Fiji Wins Again, Depleted Americans Lift Challenge Trophy
As team USA took the pitch for their sixth match in Singapore, all would be forgiven for wondering whether they were watching a replay from 2017. Unfortunately, the sixth match in 2017 was a cup final against Canada, while in 2018 it was a trophy final against Canada. Although the tournament did not go the way the United States would have hoped, there were many positives to take away.
For starters, looking at Pool B coming in, which included France, England, and Kenya, it was always going to be an uphill battled for the Eagles. Add in injuries to Madison Hughes, Maka Unufe, and Folau Niua and things were even tougher. A shoulder injury to Perry Baker in the second match of the tournament and this event could so easily have gone the way Dubai did. But it didn’t. The Eagles battled through injuries, suffered a tough defeat to England and got gassed by a Kenyan team that has been in two of the last three finals, to slip to the trophy contest. There, they bested Argentina for the fourth time this season, defeated the winner of the last two London Sevens, Scotland, and triumphed over archrival Canada for the hardware.
To be sure, the tournament was far from perfection. On Day 1, the difference between having Niua in the lineup and not was on perfect display. Martin Iosefo and Cody Melphy did commendable jobs in the restart game, but Niua is the best in the world. Without his consistent boot, the Americans found themselves routinely kicking deep instead of contesting for possession. The other big problem on Day 1 was the strike rate inside the twenty-two. Against England and Kenya, the opposition strike rate was nearly flawless, while the United States was a fifty-fifty proposition.
The result was enough to claim the challenge trophy and the eight points that come with it. That now sees team USA tied with Kenya for fifth in the series standings. Argentina’s rough outing, saw them tumble to seventh, with England charging hard in the eighth spot. Unfortunately, barring a strong American surge in London and Paris and an Australian collapse, fifth is the ceiling for the season finish. Australia’s run to the silver medal puts them at 108 points, while team USA and Kenya are at 93.
At the top of the series standings, Fiji’s fourth cup victory in the last five tournaments has now edged them past South Africa for the top spot at 145 points, while the Blitzbokke slide to second at 141.With third-place New Zealand at 120, it is a two-horse race to the end. Notably, Fiji is now on a nineteen-match win streak on the Series. Only a loss to New Zealand in the Commonwealth Games gold-medal match has slowed Fiji since finishing third in Las Vegas. But it stands to mention that the last team to defeat Fiji in the World Series was the United States in the Vegas semifinal.
With two tournaments left, the United States could still finish as high as fifth or as low as eighth. Fifth would tie the highest finish in team history, whereas eighth would be the worst in the Mike-Friday era.
Now let us look at what happened for team USA.
Pool 1: USA vs France
Martin Iosefo took over the kickoff duty and went deep against France instead ofthe typical short kick by Niua to give the Americans an optimal chance at recovering the kick. After the better part of the first two minutes with possession, France conceded a penalty. From there, the Americans marched methodically down the pitch, winning a couple penalties in the process, and finally breaking through with Martin Iosefo for the opening try under the post at the midway point of the half. Stephen Tomasin’s conversion made it 7–0 at the restart.
Iosefo’s second kickoff attempt was flawless with a perfect rainbow arc right to the right corner of the ten-meter line and directly into the hands of an Eagle soaring to the air to collect the kick. France did not make it easy from there, but efficient offloads through the entire American squad on the pitch saw Matai Leuta in for the second seven-pointer of the half; Tomasin again for the conversion as the seventh minute of the match got under way.
Iosefo’s third restart drifted a bit far, depriving his side of a chance to contest, but a dangerous lift saw the French player crash to the ground and drop the ball forward, allowing the Eagles one more shot at points to close the half. This try was for Perry Baker coming off the left wing and outpacing the field. Tomasin’s conversion attempt was well-struck but off the mark, leaving it 19–0 at the break.
The second half started much more favorably for France, scoring its first points in the tenth minute with a tremendous effort to narrowly avoid a foot in touch before grounding in the right corner. Despite the harsh angle, the conversion was good, pulling France to within twelve. A handling error by Leuta in the shadow of his own post gifted France a second try just over a minute later. The solid strike for the conversion was just wide to the left, preserving a full-score lead for the Americans.
The restart kick was cleanly collected by Iosefo at his own twenty-two. Three passes later and Carlin Isles was streaking up the gut for the try under the post. It was Isles’s first of the tournament but far from his last, as he would ultimately lead all try scorers. Tomasin’s conversion made it a fourteen-point lead for the United States with the restart coming at 1:15 remaining. In the end, it was team USA with the final points as an offload to Brett Thompson followed by one last conversion from Tomasin made it 33–12 for the Americans on full time.
Pool 2: USA v. England
Despite a last-place finish in Hong Kong with a B-side, England entered Singapore with a great deal of momentum, spurred by a tremendous bronze-medal showing in the Commonwealth Games. The in-form English showed up strong in this event. Their first points against the Americans came just a minute and a half in with a seven-pointer. The Eagles looked to have an answer as Danny Barrett fended one tackle but was dragged down just inside the England five-meter line and knocked on trying to go on his own. Straight from the ruck, England put together one of the most exciting sequences of play in the tournament. A kick behind the American defense looked like it would be safely dotted down by Baker, but he was taken out while trying to do so, leaving England able to claim the seven points, making it 14–0 in the sixth minute of play.
Before the sixth minute came to a close, England had managed five more points to make it 19–0 ahead of the final kickoff of the half. On that final restart, England was pinged for being in front of the kicker, giving the United States a free kick at centerfield. A chip through by Kevon Williams found Martin Iosefo and an offload to Ben Pinkelman put the Eagles on the board to enter halftime. Tomasin’s conversion made it 19–7 at the break.
England was able to come down with Iosefo’s restart kick, but the ball was placed fairly closely to the ten-meter line. Less than a minute later, team USA forced a penalty turnover. The Americans kicked the penalty to touch but were unable to win the lineout throw. Moments later, England was dragged to touch but the following lineout throw was far from straight, resulting in both a whistle and an England scrum feed.
The next cycle of play was England’s Dan Norton at his finest right up until the final pass to the wing inside the USA twenty-two that was just off the mark to the wing on his right. If the pass would have found its intended receiver, there is little doubt that England would have extended its lead. Instead, the ball went to touch and the Americans won the lineout to start an important attack with just over three minutes left. Yet another turnover, however, gave England another scrum as the eleventh minute got under way.
With one more chance to get the two scores needed to avoid defeat, the United States won a scrum at its own twenty-two and battled through consecutive penalties to get the ball up the pitch. A third penalty at the one-minute mark gave Perry Baker a chance to kick ahead and score the try. Baker got the try but was left in a great deal of pain, grabbing his left shoulder. Iosefo added the conversion with thirty-four seconds left.
With just twenty-two seconds remaining, it was Cody Melphy for the restart, facing a five-point deficit. The Eagles knew they needed the restart and Iosefo gave it his all, but contacted the England player in the air, resulting in a yellow card and giving England the ball with thirteen seconds left. A tap and then kick to touch left England victorious at 19–14. England would carry the momentum through to a bronze-medal finish in Singapore.
Pool 3: USA v. Kenya
With the second seed in the pool the prize for the winner of the contest, team USA looked to get back in the winner’s column against Kenya after losing the last contest in the Vancouver semifinals. The task was going to be tough with Baker knocked out of the lineup after his shoulder injury gained at the end of the England match. The United States kicked off with an extremely deep kick, setting Kenya up against its own try line. Avoiding an early error that could have ended up as an American try, it was Kenya’s Willy Ambaka in for the first five points of the match after two and a half minutes.
After several minutes of back-and-forth play, Kenya won a penalty, kicked to touch, won the lineout, and passed to Samuel Oliech for a try under the post, making it 12–0 at the close of the first half.
A penalty against Kenya on the second-half kickoff got the Americans off the back foot. at 5:50, the Americans were able to make some space up the left wing with Ben Pinkelman offloading to Kevon Williams for the first American try of the match. Tomasin’s conversion attempt was on the mark, cutting the deficit to just five-points with five minutes to play.
From there, however, Kenya took firm control. Iosefo’s kickoff went directly to touch. On the ensuing possession, Kenya quickly scored under the post, again from Oliech, extending the lead by seven. Despite ending up with the restart and winning a penalty immediately thereafter, the United States could not capitalize, instead giving the ball back to Kenya with a turnover at the Kenya twenty-two that quickly led to another seven-pointer for Kenya.
With just a minute and a half left, down 26–7, the United States was likely already out of the match, but whatever doubt remained was ended with a try from Kenya just twenty-five seconds later, making it 33–7 entering the final minute of play. Brett Thompson managed a consolation try with a great step through the Kenyan defense. Cody Melphy’s conversion made the final margin a humbling 33–14 in favor of Kenya. The result meant the United States would be competing for the Challenge Trophy for the third time this season.
Trophy Quarterfinal: USA v. Argentina
These two teams have become extremely familiar with each other this season, this being their eighth meeting of the season. Argentina entered with the 4–3 season edge. But Argentina was playing with a depleted roster, and it showed all weekend long.
Iosefo’s opening kick allowed Danny Barrett to get a hand on the ball, but the ball went forward, for an Argentine scrum to start the half. The Argentina won the scrum but the Americans soon forced a turnover and instantly Martin Iosefo was away for a try under the post. Tomasin’s conversion made it 7–0. Argentina answered back two minutes later to pull within two points. That deficit soon turned into an advantage just a minute later with a second Argentine try and conversion.
After the second Argentine score, the Eagles woke up. They won the restart, hammered into the defense and crossed for the leveler with a second try by Iosefo in the far left side of in-goal. The conversion was no good, keeping the sides tied as the final phase of play for the half got under way.
Danny Barrett was able to steal the restart and give. his side the chance to claim a lead heading into intermission. That opportunity was lost when a pass out to Isles on the wing drifted forward to end the half.
Argentina kicked deep to start the second half and Tomasin tracked back to take it with ease. The methodical Americans soon earned the lead with a cracking run started by Barrett who passed to Pinkelman who offloaded to Kevon Williams for the try. Tomasin’s conversion made it 19–12 with five minutes to go.
A classic try by Carlin Isles fifty-five seconds later with a quick step around the left wing for a try in the corner made it 24–12 with a quarter of the match remaining. That lead grew even further when Isles made it a brace with his second try in the left corner at 1:50 remaining. Tomasin’s long conversion pushed it to 31–12 entering the final minute.
Cody Melphy’s restart was sent deep, backing Argentina up to its own five-meter line, facing a nineteen-point deficit. And, after a strong Eagles’ defensive effort, Isles again broke free to make it a hat-trick to end the match. On full time it was USA 36, Argentina 12.
Trophy Semifinal: USA v. Scotland
Winners of the last three London Sevens, both the United States and Scotland are never satisfied to be in the trophy semifinal. But the only thing worse than competing in the consolation bracket is losing in the consolation bracket.
Respecting the American restart ability, Scotland kicked to the USA twenty-two. Still, the Americans were able to get the ball out to Carlin Isles who looked like he may be away for the opening try, but was brought down. That set up a Scottish counteroffensive, which ended with a knock on inside the USA ten-meter line. Scotland, however, won that scrum and began to attack. A penalty twenty-five meters from the try line gave Scotland a kick to touch for a lineout throw at the five-meter line. The Americans stole the lineout and themselves set to work. That hard work paid dividends when Isles found the edge of the Scottish defense on the left wing for a breakaway try under the post at the midway point of the half. Tomasin’s conversion made it seven points for the score.
Danny Barrett got under the restart, stealing it for his side. But a penalty at the breakdown squandered the possession. The Eagles would soon get the ball back and entered the seventh minute with ball in hand. That possession ended the right way with yet another try by Carlin Isles. Tomasin’s conversion attempt missed, leaving it 12–0.
The final restart of the half was a low kick that skirted on the deck. Scotland was able to recover it and try to mount an attack to end the first half with points. Instead, it was the United States forcing the turnover. Carlin Isles kicked through the Scottish defense and just needed to scoop the ball up to complete a first-half hat trick, but was unable to do so. Scotland regained possession and then benefitted tremendously from a yellow-card penalty against Danny Barrett. That cycle of play ended with Nyle Godsmark getting Scotland on the board. The tough conversion was through for a mere 12–7 deficit to start the second half.
Still down a man, with Barrett in the bin, the Americans needed to stand tall to avoid losing the lead. Scotland, however, could not be stopped, with a five-pointer coming in the first minute of the half to draw the match level. The score did end the yellow card, putting the United States back to a full line.
With fresh legs, it should come as no surprise that the man who got team USA back on top was Danny Barrett streaking down the right wing, taking the offload from Kevon Williams before charging untouched for sixty meters. Tomasin’s conversion made it 19–12 with 3:50 left.
After an exciting back-and-forth exchange of possessions that almost saw Scotland in for a one-hundred-meter try after kicking behind the American line, the next points were for the United States as Carlin Isles made it a second hat trick in as many matches, carving up the Scottish defense on the right side for a try under the post. Tomasin’s conversion made it 26–12 going into the final minute of the match.
The final restart was kicked too deep, rolling across the dead ball line, but there were just twenty seconds left when Scotland got back for the free kick and Ben Pinkelman was able to steal the possession fourteen seconds later. A chip over the defense and a perfect bounce saw Cody Melphy collect the ball and score his first try on the series. Tomasin’s conversion made it 33–12 on full time.
Trophy Final: USA v. Canada
With Kenya losing both matches in the cup round, a win would see the United States tied with Kenya for fifth in the Series Standings. This year’s trophy final was a rematch of last year’s cup final, where Canada won its first and, thus far, only cup title. This was the second time the United States was in the trophy final this season.
Martin Iosefo’s kick rolled across the dead-ball line to start the match with a Canada free kick. That initial possession put Canada in front first with a try just two minutes in. The missed conversion kept the door open for a United States lead on the next score. And that the United States did when Kevon Williams caught an offload from Iosefo for a try under the post. Tomasin’s conversion put his side ahead.
Iossefo’s second restart of the match was also a choice to kick deep, this time to the Canada twenty-two. The Canadians had no trouble collecting the ball and then had to try to find a gap in the USA defense. Excellent offloading saw Nathan Hirayama in for a try under the post. His own conversion made it 12–7 for Canada in the final ninety seconds of the half. Canada looked most likely to capitalize in those last ninety seconds, but an excellent read by Iosefo to identify that a scrum had not formed and poaching the ball led to a pass by Iosefo to Isles for yet another try. Tomasin’s conversion gave the United States a 14–12 lead at the close fo the first-half.
The second half started strong for team USA when Stephen Tomasin kicked a loose ball forward, collected the perfect bounce, and dotted down for the try in the right corner. Tomasin could not convert his own score, leaving it 19–12. On the restart, Canada came down with it, but Pinkelman forced an immediate turnover. From there, a pass up to Tomasin who passed out to Kevon Williams meant a try under the post. Tomasin’s conversion made it an impressive 26–12 with three minutes to go.
With the subs coming in, Cody Melphy’s restart set up perfectly for Brett Thompson to get the steal. Canada won the ball back from a questionable penalty call with two minutes left. In the end, Canada was unable to do anything with the possession after yielding a penalty with a minute remaining. The Eagles held on to possession to burn the clock and end the match on top: USA 26, Canada 12.
The Series will be off the month of May and return the first weekend in June for the London Sevens.