Hong Sevens Recap
USA falls in Hong Kong Plate; Japan Back in World Series
If there was any doubt that teams still look at Hong Kong as a particularly special tournament, the play and competition on the field in this year’s HK7s put that to rest. In the end, the top four teams were as they have largely been all year, but the path to getting to the semifinal is becoming ever more treacherous. For the United States, the goal of a first-ever season where the team reaches the cup quarterfinal in ever tournament was bolstered on the back of an ever-improving roster.
Hong Kong joins the USA Sevens as the only two stops on the series to cover three days. Unlike the Vegas-based tournament, Hong Kong schedules the nations in only a single match on Day 1. The first day plagued the players with heat and humidity. Perhaps those conditions were responsible for some of the surprising results.
Things got started with Kenya, a side that finished dead last in Vancouver, throttling the Vancouver plate champion: Kenya 24, Samoa 0. Wales then dominated South Korea (40–14). As we discussed in the Hong Kong Sevens Preview, most nations that would be in consideration to be a non-core invitee to a World Series tournament were competing in the series qualifier. As a result, South Korea was more outmatched than most.
The third match of the day was a crucial one for team USA if they wanted to preserve hopes of reaching a ninth-consecutive cup quarterfinal. The United States, off a strong showing in Vancouver with a depleted roster was slotted into a tough pool alongside Australia, Argentina, and Day 1 opponent, Portugal. Though a great deal more healthy than in Vancouver, the lone healthy scratch from the last tournament, Carlin Isles–who was competing in a track competition seeking to become a two-sport Olympic qualifier–was a late injury for the Eagles. To fill that whole, team USA called in Nate Ebner. Ebner, the Super Bowl winner with the New England Patriots of the NFL, made headlines recently by announcing his availability for sevens. Ebner was a standout two-sport athlete for Ohio State and a star at the inaugural Collegiate Rugby Championship. Ebner was in Hong Kong competing in the 10s competition.
The Eagles started strong when Martin Iosefo finished off a hard charge by Danny Barrett for the first try of the tournament. Madison Hughes added the conversion for the 7–0 lead. The United States extended the lead when Perry Baker caught the edge of the Portuguese defense and burst up field for a try with a minute remaining in the half. Hughes notched his second conversion to push the lead to 14–0. On the resulting kickoff, Folau Niua, whose kicking has been spot on all season, errantly sent the kick directly into touch setting up a midfield tap for Portugal. Portugal capitalized on the opportunity and executed textbook sevens play to add an unconverted try at the stroke of half.
The second half proved a sloppier affair. The United States looked poised to score to start the half when Baker stole the restart and offloaded to Barrett who was brought down shy of the line. Although Portugal forced turnover ball, an interception by Baker soon got it back. After a penalty, a try looked on offer when a pass from Baker failed to find Barrett and resulted in a scrum to Portugal. Team USA remained staunch in defense but sloppy play with ball in hand continued to plague the side. Ultimately the Eagles were able to capitalize on a second-half opportunity when Hughes scored from an offload by Maka Unufe. Hughes added his third conversion to put the match out of reach. Portugal won the restart and looked to be clear for a consolation try, but Niua managed to drag the ball carrier’s to touch to finish the match.
It was not pretty, but Coach Friday was able to blood his roster early, with the exception of Ebner who remained on the sideline throughout the match. Somewhat surprisingly, Friday did not use Ebner at any point in Hong Kong.
In the next match, Scotland continued its perfect record against Russia in pool play (28–15). In a more surprising match, New Zealand struggled mightily with France. The French held a 17–7 lead at the half but ultimately fell 19–17 to the All Blacks Sevens. Similarly, Canada, fresh off a 5–1 showing in Vancouver that resulted in a bowl title, pushed Fiji to the wire. Canada carried a 17–5 lead late into the second half before two fulltime yellow cards allowed Fiji to break Canadian hearts: Fiji 19, Canada 17.
The penultimate match of the day was surprising only in that Australia managed to overcome Argentina with such a convincing score line (28–0). The real shocker came in the Day 1 finale. England entered just two tournaments removed from a last-place finish in Las Vegas. In Hong Kong, English pride returned as the British contingent toppled South Africa (21–14).
Despite the surprising results on Day 1, each team remained alive in the chase for the cup round.
Pool A got Day 2 started with what would have been an expected result coming in but a surprising result in light of Day 1. Samoa, fresh off a Plate victory over the United States in Vancouver but a shutout loss to Kenya the day before, claimed a 24–12 victory over a French side that came painfully close to defeating New Zealand. The second match of the day, looked to show that New Zealand was, in fact, vulnerable. Kenya battled New Zealand almost to a draw, but a lone 13th minute score kept New Zealand in control: New Zealand 5, Kenya 0.
The second round of matches for Pool A saw every team with a chance to book a place into the quarterfinal. First up was Kenya and France. Kenya entered the match with a +19 point differential versus France’s –14. If Kenya were to win, only a Samoan upset of New Zealand could place the quarterfinal out of reach. Even then, Samoa would need to overcome a –12 differential. If Kenya were to lose to France, a New Zealand victory over Samoa would mean Kenya just needed to manage the loss and keep France from winning by 33. Ultimately, France claimed the victory, but only by seven points (17–10). In the final pool match, New Zealand remained unbeaten with a 28–10 victory over Samoa. The result left Kenya, France, and Samoa with identical records (1–2) and sent Kenya through with the better points differential.
Pool B was the late starter of Day 2, taking the pitch after the other three pools had gotten under way. England continued its resurgence with a 19–0 victory over rival Scotland. South Africa also got back on track with a 50–0 demolition of Russia. South Africa continued that pace with a 31–0 victory over Scotland to book passage into the cup quarterfinal as the second seed. England reminded how far from its old self the team is by conceding a late score to Russia for a 12–12 draw. The draw was still enough to leave England atop the pool, destined to face the Pool C runner-up.
In Pool D, Wales notch a second consecutive victory over team Canada. Doubtlessly, team Canada was excited for a chance at redemption from the loss at home to Wales to start the inaugural Canada Sevens. The loss to Wales was Canada’s lone defeat. Unfortunately for the North Americans, Wales repeated the result (24–10). Fiji then took a page out of the South Africa script and ran roughshod over South Korea (57–0). To finish pool play, Canada added a check in the win column by sending South Korea winless (37–14), and Fiji took care of Wales (36–10), with Wales adding a consolation try at the end.
Pool C got started with the United States taking on Argentina. The winner would almost certainly advance to the cup quarterfinal, thanks to a strong run of recent success for Australia.
Although the United States was slight favorite coming in, it was Argentina that looked in control early. The Argentines stole the kickoff and laid on with intense pressure, ultimately breaking through for the early 7–0 lead. The United States won the ensuing kickoff and almost immediately earned a penalty. The Eagles kicked for touch midway into the Argentine half. The territory and position was soon squandered with a penalty that was compounded by Maka Unufe’s poor judgment in throwing the ball away resulting in a trip to the sin bin. Down a man, the Eagles defense was too porous to prevent a second converted try. Team USA, still down a man, won the restart but faced a stiff defensive front. Fortunately for the United States, the passing was textbook and eventually worked to Baker who hit the corner and cut inside to snap the ankles of the sweeper for the 80-meter try under the post. Hughes added the conversion to bring the Eagles within 7 on the board and back to seven on the pitch on halftime.
Argentina won the second half kickoff and looked likely to score again but was slowed up just enough by Hughes on a line break to allow the American defense to reform. The Eagles soon won turnover ball at their own 22 but soon lost possession when Baker’s attempt to find a gap in the defense led to a knock on in contact. The stiff American front sent Argentina back tracking and led to a turnover. After working the ball through the American lines, Danny Barrett was finally able to break the Argentine defense with sheer force of will. Barrett slammed through two tacklers before drawing a third would-be tackler and passing back to Unufe. Unufe spun through a tackle and strolled over for the try. Hughes’s kick drew the sides level at 14–14. Baker put on a clinic on the restart to snag the ball with one hand. Baker tumbled to the deck but was not held. He returned to his feet and bolted unmolested in for the score in the right corner. The angle and distance proved too much for Hughes’s sure boot, leaving the match 19–14 with three minutes remaining.
In defensive mode, the Eagles regained possession when Argentina was pinged for a forward pass at midfield with two minutes remaining. The Eagles won the scrum and Hughes tested the defense with a kick intended for Baker. In recent tournaments, the Eagles had found much success with the play, but ultimately failed to repeat that success in Hong Kong. Almost universally, the decision was right and the bounce was not. On this occasion, Argentina got there first but soon lost the ball in contact at its own 22. The Eagles with possession looked like they might score when Hughes danced within meters of the line, but the resulting offload went loose on the deck, but Argentina knocked it on while trying to secure the ball from the ground. With one minute remaining, the Eagles won the scrum inside the Argentine 22 and were rewarded with the score when Hughes put on a great move to touch it down just to the left of the post. Hughes converted his score to extend the lead to 26–14. The final kickoff came with no time remaining and was knocked on to end the match.
Australia took care of business against Portugal (45–7), setting up a pool decider with the United States. In the pool consolation match, Argentina blanked Portugal (24–0).
With England having notched a victory over South Africa already, what had seemed like an important goal–winning Pool C–now seemed like a less favorable result as the winner of Pool C would face South Africa and the loser would get the unpredictable English. Nevertheless, both nations looked hungry for victory, though neither Zack Test nor Perry Baker started the match.
The heavy humidity from earlier in the day gave way to an encroaching fog. Australia started with a deep kick inside the USA 22. This is a tactic many top teams have gone to using against the Americans. Although Folau Niua took the kick cleanly, Australia was able to earn a penalty at the ruck when Niua went into contact. The field position paid off as Australia worked the ball wide for the converted score in the left corner a minute into the match. The following restart was again a fairly deep kick. The Americans looked to take the ball well with a successful pod, but were penalized for an accidental offside. Australia won the resulting scrum but could not capitalize. Team USA managed to win a penalty and kick for touch at midfield. Having won the lineout, the Americans poured on the pressure, resulting in a try in the left corner for Garrett Bender. Hughes was unable to hit the conversion, leaving team USA trailing (7–5).
On the ensuing restart, Danny Barrett took the kick perfectly to give his side another scoring opportunity before the half. The ball worked to Bender for some territory, but the Australia defense stood strong until a penalty. Australia felt hard done, and perhaps rightly so for the call of the player off his feet but it looked as easily a penalty for not releasing in the tackle, so the cries for injustice appeared misplaced. USA kicked for touch and won the lineout. With no time left in the half, a switch to Hughes on a hard angled run sent him over for the score to the right of the uprights. Hughes slotted the conversion for the 12–7 lead at the half.
Australia won the USA kick to start the second half, but soon lost the ball forward for a USA midfield scrum. The Americans won the scrum but soon gave the ball away with a bad pass that sailed into touch. Fortune smiled on the Eagles at the lineout, however, when the Australian throw floated over the pods and scooted on the deck. It ended up in the hands of Baker who had just taken the field with massive subs. Using his fresh and fast legs, Baker put on a shifty move to get the defender off balance and added the try in the right corner. Hughes poorly struck the conversion attempt, leaving the match within reach at 17–7 and just under four minutes remaining.
Australia won the restart but lost the ball forward after a tackle to give the Eagles a scrum just inside their own half. The United States won the scrum and lost ground to the Australian defense. Niua tried a kick from his own 22 to ostensibly give Baker a chance, but it was taken perfectly by Australia and Baker was penalized in the ensuing tackle. Nevertheless, the fresher looking Eagles soon won another penalty, with under two and half minuts left. Niua kicked again for touch in the Australia half. The Eagles won the lineout and earned a penalty when Peter Tiberio was slammed with a high tackle at the Australia 10-meter. Niua once more kicked for touch, this time inside the Australia 22. The United States again won the lineout and worked it wide to Baker, but he could not find a whole. The ball was then worked back out wide to the other side and Ben Pinkelman got the score in the right corner. With no time remaining, the missed conversion ended the match: USA 22, Australia 7.
Also on Day 2, was the start of the series qualifier. Twelve nations contested for the right to join the series as a core team next year. The prohibitive favorite was Las Vegas quarterfinalist, Japan. After the first day of competition, eight teams remained: Spain, Hong Kong, Germany Morocco, Zimbabwe, Chile, Japan, and Tonga. Despite a relatively poor showing to start the competition, the home crowd was certainly hoping to see its side reach the final to face Japan. Last year, Hong Kong topped its pool only to lose its first match in the knockout round.
The quarterfinal started with an inspired showing by Wales against New Zealand, but the All Blacks Sevens were too much for the Dragons: New Zealand 17, Wales 7. Wales has not finished higher than the plate semifinal since the 2014 Hong Kong Sevens, and has not reached the semifinal since the 2013 Scotland Sevens. Joining New Zealand in the semifinals was Australia after toppling England (14–5) and Fiji after staving off a tough test from Kenya (12–10).
The final semifinal spot was on offer for the victor of USA vs. South Africa. The Blitzbokke are a particularly bad matchup for the Americans. Although wins over South Africa, New Zealand, and Fiji are rare, South Africa’s speed proves a greater problem for the Americans.
The humidity of the first two days ramped up to 100% humidity to start Day 3 as rain saturated the pitch. After dropping the match to England to start the tournament, South Africa had runoff consecutive shutouts and looked to extend the streak to three.
The United States looked to have won the kickoff, but a questionable penalty gave possession to South Africa. It was largely downhill from there. The United States would regain possession and take a penalty lineout inside the South Africa half, but eventually South Africa would scoop up an errant offload from Perry Baker for the converted score. South Africa, like Australia, utilized deep kicks against the United States to pin the Eagles deep. Although the line-drive kickoff was taken cleanly, South Africa soon earned a penalty and added a second converted try. A scoring opportunity finally arose for the Americans as the half came to a close when Martin Iosefo tried to kick through the Blitzbokke defense to set up Perry Baker. The ball took an unkind bounce and rolled behind Baker. Iosefo was able to charge up for a second kick on the deck but was tackled in the process, leaving Baker in front of the kicker and unable to prevent South Africa from kicking the ball into touch to end the half.
The second-half kickoff was a work of art. Niua kicked deep and the ball bounced perfectly into touch deep inside the South Africa 22. South Africa won the lineout and kicked to midfield. Niua collected the ball and the Eagles began to pressure but South Africa soon earned a penalty lineout at the USA 22. The Americans were soon able to win turnover ball, but an intercept pass sent leading try-scorer, Seabelo Senatla, through for his second converted try of the match. Before the match was over, South Africa added a fourth converted try for good measure. The United States was unable to add any points, falling 28–0.
Relegated to the plate semifinal for the second consecutive tournament, the United States faced Wales. By then, the rain had stopped. Baker got things going for the United States when he stole the opening kick. A short while later, the ball worked back to Baker for the unconverted score. The Americans won the restart and soon sent Ben Pinkelman over for his second try of the tournament. The conversion was no good, leaving the Eagles up 10–0. On the third kickoff of the match, Baker again stole the ball. The ball worked to Martin Iosefo who tried to kick and chase through the Welsh defense, but the Dragons got there first. Wales kicked a clearance from in-goal that gave the Eagles a lineout comfortably inside the Welsh 22. Team USA won the lineout and looked set to score on an offload from Baker to Iosefo, but the pass was ruled forward. Soon after, Baker looked set for his second try of the match when he crossed the line and turned in to center the ball. Unfortunately for Baker, a Welsh defender managed to get a hand in and slap the ball loose from Baker for an in-goal knock on. Wales won a penalty from the resulting scrum and kicked to touch to end the half down 10–0.
In the second half, the United States continued to add points when Zack Test powered inside the Welsh 5-meter and Ben Pinkelman picked and dove across the line for his second try of the match. Baker added another highlight real try to push the lead out of reach. Hughes added the conversion to put the Eagles in front 22–0. The resulting kickoff bounced on the deck where Baker charged in to scoop it up and complete his hat trick. Hughes missed the conversion, setting the final margin: USA 27, Wales 0.
Joining the United States in the plate final was a resurgent team England off a thunderous victory over Kenya (33–0). The match against England proved that the Eagles were feast or famine on Day 3. As Coach Mike Friday has done many times this season, the side he sent out to end the day was quite a bit different with Niua, Barrett, Hughes, and Iosefo starting on the bench.
England scored off the opening kick when Dan Norton took the ball untouched for the try under the post thirty seconds in. The conversion pushed the lead to seven. After intense back and forth play, England added a second converted try on halftime. In the second half, England added a third try when a lineout throw by Nate Augspurger overshot the pod and is caught by an English player for an unconverted try. In the end, the United States looked tired and outclassed in the 19–0 defeat. In the match, only a single sub–Iosefo for Baker–was used. Little can be taken from this result other than to say that the specific side trotted out for the match was not the best combination team USA has to offer
In the bowl competition, France blasted South Korea (45–0), Argentina shutout Russia (22–0), Samoa vanquished Canada (19–10), and Scotland edged Portugal (5–0) to reach the bowl semifinal. There, Argentina ended France’s tournament with a 14–7 victory and Scotland surprised Samoa (19–14). Ultimately, Argentina won a non-competitive bowl final (26–0). Fortunately for Argentina, the pool draw in Singapore will give the Argentines the chance of getting back to the cup round and sending Wales back to the bowl competition.
In the shield, Russia ended South Korea’s campaign winless: Russia 22, South Korea 5. Canada booked Portugal another last-place finish, its fifth of the year: Canada 19, Portugal 5. The shield final reminded team Canada how far it has fallen since the remarkable 2013–14 campaign: Russia 19, Canada 14. The result gives Russia a six-point cushion over Portugal in the series standings. That is a margin that can easily be overcome in a weekend, but seems insurmountable for a team that has only amassed 12 points this season.
In the qualifier, the home crowd was elated to see its team advance to the semifinal over former core team Spain: Hong Kong 12, Spain 7. Also in the semifinal was Germany (19–14 over Morocco), Zimbabwe (19–5 over Chile), and Japan (33–0 over Tonga). Japan continued its march back to the series with a 22–0 victory over Zimbabwe. Hong Kong also progressed to the final, topping Germany 17–7. In the final, Japan prevailed 24–14. Although this was not Hong Kong’s year, Japan was likely the strongest team to yet compete in the qualifier competition. Next year seems a very strong possibility for getting Hong Kong onto the series.
In the cup semifinal, New Zealand’s day 1 struggles failed to slow down a fourth finals appearance in the last five tournaments: New Zealand 12, South Africa 7. In the other semifinal, Fiji handled Australia (34–5). South Africa squeaked by Australia in the third-place decider (14–12), and Fiji claimed yet another Hong Kong Sevens title: Fiji 21, New Zealand 7. It is Fiji’s fourth Hong Kong Sevens title in the last five years and sixteenth overall. The win also provides breathing room (5 points) for Fiji atop the series standings.
The series continues next week with the inaugural Singapore Sevens. Check back for coverage here as the season goes forward.