Hamilton 7s Preview
Perhaps the greatest testament to the Mike-Friday era of the USA Sevens program is the fact that the team reached the semifinals in Sydney and it largely felt disappointing. What I still think to be the single most defining statistic of the team under Coach Friday is that the program had only reached three semifinals in its history prior to bringing him in. Every season since, has seen team USA in at least three semifinals. Last season, it was four in a row and five out of six tournaments to close the season.
But Sydney started with a tough loss to an inspired Australia, which went undefeated to claim the title, and ended with two sound defeats at the hands of South Africa and Argentina. Over the past several years, South Africa has been the worst matchup for team USA. Since Mike Friday took over, here are the records against the teams with the seven most all-time finals appearances ranked in order of best winning percentage to worst:
1). 70.00% (7–3) – Samoa
2). 57.14% (8–6) – Argentina
3). 56.25% (9–7) – Australia
4). 43.75% (7–9) – New Zealand
5). 35.29% (6–11) – Fiji
6). 28.57% (4–1–9) – England
7). 16.67% (3–1–14) – South Africa
As you can see, despite great success over even Fiji–winning more than a third of the meetings–the Eagles lose roughly five of every six against South Africa. It is a bad matchup for team USA and likely will remain so for the foreseeable future even under ideal circumstances.
But the surprise in the last three tournaments has been the poor run against Argentina. At one point, Friday was 8–3 against the Argentines, including going 5–0 last season. This season, however, the Eagles have lost all three to their South American adversaries.
Despite three losses in Sydney, the United States also had three wins, soundly defeating Scotland, crushing Canada, and dominating possession against Fiji, en route to a surprising three-score victory. And the reason Sydney felt disappointing was not the opening loss to Australia or the defeats to South Africa and Argentina, but the clear sign of how great this team could be if it could just stay healthy.
The first tournament of the year saw newly crowned World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year, Perry Baker, concussed in the first couple minutes. That left team USA without literally the best player in the world for two tournaments, and shook the team to an 0–5 performance in Dubai. They bounced back and finished sixth in Cape Town, still without Baker.
Were that the end of injuries this season, the team likely would have a medal in hand from Sydney with eyes set on hoisting the cup in Hamilton. But the injury bug hit team USA in Sydney in a way that has been essentially unheard of under Mike Friday. After the first match, captain Madison Hughes was out. In stepped Stephen Tomasin, who himself was put out of action before all was said and done. Entering the third-place match against Argentina, the Eagles were not just done Hughes and Tomasin, but also without Danny Barrett. Those are three irreplaceable starters.
Both Tomasin and Hughes have headed home to recoup from their knee injuries and Nicklas Boyer has been flown to New Zealand to bring the squad back up to twelve. Boyer is a Cal alumnus and part of the triumphant Junior All-Americans that claimed the 2012 World Rugby U-20 Trophy in Salt Lake City. He most recently saw action with the USA Falcons in the Sudamerica Sevens. Facing full sides from non-core nations and developmental sides from core nations like Argentina, Canada, France, and South Africa, the Falcons struggled mightily, settling for the challenge trophy at the Viña del Mar Sevens and, before that, losing to Colombia in the challenge trophy final of the Punta Del Este Sevens. In the final standings, the Falcons finished tied with Colombia and only ahead of the Canada Maple Leafs and Paraguay. That meant Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Germany, and Ireland, each finished above. Nevertheless, Boyer acquitted himself well, snagging three tries.
Ben Pinkelman, who was a dream-team selection in Sydney, will captain the squad. The team is still fully capable of a strong run––Perry Baker scored 9 tries, Pinkelman 4, and Martin Iosefo 3 in Sydney––but without at least Tomasin or Hughes, it does not seem like a team poised to crack into the final. Here are the twelve men who will don the Eagle shirt looking to prove they can win it all even without a couple top-choice guys: Folau Niua, Danny Barrett, Maka Unufe, Perry Baker, Ben Pinkelman, Martin Iosefo, Matai Leuta, Kevon Williams, Joe Schroeder, Chris Mattina, Nick Boyer, and Carlin Isles.
The team absolutely should advance out of pool play into the quarterfinal. For a nice change of pace, the pool draw is actually quite favorable. Although Canada is the highest finishing fourth seed from Sydney, Samoa and Kenya each come tied for lowest finishing in their respective seeds. And, despite Canada reaching the semifinal in Cape Town, it will compete with the same core that just got shellacked by the Eagles (40–19) in Sydney. Samoa will, as always, be an interesting matchup. The islanders took the victory in their meeting in Dubai (26–14), but have struggled with consistency the past several years. Consecutive losses in the challenge trophy semifinal has Samoa a decided underdog in the pool.
Rounding out the pool is Kenya. Despite reaching the quarterfinal in both Dubai and Sydney, the Kenyans have posted a losing record on the season, going 2–3 in Dubai, 3–3 (finishing 13th) in Cape Town, and 2–3 in Sydney. So far, Kenya has only two wins over teams currently in the top 10 of the season standings. Victory is never assured in any match on the series, let alone against a proud rugby nation like Kenya, but it is a match team USA should be eyeing to close out pool play with an undefeated record.
Unfortunately for team USA, no matter the combination, the likely quarterfinal pairing will be tough. It seems assured that Australia and Fiji will both advance out of Pool A, providing the quarterfinal counterpart to team USA’s Pool D.
Undoubtedly, the most interesting pool is Pool C. The top seed going in to Hamilton is Argentina. After a disappointing loss in the challenge trophy semifinal in Dubai, Argentina has been red hot. In Cape Town, the nation made its twelfth ever finals appearance and first since the 2015 South Africa Sevens. It then followed up with a bronze medal in Sydney. The second seed is the only nation to have reached the quarterfinal in every single series event: New Zealand. The All Blacks Sevens started the season with their best run since reaching four of five finals in a row in 2016, winning three along the way. But there was a slight step backward in Sydney, slipping to fifth place after losing to Fiji in pool play and Australia in the quarterfinal. Nevertheless, New Zealand did reverse a two-point pool loss to Fiji with a 31–7 win in the fifth-place decider, and will be expected to put together a strong showing on home soil.
While the top two seeds in Pool C have become quite accustomed to success this season, the other two teams are aching for a chance to unseat them. Scotland is coming off back-to-back disastrous performances in Cape Town and Sydney, finishing last and fourteenth respectively. But the Scots have shown they can beat anyone when they play their best game, winning the London Sevens title in both 2016 and 2017.
Even more anxious for a strong showing is France. It seems every year, there is a team that consistently wins the challenge trophy but struggles to get a favorable enough draw to take a crack at a run to the cup. In 2015–16, that team was Scotland. The Scots went to six bowl finals (rebranded as the
challenge trophy last season), winning three before breaking through to a cup title to close the season. Last year, it was Wales, reaching the challenge trophy final in three of the last five tournaments, winning it twice. But in order for France to reach only its second quarterfinal of the season, it will need to do something it has not done all season, beat a team ranked higher than eighth. So far, France has beaten Kenya (9), Canada (10), Spain (12), Wales (13), and Russia (15). But the long list of losses includes South Africa (1), Argentina (4), England (6), USA (7), and Scotland (14). The losses list also includes defeats to Kenya, Canada, and Spain, proving consistency is not France’s forte.
The action gets under way this weekend (2/3) in Hamilton, New Zealand. The matches will be available in the USA on ESPN3.