Hamilton 7s Recap
With both Stephen Tomasin and Madison Hughes stateside recouping from knee injuries in Sydney, it was always going to be a tall order to expect team USA to duplicate its semifinal run from the week before. Nevertheless, a favorable pool draw left open hope of another quarterfinal appearance. In the end, the Eagles could not overcome the depleted roster and early mistakes to reach a third consecutive quarterfinal. But, on Day 2, the team came out firing on all cylinders and did all that could be asked. It was not a podium finish, but it is well-deserved hardware that will stand as testament to perseverance.
While the challenge trophy is a team honor, there was also a personal honor within reach heading into Hamilton. After Sydney, Perry Baker sat one try shy of Zack Test for the American career record. A man who has scored at least eight tries in the last six tournaments in which he was fully healthy, it seemed a certainty that Baker would surpass Test in Hamilton. But, as we saw in Dubai, anything can happen and a freak injury could have derailed the effort. Fortunately for team USA and Baker, an eight-try haul more than provided enough to catch and surpass the great Zack Test.
The first match for team USA was against archival Canada. After a tough loss to the Canadians in Dubai, the Eagles laid it on the Canadians the week before in Sydney (40–19). Looking to build upon that strong showing in Sydney and get Hamilton started on the right foot, the United States took the pitch. The match almost started right on script with Folau Niua’s opening kickoff falling into American hands, but it was dropped to the deck and forty-five seconds later Canada’s Nathan Hirayama was around the defense and under the post for seven. The Eagles gained possession from the restart and looked to be moving forward, but a bad pass from a ruck almost yielded a second Canadian try. A fortunate penalty call regained the ball for the Americans.
Sloppy play dogged team USA through the first quarter of the match. Five minutes into the half, John Moonlight got Canada’s second try, dragging Maka Unufe across the line. The conversion pushed Canada to a full two scores in front with just over a minute left before the break. A steal of the restart kept Canada on the attack. At this point in the match, it seemed like it was going to be an awful result for team USA. But the American defense stood strong, forced a turnover, and within moments had the ball to Perry Baker on the wing, streaking away for his side’s first try of the match and the score that drew him level with Zack Test on the USA all-time try scoring list. Danny Barrett added the important two-pointer just before halftime. There was still a restart before the break, but the half soon drew to a close with a knock on.
Still down one full score, the United States needed to get something going. And that the Americans did. In the first minute of the half, a powerful run on the right side from Danny Barrett, muscling through two tackles and feeding Maka Unufe in support, sent Unufe free for a try under the post. Folau Niua’s conversion made it even at 14–14. With the Eagles firmly in control of the momentum, Canada’s Luke McCloskey was pinged for an intentional knock on and sent to the sin bin with just under five minutes remaining. Team USA opted for a scrum off the penalty and set to work at the Canada twenty-two. The advantage looked squandered as a sloppy pass to the left wing miss Baker. Somehow, Baker got the possession and spun through two tackles and managed to stay out of touch, leading to a try under the post to move alone atop the American try-scorer list. Niua added the conversion.
Up only seven points with two and a half minutes remaining, team USA now faced a full-strength Canada. A loose ball out the back of a Canada scrum pushed the Canadians within the shadow of their own try line. There the Americans succeeded in forcing a penalty turnover. Following a kick to touch and lineout, Martin Iosefo found enough space to split the Canadian defense for a try under the post. Niua added the conversion to make it 28–14 with enough time for one more restart, but not enough for a Canadian comeback. Any hope for a consolation score ended with a forward pass to end the match: USA 28, Canada 14.
With one win in hand and Kenya having beaten both Samoa and Canada, the Eagles just needed a victory over Samoa to secure a quarterfinal bid. Despite sweeping the Samoans (4–0) last season, Samoa entered the match with the psychological boost of having won the last meeting in Dubai (26–14). Samoa began the match kicking deep against the Americans. It is a tactic that Fiji and South Africa have regularly used with success against the Eagles over the past several seasons. In this instance, requiring team USA to play clean rugby for eighty meters paid off, as the Eagles surrendered a penalty inside Samoa’s twenty-two. Samoa could not do much with the ball in a minute of possession before Danny Barrett forced a penalty turnover. But thirty seconds later, Samoa got a penalty turnover of its own, again inside its own twenty-two.
Samoa kicked for touch but failed on the lineout throw, instead hitting Matai Leuta at the back of the line. The Americans soon capitalized to break into the Samoa twenty-two, but again, a penalty inside the Samoa twenty-two gave the ball away. This one coming just five meters from the line. Soon the Eagles were yet again pressing inside the Samoa twenty-two only to give up a fourth penalty turnover. Two minutes later, Samoa finally got on the board with a magnificent run by Murphy Paulo. The conversion set the halftime margin at 7–0.
Once again, trailing by seven to start the second half, the Eagles looked to duplicate the effort that saw them through to a win against Canada. A try in the left corner, fifty-five seconds in, by Ben Pinkelman closed the gap. Folau Niua’s conversion attempt was just off the mark. Perry Baker claimed a tremendous one-handed steal of the restart, but was penalized in the resulting tackle. Samoa kicked to touch at the USA ten-meter line, where a poor throw gave the ball back to team USA and soon was passed wide to Baker for a try in the left corner to take the narrow lead. The conversion kick again failed, leaving Samoa only three points behind. With two minutes remaining, Martin Iosefo charged into the Samoa twenty-two but was met with a vicious, albeit legal tackle. The hit left Iosefo shaken up and gave Samoa a scrum feed inside its own twenty-two. With Samoa under tremendous pressure inside its own five-meter line, the USA defensive front was called offside. Having committed hard in pursuit, the line failed to reform before Samoa took the quick tap and the wing was left wide open. Perry Baker narrowly managed to get back to stop the breakaway try, but Samoa was now on the attack with mere seconds remaining, and as time ran out, Samoa found the space it needed on the left wing, to get the game winner. The conversion went over for good measure, making it: Samoa 14, USA 10.
Following Canada’s loss to Samoa, a win over Kenya would see team USA through to the quarterfinal, and, depending on the margin, either Kenya or Samoa left to compete for the consolation Challenge Trophy on day 2. Kenya entered the match having posted narrow victories, each 19–14, over Samoa and Canada. In the last contest between the two squads, team USA came out ahead with a resounding 47–0 victory in London. Such a result was certainly not likely in Hamilton, but a victory was certainly a strong possibility.
But for team USA to get by Kenya, it was going to have to do it without three regular starters. Tomasin and Hughes were both back home recovering from injuries accrued the week before. But, following a massive hit against Samoa, Martin Iosefo was an injury scratch for the match with Kenya. That left Matai Leuta, Maka Unufe, and Kevon Williams as the uncharacteristic starters, joining every-match starters Ben Pinkelman, Danny Barrett, Folau Niua, and Perry Baker. Without a thirteenth man in reserve, team USA had to head out with only eleven healthy bodies for the match.
The Eagles stole the opening kickoff, but made nothing of it before Nelson Oyoo stole the possession and darted down the left touchline for a five-pointer in the corner a mere forty seconds of the match gone. The score meant the third straight match for team USA needing to dig out from a deficit. Had the deficit remained only five points, then the result would have been much happier for American supporters, but Kenya added a converted try two minutes later to make it 12–0. On the following restart, Kevon Williams collected the ball and gained tremendous territory. But firm Kenyan defense held off the American attack and forced a penalty turnover inside its own twenty-two, giving Kenya two minutes before half to build on its lead. And build on its lead Kenya did. Fending tackles by Barrett and Niua, Kenya’s Willy Ambaka added a third try for Kenya. The simple conversion made it a daunting 19–0 deficit. Fortunately for team USA, that was the end of the bleeding.
The restart came with fourteen seconds left before halftime and it was just enough time for Perry Baker to remind the world why he is the best in the game. Scooping up a loose ball eight meters form his own line, he spun through one tackle and ran free and clear for a try directly under the post. Niua nailed the conversion to cut the deficit to twelve to start the second half.
The second half started with untidy ball moving the Americans deep into their own territory, but once the ball got into Carlin Isles’s hands, the chase was on and none could catch the fastest man in rugby. Away for the try under the post, Niua hit the conversion to pull within five points of Kenya and still more than five minutes to play. Ben Pinkelman then stole the restart and dished it to Kevon Williams who was hammered high at the Kenya twenty-two, resulting in a penalty and yellow card against Kenya. Remarkably, Kenya successfully defended the scrum and forced a turnover. Despite giving it back to USA with a penalty at midfield, the defensive effort helped eat into the yellow card. The United States kicked to touch at the Kenya twenty-two. The Eagles won the lineout and got the ball again to Isles for his second try, to the left side of the post. Niua couldn’t connect on the conversion, leaving the match level at 19–19 with three minutes left. After back and forth play, neither team was able to break the deadlock. As the final seconds came to a close, it was Kenya threatening to score. Knowing a draw would see them through as the top seed, the Kenyans chose not to press for the score and, instead, ran backward with ball in hand for the final five seconds before kicking to touch to come away with the draw.
With hopes of competing in the quarterfinal dashed on Day 1, team USA had the option of sulking its way to a quick exit in Day 2 or pulling together and claiming the prize on offer: the Challenge Trophy. In order to do that, team USA needed to start with a win over Spain. As the newest core member to the series, the history of competition between the two nations is not as lengthy as many others, but the two sides met in the 2016 Olympic games, with team USA coming away victorious (24–12). And the teams squared off in Cape Town, earlier this season, with the United States again taking the match (26–5). The Eagles were certainly looking to duplicate those results. And, fortunately for the Americans, Martin Iosefo, who was an injury scratch against Kenya, was good to go on Day 2.
Spain erred on the opening kick, giving team USA a free kick at centerfield to get things started. Spain fended off the initial American attack and looked to have something going in attack. Perry Baker’s pace in defense managed to force a Spanish penalty to get the ball back for his side. Following a lineout and a couple phases of play, it was Martin Iosefo finding the gap off a pass by Kevon Williams for a try to the left of the post. Folau Niua, a solid kicker, continued is struggles from Day 1 on kicks from the left side of the post, leaving it just 5–0. A penalty on the restart gave the possession to Spain. A crisper offload at the USA twenty-two and Spain would certainly have drawn the match level with a chance to take the lead. Instead, it was a knock and turnover to the Americans, squandering the hard-earned territory. With the Americans in attack, Spain held just strong enough in defense to force a turnover that led immediately to a try for Ignacio Martin. With the conversion, Spain moved in front heading into the final minute of the half.
The final restart of the half, Spain again kicked directly into touch, giving the United States a perfect opportunity to regain the lead before the intermission. But, after testing the Spanish defense, it was a penalty turnover for Spain that put the Americans on defense. The Americans, however, did not remain on defense for long before a takeaway by Niua led to a run by Perry Baker around the left edge of the Spanish defense for a trotting try under the post. Niua made it a seven-pointer with the conversion to end the half.
Spain came away with the restart and drove into the American half, but could do little with the possession thanks to a solid defensive effort by Ben Pinkelman. From a resulting ruck, the Americans set up a fantastic set piece starting off Niua drawing in the defense and hitting a wrap-around runner, who worked the ball to Iosefo who hit Baker to bypass the defense for a second try under the post. Niua hit the conversion, stretching the lead to twelve.
On the restart, Danny Barrett decided he needed a highlight-reel moment. Barrett snagged the ball out of the air, landing behind most of the Spanish defense, then dropping a shoulder to slam through a tackler, pushing the tackler into the second defender and dotting the ball down in the right corner for the five points.
The next points went to Spain with a try in the right corner with 1:20 remaining. The conversion missed the mark, leaving only thirty seconds for Spain to manage twelve points. Instead, Spain again erred in the restart, giving the United States its third free kick. Despite the result being settled, Niua took the midfield tap and streaked into Spanish territory. His support followed, keeping possession and the ball eventually worked out to Carlin Isles on the left wing, who spun through a tackle for a try to close the match: USA 29, Spain 12.
With a win over Spain, team USA was on its way to its readjusted Day-2 goal. But the United States would have to next defeat the non-core invitee, Papua New Guinea. PNG finished last, tied with Spain, in Sydney. But the team did not come away from Sydney winless. It claimed a dominant 21–17 win over core-member Spain. Building on the learning experience from Sydney, PNG demolished Russia to close pool play (33–7) and made it consecutive big wins after crushing France (35–0) to advance to the trophy semifinal. Although team USA entered as the decided favorite, all eyes were on PNG to see if the squad could continue its impressive run.
Despite PNG not being a core member, these two nations have competed numerous times against each other on the series. They last met in 2011, with the United States winning (24–5). They had met five times prior to that, with the United States winning the first four but losing the fifth. However bright the future of sevens rugby may be in Papua New Guinea, the United States made sure that it did not shine too brightly on this day.
The United States narrowly missed out on an opening try 1:20 into the match, when Maka Unufe hit Kevon Williams on the wing, but the defender was able to knock the ball loose from Williams at the PNG five-meter line. PNG then looked set to maybe get the opening score. Instead Gairo Kapana was sent to the sinbin for an intentional knock. That opened up the field and Williams almost instantly got his overdue try. Folau Niua slotted the straight-ahead conversion.
PNG had the crowd on its feet when it looked like an under-manned score was going to happen, but Niua managed to force the runner to just step into touch. It saved the try, but PNG was also able to return to seven-on-seven. Even with a full complement, Perry Baker saw enough space to extend the lead. Niua again made short work of the conversion to stretch the lead. But the first-half scoring was not over. Following an uncharacteristic restart error for the United States, a PNG penalty gave the Americans an attacking lineout inside PNG’s ten-meter line. That lineout resulted in Kevon William’s second try of the half. Despite taking the conversion from against the left touchline, Niua continued his perfect strike rate in the match, making it 21–0 on halftime.
The second half started much like the first ended. Maka Unufe found some space in the Spanish defense and then dished to Matai Leuta for a try under the post. Niua extended his conversion haul to four for the match. The next score came right off the restart when the Eagles knocked the ball back and Martin Iosefo scooped it up for a simple jog in under the post. Niua made it 35–0 with the conversion in front of the post.
With the result well assured, Coach Friday sent on the subs. PNG finally managed extended time with ball in hand and were rewarded with a try by Kapana after shaking a tackle attempt by Carlin Isles. But Isles soon made up for giving up the seven-pointer with one of his own. Isles’s score in the right corner made it a tough attempt for Nick Boyer’s first shot at goal on the series, but Boyer drove the kick home. As time expired, the United States was in front 42–7. PNG still played with pride and managed a consolation score to leave on a high note: USA 42, PNG 12.
The victory booked the Eagles a date with a team likely even more disappointed to be in the challenge-trophy bracket than the injured Americans. Facing team USA was Argentina, fresh off consecutive medal finishes. The Argentines had proven a difficult hurdle for the Eagles this season, with wins over the United States in each of the three prior tournaments on the season. That three-match streak was a reversal of last season in which the United States took all five contests. Despite the recent trend of defeats, the Eagles were on the hunt for the trophy.
The hopes for Argentina extending the streak to four had to be readjusted after running into one man: Danny Barrett. The untidy restart was picked up by Barrett and run to the Argentine five-meter. Argentina narrowly escaped conceding a score, forcing a penalty against Barrett in the resulting ruck. But it was only a temporary reprieve. Argentina’s kick to touch led to a lineout steal by team USA that led to a twenty-two-meter score for Barrett in the right corner. The conversion was no good, but Barrett made sure the missed points were not mourned for long, when he powered through for his second try moments after the restart. Maka Unufe slapped the ball back, Ben Pinkelman scooped it up, passed to Baker, who then passed wide to Barrett for the score.
Facing a quick 10–0 deficit, Argentina was desperate to win the restart. Instead, Unufe again went up high for the steal but was taken out by two Argentine defenders in the process. The result was a penalty, a yellow card to Argentina, and three shaken up players down on the pitch. Niua kicked to touch a couple meters out from the Argentina twenty-two. The Eagles won the lineout, but Argentina’s defense forced a turnover. The possession did not yield points, but it gained territory and ate up almost all of the yellow card. Argentina soon back to seven men, was the next to score, with a try in the right corner just before the end of the half. The score appeared to be the product of clearly a forward pass, but, in the end, it would not decide the victor. Nothing came of the restart just before the half, leaving it 10–5 in the United States’ favor at the break.
With everything to play for, it was the United States who came out hungry to start the final half. Kevon Williams took the restart easily and the ball worked down the chain to Perry Baker on the right wing who made it look easy as he blew by every Argentine and wrapped in for a try between the sticks. Niua easily added the conversion for an important two-score lead.
Although the United States could not steal the restart, the Eagles put Argentina on the back foot with hard hitting defense. Baker soon forced an interception and a short while later, Niua threw his signature dummy pass to open a gap for himself and ran untouched for the try. He added his own conversion to stretch the lead to nineteen.
Argentina was down, but not out. Needing to be the next team to score, Argentina’s Marcos Moroni delivered when he chipped through the defense and dotted it down just before crossing the dead ball line. Felipe del Mestre’s excellent conversion pulled Argentina within twelve, but that was as close as it would get. Argentina erred on the restart, giving team USA a free kick. That free kick led to a hammering run by Barrett into the heart of the Argentine defense. From the ruck, when Argentina finally brought Barrett down after sixty meters or so of power, Niua passed to Ben Pinkelman who took the ball in for another score under the post. Niua added the conversion to set the final margin: USA 31, Argentina 12.
The result capped off a tremendous three-match streak of strong wins. It gives the Eagles some much needed momentum heading in to Las Vegas. The draw for Vegas is very promising for yet another deep run by the Eagles. They will start with Scotland, a team that has been vastly disappointing this season, including a last-place finish in Cape Town. Then the Americans will take on a red-hot Australia. The Eagles have split the season series with Australia, but have had tremendous success in the matchups over recent years, and should be expected to put together a strong showing in what will likely be the last match on Day 1 for each team.
Starting Day 2, hopefully primed to win the pool, team USA will have its third meeting of the season with Spain. If the Eagles are firing on all cylinders, this should be a strong win to propel the team to a big run in the quarterfinal.
If you want to see the United States make history, then come on out to Vegas in one month’s time. The series is off until March 2, when the teams converge on Las Vegas for the USA Sevens.