be coming true, rumors of New Zealand’s demise are premature, and the United States has a Scotland problem. For team USA, the 2016 South Africa Sevens was a near miss at a seventh Series semifinal in the past two years. Prior to the last two years, the United States had only qualified for the semifinals on three occasions. Nevertheless, the result shows that there is still quite a bit of work to do for the Eagles.
The Americans entered Cape Town off the back of a disappointing start to the season, capped off with a ninth place finish in Dubai. With a roster already depleted by injuries and breaks for fixtures of the sevens Eagles, the team played without head coach Mike Friday in attendance and without captain Madison Hughes. In Hughes’s place stepped Perry Baker who proved fit for the role. In the end, the story of Cape Town for the United States was largely a forgettable tournament that could have been much more.
For team USA, the draw in Pool A was a poor reward for having captured the inaugural challenge trophy in Dubai. The pool consisted of the home Blitzboks of South Africa, who won Dubai, and Australia, coming off what would classically have been a plate victory in Dubai. The bottom of the pool was a Russian team that the Eagles hammered (40–0) the week before. In order to break back into the cup round, the United States needed a victory over either Australia or South Africa. A victory over either has historically been difficult.
The Eagles first match was against Australia. Heading into the match, Australia held an astonishing 30–6 all-time record over the Eagles. Nevertheless, the recent trend has been much more promising for the Americans, having won four of the last six. The tale of the first half was Australia with great attacking position, but unable to pierce a resilient American defensive front. One week removed from a fairly poor tackling effort in Dubai, the Americans hammered Australia time and time again. Ultimately, the only score of the half would come by way of captain Perry Baker in a great defensive decision. Baker, outnumbered on the wing, perfectly read a pass from Australia to the wing. If the ball had found its intended target, Australia would certainly have scored. Instead, Baker intercepted the pass and took it ninety-five meters for the try under the post. Stephen Tomasin added the conversion, which set the halftime margin.
The second half started much more quickly for team USA when Folau Niua knifed through the Australian defense for a try in the far left corner. Tomasin’s tough conversion attempt struck the upright and fell back into the field of play. The Americans then won the resulting kickoff when Australia exhibited extremely poor decision-making, choosing to attempt to play the kick before it went ten meters, and knocking it on in the process. The Eagles soon capitalized on the possession with a try down the left touchline for Tomasin. Niua added the difficult conversion to push the lead to 19–0, where it stood at the end of the match.
The 19–0 victory all but meant that team USA would reach the cup round, at that point assuming a dominant victory over Russia. Instead, the American’s focus turned to a rematch with South Africa. In the past three seasons, there is no team that the Eagles have faced more frequently than the Blitzboks. Heading into what looked to be the pool decider, South Africa held the dramatic 2–8–1 advantage. The match in Dubai went the way of South Africa but just as easily could have been a draw or victory for the United States. South Africa won (19–17), with two conversions by Madison Hughes clanking off the post. If either had gone through, the result could have been different.
From the initial kick, the Eagles provided tremendous pressure against the South African line. Ultimately, a pass from Perry Baker sent Maka Unufe over for a try in the right corner. Folau Niua’s conversion was no good, giving team USA a 5–0 lead. On the resulting restart, the Americans stole the restart ball after South Africa clearly knocked it on. The very next pass, when an advantage should have been awarded, the ball fell to the deck and South Africa booted it forward to set up a Cecil Afrika try. It looked just to be a missed a call, perhaps the product of having nine new officials on the Series. After the easy conversion, South Africa stood in front 7–5. The Blitzboks employed a familiar tactic against team USA by opting for deep kickoffs. This tactic, though generally conceding possession, is effective, because it prevents the Eagles from yielding territory to find space. In the process, a pass from Tomasin lead to a turnover ball and second converted try fro South Africa. The Americans had a chance to answer back, but Baker was pulled into touch at midfield to end the half.
In the second half, South Africa salted away the match quickly with a converted try from Seabelo Senatla, to push the lead to 21–5. A short while later, a fourth try was prevented when Kevon Williams stood strong in defense to wrestle the ball away from Werner Kok who looked set to score. The next score went the way of the Eagles when Danny Barrett powered over for a try in the right corner with just over two minutes remaining to cut the lead to 21–10. In the end, Werner Kok would get his second try, coming with thirty seconds remaining, to set the final margin at 28–10.
Despite the early ball control and pressure, it was clear throughout most of the match that South Africa was just too much better to fall to the Eagles at home. The loss left team USA needing a victory over Russia to secure a cup-round birth. The Americans did not disappoint. Despite an early yellow card for Martin Iosefo, the Eagles struck first with an unconverted try by Danny Barrett. A subsequent try and conversion by Tomasin extended the lead to 12–0, but Russia added a converted try before the half. Perry Baker scored his first of two tries to start the second half and completed the brace shortly thereafter, each score converted by Tomasin. Russia added two unconverted tries to flatter in the final score line, but the Eagles took care of business: United States 26, Russia 17.
The result set up a match against Scotland that the Americans expected to win. After finishing sixth in Dubai, Scotland struggled through a weak pool, with close victories over Samoa (21–19) and Wales (24–21). In recent years, Scotland and the United States have been fairly comparable teams. Nevertheless, team USA has not posted a winning record over Scotland since 2012–2013 (2-1-1), and had gone 1–8–1 in the past four seasons, including a five match losing streak since last defeating Scotland in the 2014 South Africa Sevens.
Perry Baker got his team on the board with a signature ninety-five meter try less than a minute into the match. Tomasin added the conversion for the early 7–0 lead. Scotland answered back with a converted try for mark Robertson after chipping over the American defense. After winning the restart, the United States soon turned the ball over with sloppy play, setting up a second converted try for Scotland. The Americans won the restart and soon scored an unconverted try after Baker cut up the wing then turned inside to beat the sweeper, but was caught from behind. Baker offloaded to Folau Niua in support, who was also soon caught from behind but offloaded back to baker for a try in the right corner. The score was 14–12 in favor of the Scots at the break.
Perry Baker around the outside! USA defeats Australia & Russia in Cape Town
Posted by USA Sevens Rugby on Saturday, December 10, 2016
The Eagles pulled in front when Martin Iosefo, who had just come off the bench to spell Baker, intercepted the Scots for a try under the post. Tomasin added the conversion for the 19–14 lead with less than five minutes remaining. Scotland answered back but missed a makeable conversion, leaving the match level at 19–19, where it stood at the end of the half. In extra time, Scotland got the better end of the calls, including a horrendously missed knock on call. In the end, the penalties proved too much as Baker was called on consecutive tackles for minor infractions–the second being a failure to wrap in a soft tackle from behind. In the end, Scotland came out on top and progressed to the semifinals: Scotland 24, USA 19. The win extends Scotland’s win streak to 6 over the North Americans.
It was clear that the loss to Scotland took a great deal out of the Americans. Despite sporting a twelve-man roster, as all healthy teams do in sevens, team USA has not played a deep bench this season. Anything short of fresh legs against Fiji is disastrous and proved to be in the fifth-place semifinal. Fiji posted three converted tries in the first half with no points in opposition to put the match away before the break. The first try was a simple midfield switch from a scrum sending Osea Kolinisau free for a long-distance try. The second was immediately after when the USA failed to take the restart cleanly. The Americans knocked the kick back and Fiji scooped it up for a quick second try. The third try was signature Fijian ball control finally finding a gap for a long score.
In the second half, the exhausted Eagles showed some good resilience, ultimately outscoring Fiji in the half. The first score came from Don Pati who edged his way through a gap for a try to the right of the post. Tomasin missed a conversion he would have expected to make. The next score went the way of Fiji with a fourth converted try, crushing any hopes at a comeback. With the no time remaining, Kevon Williams added a consolation try, converted by Tomasin for the final points of the match: Fiji 28, USA 12.
In the end, the Eagles looked improved over last week on defense, but, at 86 total points, it was also the third lowest points total for the team since Mike Friday took over in 2014. Including this tournament, the team’s average is 119 points. Although the Americans were one bounce away from a semifinal appearance, it seems highly unlikely that this side would have walked away with a medal. The top three finishers of England, which won its first tournament since the 2015 Japan Sevens, series-leader South Africa, and New Zealand looked to each be in much better form than the Eagles were prepared to overcome.
The result does elevate the United States to a three-way tie for seventh, along with Australia and France, each at 18 points. Hopefully, a healthier, rested, and deeper side can return to the semifinals in Wellington in at the end of January.
Some other notes from Cape Town. England’s victory over South Africa (19–17) resulted in the end of a three-year streak of victories in the South Africa Sevens for the host nation. Uganda, with another victory over Japan in the thirteenth-place semifinal has made a loud statement about a possible strong run in the Hong Kong qualifier. Samoa, which lost to team USA in Dubai’s challenge trophy final, finished tied with Uganda for fifteenth place and will be desperate to begin the Gordon Tietjens’s era. Australia’s eleventh-place finish exposed what may be a very poor season for Australia after consecutive strong seasons. Finally, New Zealand has become a downright enigma. A side that looked vulnerable and poised to miss the cup round for the first time ever, bounced back for a bronze medal. Nevertheless, the All Blacks did not make it look easy, a 19–19 draw with Canada looked to expose the All Blacks. However, New Zealand crushed eventual champion England (33–7) in the next match to claim the top seed in the pool and blasted Kenya (28–7) in the quarterfinals before a tough loss to South Africa (14–7) in the semifinal and a bronze medal victory (24–19) over Scotland.
The series returns in Wellington on January 28, 2017. See you next year.