Gold Eludes Team USA at Pan Am Games
Fresh from program defining victories in the NACRA Olympic qualifier, the USA men’s and women’s national teams ventured north of the border to Toronto for the 2015 Pan American Games. One of the perks of rugby’s re-inclusion into the Olympic games is that it also takes its rightful place in the Western hemisphere’s premiere Olympic-style competition. Rugby was first included for the men in the 2011 Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. There, Canada proved to be the surprise champion after defeating the United States in the semifinals and then topping heavily favored Argentina in the final. For team USA, it was a somewhat disappointing bronze medal finish in Mexico. For the women, this was the first time rugby had been included in the Pan Am schedule.
For the men, the timing of the Pan Am Games will always prove a complicating factor. The games are held on four-year cycles that occur the summer before the Olympic games. Just like Pan Am and the Olympics the men’s Rugby World Cup in fifteens is also contested on a four-year cycle that coincides with Pan Am. Although the World Cup is still months away, the summer is a major proving grounds for players seeking to make the national team for the most prestigious competition in the fifteen-a-side game. Consequently, the usual contenders for Pan Am glory–Argentina, Canada, and the United States–each see their familiar sevens rosters depleted as stars from the Sevens World Series get called into the XVs camps for the summer. While this hit each of these teams, the surging team USA was the most impacted by the lineup changes.
A welcome change under the Mike Friday era as coach of the men’s national team has been the stability in his selections. For the 2014–15 season–Friday’s first at the helm–the team reached previously unknown heights on the back of a roster that included eight players that competed in all nine legs of the series. A ninth player–Zack Test–was on the squad for eight tournaments, missing the ninth due to injury. Test, along with Danny Barrett, Andrew Durutalo, and Folau Niua were each pulled into the training squad for the World Cup. Along with Chris Wyles, who had joined the squad for the first time since 2009 to help the team clinch Olympic qualification, the team saw five players rendered unavailable due to World Cup training. Also unavailable, due to his training squad inclusion, was Thretton Palamo who had filled in admirably for Zack Test on late notice to help the team to its first ever cup victory on the World Series with the win in London in May. Also absent from Pan Am was stalwart Maka Unufe–the leading try scorer from the 2011 Pan Am Games–who was given time to recoup from a grueling season.
The absence of Barrett, Durutalo, Niua, Test, and Unufe meant that the team had lost more than 40% of its scoring from a record-setting season. While some of the most familiar faces were gone, four of the team’s stars remained: captain Madison Hughes, speedsters Carlin Isles and Perry Baker, and enforcer Garrett Bender. Hughes, Isles, Baker, and Bender combined for a jaw-dropping 621 points in World Series play and another 112 points in the NACRA qualifier. Joining the four nine-tournament players were Nate Augspurger and Martin Iosefo. Iosefo featured in six tournaments on the World Series this season along with scoring four tries at NACRA. Augspurger, not a member of this season’s squad until Hong Kong, has proven an almost certain inclusion ever since. Also bringing experience from the 2014–15 season was Pat Blair, who had not made the traveling squad since his impressive defensive effort at the USA Sevens in Las Vegas. Rounding out the squad were Brett Thompson, Mike Te’o, Stephen Tomasin, Will Holder, and Ben Leatigaga.
Heading in to Pan Am, the men’s team was riding an unprecedented 11-match win streak that saw the Eagles claim consecutive tournament crowns on the backs of undefeated records. For the women, a thoroughly dominant performance at the NACRA qualifier, in which they outscored their competition 369–5, including an 88–0 shellacking of Mexico in the final. The recent run of success had both sides eyeing gold. For the men, there were seven other teams that they would have to surpass in order to reach the top: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Guyana, Mexico, and Uruguay. For the women, it was a six-team competition featuring: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Mexico, and the United States. In the men’s competition, three teams have so far clinched a spot in the competitive field for 2016 Olympic qualification: Argentina (CONSUR champion), Brazil (host nation), and USA (NACRA champion). Team Canada and Mexico will ultimately have an opportunity to compete in the repechage (likely to be held in 2016) to decide the final qualifier. In the women’s side, more than half of the teams–Brazil (host nation), Canada (top four finisher on World Series), Colombia (CONSUR champion), and USA (NACRA champion)–have claimed one of the twelve spots in the Olympic games.
Day 1: Prelims
On Day 1, the men’s team started more slowly than would have been expected as they took a slim 12-point lead into the half against Chile. The twelve points were delivered by a brace of tries from Carlin Isles and a conversion by Nate Augspurger. In the second half, Martin Iosefo dotted down for an early try that was capped by the Augspurger conversion to stretch the lead to 19–0. Just over a minute later, Chile answered back to cut the lead to 19–7, with plenty of time left to make it a game. Instead, Madison Hughes delivered a try on fulltime, Mike Te’o for the conversion, to claim the 26–7 victory to start the tournament undefeated. Although it was not as impressive a victory as might have been expected, it was a great deal better performance by team USA than when the two teams faced off to start the 2011 games. There, team USA emerged a sloppy 14–7.
The Eagles’ second match of the day showed the form we have become accustomed to. Mexico looked the far outclassed side as tries from Mike Te’o, Perry Baker, and Brett Thompson, along with a conversion from Madison Hughes, gave the Eagles a 17–0 lead at the half. In the second half, the United States pulled well out of reach. Perry Baker and Mike Te’o soon added their second try each, followed by scores from Martin Iosefo, Stephen Tomasin, and Nate Augspurger. Two more conversion from Hughes and one from Te’o set the final score: USA 48, Mexico 0. The result was reminiscent of the 50–0 American victory at NACRA.
In the men’s final match of pool play, they took the pitch against Uruguay. The United States and Uruguay have become frequent competitors in the XVs game in the process of qualifying for the World Cup. In the sevens game, however, their matches are more infrequent. The two sides met in the bronze medal match in the 2011 Pan Am Games, with the United States slipping past a resilient Uruguayan side (19–17). The only time the teams have met since then was the 2014 USA Sevens–a 28–14 victory for the Eagles. This meeting was quite different. Much like the Mexico match, the question was not whether team USA would win, but by how much. In a balanced effort that saw nine different Eagles post points–tries for Madison Hughes, Carlin Isles, Martin Iosefo, Perry Baker, Garrett Bender, Pat Blair, Stephen Tomasin, and Ben Leatigaga along with conversions from Augspurger (5) and Hughes (1)–sealed the top spot in Pool A for the United States and a 52–0 win over Uruguay.
For the women, the preliminary competition extended beyond Day 1 and was built around a round-robin format. The women’s start could not have more closely mirrored the men’s if they had tried. For the women, it was a first match against a respectable Brazilian team that competed in all but one leg of the Women’s Sevens World Series. For the women, like the men, it was the team pulled out to a 19–0 lead early in the second half with tries from Kirsten Thomas, Kate Zackary, and Megan Bonny and conversions from Leyla Kelter. Then Brazil answered back with a converted try to close the margin with just enough time to make things interesting. Instead, Kelly Griffin dotted down on full time to set up Kelter’s third conversion to set the final score at 26–7.
The women’s second match was against another team that has qualified for the Olympics: Colombia. In capturing the CONSUR crown, and with it Olympic qualification, in June, Colombia posted a perfect record and outscored the opposition 162–19. Against the emerging American juggernaut, the Colombian women were not so fortunate. Instead, team USA hammered Colombia 40–0 with a Kristen Thomas hat trick.
The women’s third and final match of Day 1 drew them against Argentina. Although the Argentinian men’s team was, arguably, the favorite to claim gold, the women’s team’s hopes were much more reserved. Argentina booked a place in the Pan Am Games with a second place finish in the CONSUR qualifier in which the team was one of only two to score against Colombia and lost to Colombia by a single try (12–7). As against Colombia, the Eagles dominated the match to win 54–7. Thomas again led try-scorers with a brace and Leyla Kelter added fifteen points–one try and five conversions.
Day 2: The Medal Day
For the men, the preliminary round acted as a seeding competition with each team earning a spot in the quarterfinal. For team USA, the Pool A champion, this meant a match with Guyana, the Pool B basement dweller (outscored 117–5). The Eagles started with sloppy play and showed a lack of chemistry that prevented them from scoring until more than a quarter of the way into the match. Ultimately, it was Will Holder who got the scoring started with a try. Holder was the lone player from Day 1 to not have registered a point. His try made certain that each Eagle had points to his name. Holder’s try was followed by a try from Madison Hughes to end the half. Hughes converted each score to give the Eagles a 14–0 lead at the break. In the second half, Brett Thompson, Ben Leatigaga, and Carlin Isles added tries and Nate Augspurger added a conversion to give the United States a 31–0 victory and birth into the semifinal.
For the women, Day 2 started where NACRA ended with a 71–0 victory over Mexico. This time, it was Kate Zackary’s hat trick, Melissa Fowler’s second half brace, and Leyla Kelter’s 26-point effort that got the job done. With the United States and Canada the lone undefeated teams, their match to close preliminary play was a mere formality. The teams were already slotted to meet again in the gold medal match. That said, whenever these two rivals meet, it is a big deal. Unfortunately for the Eagles, Canada stormed out to a 34–0 lead before team USA was finally able to add points of their own. With only a few minutes remaining in the match, Kate Zackary crossed for the first of her two tries. Kathryn Johnson added the conversion, but the damage was done: Canada 34, USA 12.
As a prelude to the gold medal match, Brazil proved, at least for the women, that Olympic qualification was deserved as the Brazilian women claimed the bronze medal with a comfortable (29–0) victory over Argentina. The gold medal match began much more promisingly for team USA. Less than two minutes in, Kristen Thomas scored. Kathryn Johnson’s conversion put the United States in front 7–0. It only took a minute of play before Canada had answered and leveled the match. From that point on, it was all Canada as the women outclassed their rivals to the south: Canada 55, USA 7.
For the men, the semifinals matches were a mirror image of the 2011 games. In 2011, Argentina topped Uruguay 17–5 and Canada pulled out a thrilling victory over the United States 21–19. In 2015, Argentina had much less difficulty with Uruguay: Argentina 43, Uruguay 7. For Canada and the United States, the match would prove to be another instant classic.
Canada began by capitalizing on good field position and USA mistakes. It resulted in a 12–0 lead before team USA came fighting back. The Eagles finally got on the board when Carlin Isles capped off turnover ball forced by Nate Augspurger. The unconverted try took the match to the half with Canada in front 12–5. In the second half, Isles showed his magic again to score just shy of the nine-minute mark. The Augspurger conversion drew the match level at 12–12. Almost more important than the try was a yellow card on Canada for a foolish late hit. The Eagles quickly capitalized on the man advantage when Martin Iosefo added the third American try of the match. Augspurger’s second conversion put the Eagles in front 19–12. The lead was not held long before Nathan Hirayama took off from midfield to pull Canada level at 19–19. With full time and the match level, Canada looked sure for a try before Iosefo managed a match saving tackle. The USA soon regained possession, but Perry Baker’s effort to get around the side of the Canadian defense was unsuccessful. Ultimately, it was a try from Admir Cejvanovic for Canada that brought the United States’ fifteen-match win streak to an end and sent Canada back to the gold medal match.
For team USA, a rematch with Uruguay for bronze was not where this team wanted to be. Nevertheless, the goal whenever Friday’s Eagles teams take the pitch is to beat the opponent in front of you. Perry Baker got the bronze medal defense started with a first-minute try. Madison Hughes added the conversion to set the margin at 7–0. A more inspired team Uruguay than lost to the USA 52–0 on Day 1 and to Argentina 43–7 in the semifinal answered back to draw the match even. After Uruguay squandered a second try-scoring opportunity with a chip kick that was touched down by Pat Blair in-goal, Perry Baker once more turned on the jets to score his second try of the match. Hughes’s second conversion put the US back up a full score. A turnover on the restart allowed Stephen Tomasin to build the USA advantage to 19–7 at the half.
In the second half, Tomasin picked up where he ended the first after a cracking run from Hughes set up an offload pass to Tomasin. Mike Te’o added the conversion to make a bronze medal seem all but a reality with a 26–7 lead. Te’o would soon score a try of his own following a pass from Augspurger. Augspurger was rewarded with the conversion of the try to put the match out of reach at 33–7. With less than a minute away from the final hooter, Garrett Bender broke free on the wing to score one more try for team USA. Augspurger connected on the conversion to push the lead to 40–7. Uruguay managed a consolation try, but the result was already assured: USA 40, Uruguay 12.
In the gold medal match, it was once more a surprising team Canada that claimed the gold, but needing the full advantage of the ten-minute halves afforded in championship matches. Argentina held a 12–0 lead just before the half, but Canada managed to cut it to 12–7 at the break. Canada struck early in the second half to draw the match level. At the end of the 14’ mark, where most matches would end, Argentina was in front 19–12. Luckily for team Canada, this was a twenty-minute match; at the 17’ mark, Phil Mack scored to pull within two points of Argentina. With full time mere moments away, Harry Jones proved to be Canada’s golden son as his try gave Canada the 22–19 gold medal defense.
In the end, the results were the same as 2011: Canada gold, Argentina silver, USA bronze, and Uruguay in fourth. That said, this was a far different team USA than took the pitch in 2011. While that statement could easily refer to the players–not a single player from the 2011 roster, competed in the 2015 games–it more appropriately speaks to the quality of play on the pitch. In 2011, team USA reached its bronze medal with an abysmal 3-2-1 record that included two losses to Canada (29–21 & 21–19) and a draw with Brazil (19–19). In the wins, team USA was far from convincing: 14–7 over Chile, 24–12 over Guyana, and 19–17 over Uruguay. This time, it was still bronze, but that came from a 5–1 record that included three straight shutouts and a comfortable victory in the bronze match.
Looking forward, the 2019 games should be much like the 2015 games. The World Cup will continue to deplete the player pool available for the Pan Am Games and team USA, along with Canada and Argentina, will be forced to rely on a growing but less experienced talent pool. The only thing that seems certain is that the gap between the top three and the rest of the field will continue to grow. Ultimately, however, the medalists should be some combination of Argentina, Canada, and the United States and will remain as such so long as rugby in the Pan Am Games remains an after thought to the XVs World Cup (or the Pan Am broadcasters as fans in the United States to learn as the USA broadcaster inexplicably valued judo and rhythmic gymnastics above rugby).