Fiji Triumphs in Hong Kong, USA Finishes 6th
Team USA entered Hong Kong as a strong favorite to contest for the cup. At times, the Eagles looked invincible, and, at other times, fairly pedestrian by their accomplished modern standards. A sluggish start to the opening contest left the Americans facing a nineteen-point deficit against France that was fortunately overcome by a monumental late effort for a draw. Dominant victories over Wales and Argentina to close pool play as the top seed and book a birth against a New Zealand side that had just been humiliated (50–7) by Fiji looked like it would open the door for a third-straight semifinal appearance. Instead, it was the United States left to vie for fifth-place points in the final two matches. A victory over Scotland, marred by three late unconverted tries, and a two-point loss to Argentina in the fifth-place final after being unable to score in the final four minutes of the contest despite playing most of it with a man advantage and tremendous territory, left the Eagles needing to regroup a bit.
The somewhat uncharacteristic outing for the Americans was far from the most disappointing showing in Hong Kong. The biggest surprise was Spain. Heading into Hong Kong, the Spanish were within striking distance of Russia at the bottom of the core-team table. By the end of Hong Kong, Spain had overtaken Wales in the standings and did so by shocking Australia on day 1. As disappointing as Australia’s outing was––finishing tied for eleventh––England takes the cake for worst performance. A narrow loss to Scotland and a thorough defeat to a reserve South Africa squad left England in the challenge trophy competition. Some unfortunate pairings in that competition against Australia and Samoa resulted in England finishing dead last, tied with South Korea, a side the English walloped 47–7. Even though that margin looks gigantic, it was actually the smallest margin of defeat for South Korea on the weekend.
The reason a heavily overmatched South Korean contingent got the nod as the non-core invitee is because the best non-core teams were competing in the series qualifier. The favorites for qualification heading into Hong Kong were Ireland, Japan, Uruguay, and Chile. In the end, the favorites generally held serve, with Germany being the moderately surprising exception. The Germans who never finished higher than fourth in the 2017 European Grand Prix Series, fifth overall, managed an undefeated run to the final that includes wins over Uganda and Chile.
Japan’s run to the final, and ultimate victory, was much more thrilling than the Germans. The Japanese lost to Chile in pool play then edged Ireland in the semifinal with a try on full time to come win 12–7, booking a spot in the final. The final was even more thrilling. Japan faced a 14–5 deficit to begin the second half and cut the score to 14–12, as the final seconds ticked away. With no time remaining, Japan mustered a converted try for the 19–14 victory. The result sends Japan back to the Series as a core team, having twice been relegated.
Turning back to the Series, the biggest takeaways are that Fiji is now in prime position to catch South Africa for the top spot. With three cup victories in the last four tournaments on a season that no other team has even two, Fiji is cruising. But there’s another team that is also hitting its stride: Kenya. After a lackluster start to the season that included a thirteenth-place finish, Kenya has cruised to consecutive finals appearances. Granted, this run was less impressive than Vancouver. Kenya lost to Australia in pool play and otherwise faced a weak pool. And in the cup round, Kenya faced a less than stellar Scotland and beat a New Zealand team that only really showed life against the United States, before losing by two scores to Fiji in the final. Still, the Kenyans are looking like a team that could definitely compete for the Singapore crown, which they won in 2016.
Now let us look at what happened for team USA.
1st Pool Match: USA vs France
France struck first after managing to steal the restart despite kicking almost to the USA twenty-two. Despite team USA forcing a quick turnover, France forced a five-meter scrum and made it 5–0 less than two minutes in. Two minutes later, a French interception of an offload attempt by Folau Niua made it 12–0. The eagles avoided a first-half goose egg with an eighty-meter score by Niua to end the half. Niua’s conversion attempt was a miss, leaving the Americans down 12–5.
Just fifty-five seconds into the second half, a seven-pointer was claimed by the French, forcing the United States into a fourteen-point hole. With 3:36 left, France was in for the unmarked try just to the left of the post. Remarkably, the conversion was no good, and those two points proved to be crucial.
With just 2:46 left on the clock, the Eagles were down nineteen points with just enough time to avoid a shocking loss. But everything had to go right, and right they did. First, it was Perry Baker blistering down the right touchline for a try between the sticks. Stephen Tomasin’s conversion made it 24–12. Then it was Carlin Isles off the restart for the try behind the post with fifty seconds left. Tomasin again hit the conversion, and it was 24–19 with a restart to come.
France won the restart, but the Americans won a penalty twenty-five meters away from pay dirt. A second French penalty and a yellow card opened the space for Isles to hit the leveler in the left corner a minute into full time. Tomasin could not connect on the conversion. In the end, it was a draw against a side team USA would have expected to dominate. But the way the result came to be was a big motivator for the team.
2nd Pool Match: USA v. Wales
Wales dominated territory for the first 2:20, ending with the opening try of the match. But that was as good as it got for Wales. Straight away after the restart, Perry Baker cut through a gap in the Welsh defense and trotted away for the score. Niua added the simple conversion. Next the Americans demonstrated tremendous defense inside their own twenty-two, which not only took away possession but soon turned into seven more points, this time the points came by way of Martin Iosefo’s eighty-meter try. Iosefo added the two points. A steal of the next restart fell into the hands of Ben Pinkelman for the Eagles’ third try of the half. Niua’s second conversion made it 21–5 in short order to close the half.
The second half was even less kind to Wales. Maka Unufe was the first in the red, white, and blue to score. Unufe was the man who finished it off, but it was ninety meters of good team work that started with a turnover forced by Baker and worked through the entire line before ultimately sending Unufe in under the post. Martin Iosefo added the conversion. The next score was directly from the restart as Niua scooped up the ball from the deck and offloaded to Matai Leuta for the try. Stephen Tomasin added the points, making it 35–5 with two and a half minutes to go. With twenty seconds left, Brett Thompson capped off another comprehensive team try. Tomasin’s conversion made it 42–5. But there was one last try on offer, and Carlin Isles made sure to grab the points with a try in the corner, to end the match 47–5.
3rd Pool Match: USA v. Argentina
Perry Baker tap danced down the right touchline for a try after dodging three tackles just thirty seconds in. The conversion by Folau Niua was successful. Argentina missed on a leveler with a forward pass to the free wing. Instead, the second try of the match would be for the Eagles when Ben Pinkelman threw an excellent pass to Danny Barrett in space. Niua’s conversion was astray, making it 12–0. Some confusion on the restart kick, gave Argentina an open path down the right wing, cutting the American lead to seven. But, just before the intermission, Barrett pushed the Eagles back to two scores in front. Niua’s conversion made it two full scores as the teams huddled up for the half.
The second half started just as the first had finished, with Barrett hammering through Gaston Ravol for a try. The kick by Niua clanked off the post, keeping it 24–5 with five and a half minutes left in the match. Two minutes later, Martin Iosefo crossed for the final United States try of the match. Stephen Tomasin’s conversion made it 31 for the North Americans. Argentina was able to muster two consolation tries and a conversion, but it was little more than window dressing. On full time: USA 31, Argentina 17.
Cup Quarterfinal: USA v. New Zealand
Three first-half converted tries by New Zealand put the United States in a deep hole to start the final half of play. The lone scoring chance for the Americans in the first half saw them work into the New Zealand twenty-two but a knock on ended the attack. The second half saw the hole grow even deeper with a fourth converted try before the Eagles could finally get some points of their own. Carlin Isles, fresh off the bench, got the first and only try for the United States in the match. By the time Isles scored, the points were decidedly consolation points. With the two pointer by Stephen Tomasin, the Eagles were as close as they ever got in the second half at 28–7. But the final scoreline was to see seven more All Blacks’ points. After New Zealand was demolished by Fiji in the final match of pool play, many expected the United States to win the match. Instead, it was New Zealand 35, USA 7 on full time.
5th-Place Semifinal: USA v. Scotland
Still looking for the crucial ranking points in an attempt to catch both Argentina and Australia, along with looking to hold off the surging Kenyans, the Eagles took on Scotland. Notably, Baker apparently suffered an injury in the New Zealand match, which ruled him out for the rest of the tournament and brought Malon Al-Jiboori in as the thirteenth man.
Matai Leuta’s try two minutes got the scoring started. Folau Niua’s conversion attempt from the left corner was no good. Scotland narrowly missed a try of its own when a runner was tackled and failed to release before rolling free and dotting down in goal. The next score was a display of speed by Carlin Isles down the left touchline. Stephen Tomasin added the conversion. Scotland again narrowly missed a try to end the half as an offload was just a shade too low, but, if caught, would have been a try.
In the second half, the Americans set to a strategy of burning the clock, taking every opportunity to slow the game down at stoppages. With just 3:30 left, Tomasin dotted down right under the post. He converted his own score for a 19–0 lead entering the final quarter of the match. With just a minute and a half left, Scotland finally got in for a five-pointer. Scotland missed the conversion, which proved crucial. Scotland scored a second try with seven seconds left. Scotland could not connect on the rapid conversion attempt, meaning that even though there was time for a restart, the nine-point deficit was too much. Still, Scotland got a third unconverted try straight from the restart: USA 19, Scotland 15.
5th-Place Final: USA v. Argentina
A try off a turnover for Argentina got the Argentines off to a much better start than the match the day before. The conversion was through for a 7–0 lead. A second try, coming from an overhand pass to the wing, pushed Argentina further ahead. Gaston Ravol’s conversion from the right touchline were Argentina’s final points of the match, but it would prove to be just enough. The Eagles overcame a tremendous disadvantage in territory forced by the superb restart kick by Argentina, ultimately seeing Carlin Isles home free for a try under the post. Uncharacteristically, Stephen Tomasin flubbed the conversion in front of the post. That miss proved all the difference.
With 4:24 left, Isles again carved up the Argentine defense for a try beneath the sticks. Tomasin added the conversion, making it 14–12 with still 3:30 left. A penalty on the restart for a dangerous hit on Martin Iosefo in the air resulted in a yellow card and put the United States in the driver seat, still down two points. Still, the Eagles failed to capitalize despite both a seven-meter lineout, a five-meter scrum, and a twelve-meter penalty. In the end, Argentina did just enough to snap the three-match losing streak to the United States.
Takeaways from Hong Kong for the Eagles
The first takeaway is that some teams seem to be getting wise to how attack the US at the kickoff. No team is better going after the ball in the air than the Americans, regardless of whether they are kicking or receiving. For the past several years, some of the top teams, like Fiji and South Africa, have realized that and kicked deep against the Americans. Hong Kong started with both France and Wales looking to use that tactic with good success. Argentina also utilized it with its final restart kick. It still astonishes me that more teams do not exploit what is routinely a weakness for the Eagles. Of course, there is always the danger that the United States can score from anywhere on the field, as Carlin Isles did after Argentina’s restart pinned the United States against its own five-meter line. So, it is not foolproof to be sure, but the best way to stop the current American attacking style is to increase the amount of time it takes for them to get down field and increase the chances for mistakes.
The second takeaway is wondering on the availability of Perry Baker for Singapore. Baker was shaken up for a moment in the match against New Zealand but continued to play. He was declared inactive for the final two matches with Al-Jiboori coming in as the thirteenth man. In Baker’s absence, Isles has shined. After injury issues that set Isles back a bit, he has shown tremendous improvement in the full scope of his game and burned through Hong Kong with seven tries to pace the team in both tries and scoring.
And the third is this: don’t panic! When the Eagles are disappointing by finishing sixth in a match that was one oddly missed conversion away from being level on full time, that is a mighty fine place to be. The team has assembled a fantastic body of work the past three tournaments but needs to clean up the mistakes. There is no reason to think that the United States will not be a serious contender in each of the final three legs of the season as well as the World Cup in San Francisco. The next two stops are in Singapore and London. The Eagles won London in 2015, finished third there last year, and finished second last season in Singapore. And, as for the World Cup, in the last five tournaments on home soil team USA has finished fourth at the 2015 USA Sevens, fourth in 2016, third in 2017, second at the Silicon Valley Sevens back in November, and first at this year’s USA Sevens. In short, the team shines on home soil. If the team can stay healthy, they should continue to push toward a strong finish to the season.
After Hong Kong, the United States (85) has slipped one point further behind Argentina, which had been in fifth (90), but has closed the gap with Australia (89) that now sits in fifth. More alarming, however, is that Kenya is charging up the standings and now is eyeing the United States’ spot, trailing only two points behind. The top three spots are pretty much out of reach for team USA as South Africa (126) still leads, followed closely by Fiji (123), and then sits New Zealand (107) with a large buffer either way––both sixteen points behind Fiji and seventeen points ahead of Argentina.
The Series will take a brief intermission while many of the teams head to Australia for the Commonwealth Games. The United States, which is decidedly not a British commonwealth, will not be involved in those games. The men’s Series will return at the end of the month (April 28-29) in Singapore. In the meantime, the women’s Series will host its first event since January, as the women head to Kitakyushu, Japan on (April 21-22).