How the USA Eagles became a team of destiny at the USA Sevens
When Martin Iosefo put a would-be Australian tackler on the ground with a filthy step en route to an emphatic try on Friday night, one thing became clear: this USA team was up to something.
When Perry Baker worked his way past four Fiji defenders and burst through the middle of the field for a tying try in the semifinals on Sunday, it became clear that this was a team of destiny.
Rugby experts and coaches knew the USA Eagles were good. But there were few that could have predicted a dominant 6-0 run in Las Vegas, including takedowns of Australia, England and Fiji, capped off with a Cup Final shutout of Argentina and their first USA Sevens Cup title.
“I’m over the moon for them,” said USA head coach Mike Friday. “All credit to the boys. They’re the boys that have got it done. All we do is give them guidance and the mentorship to try and do that. I asked them to tactically change in the semifinal and then asked them to tactically adjust again in the final, and they did that. That is all credit to them because they were able to take that information on board, adjust and then go out and execute.”
Going into the 2018 USA Sevens, the Eagles sat in seventh in the HSBC World Sevens Series standings and were coming off a Challenge Trophy victory at the Hamilton Sevens. It was nothing to scoff at, but nothing too flashy either. They were also missing key pieces in captain Madison Hughes and Stephen Tomasin, both out due to injury.
As soon as the team first took the field on Friday to the boom of the fireworks and roar of the hometown crowd at Sam Boyd Stadium, all that was forgotten. This was their stage, and they took it. They came roaring out of the gate with a 26-12 victory over Samoa, setting up a pivotal clash with Australia in the evening that would likely decide the group.
Australia, who sat a few spots above the United States in the World Series standings, would be a huge litmus test for this team. They passed with flying colors, dominating the Aussies 28-7. Iosefo’s emphatic step and try to the tune of Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.” set the tone for the way the USA was able to dominate the tournament.
— USA Sevens Rugby (@USASevensRugby) March 3, 2018
“You just gotta ride the wave,” Baker said of the atmosphere. “The crowd is amazing out here, it was a great day for rugby. Just ride the wave, man, and just have fun. They’re electrifying.”
A solid win over Spain to wrap up group play set up a quarterfinal clash with England. With the USA holding a 17-12 edge in that match and time running out, things got a little bit chippy as the horn sounded. Tempers flared and the United States players defended their honor and their teammates.
That win, scuffle and all, was a challenge to the remaining teams in the tournament: you mess with the Eagles, you’ll get the talons.
Sunday began with a semifinal matchup with three-time USA Sevens champions Fiji. Early on, it looked like the USA’s magical run could be ending in disappointment for the second consecutive year. After an opening strike by Fiji, a pass to the sideline for Danny Barrett that could have resulted in a try instead became a knock-on and a scoreless half for the Americans.
When things looked shaky, Baker did what Baker does.
— USA Sevens Rugby (@USASevensRugby) March 4, 2018
That pure ridiculousness from the speedster put the team back on track and got the crowd fired up. The Eagles overcame errors and beat Fiji, something that is very difficult to pull off.
“Inevitably in that situation, there’s always going to be errors,” Friday said. “I think the important thing is you don’t dwell on the error, you stay in the moment and you focus on the next moment. I think that’s what we did well because we did make mistakes in that semifinal. We did make mistakes in that final, but what was so impressive about the boys collectively is that they stuck together and they stayed in the moment, they didn’t dwell on it and they moved on to the next one. They reset, and they got the job done.”
In an all-Americas final against Argentina, it was all Eagles from the start. The 28-0 USA victory was a microcosm of everything that made the team successful all weekend long. The national anthem being played in front of the home crowd got the team in the zone. Baker made some ridiculous plays to set up and score tries. Danny Barrett made a one-handed catch on his way to a try at the start of the second half.
The crowd was loud and the players fed off of it and matched the energy all the way through.
“It was amazing,” Friday said. “Those national anthems, to be fair the Argentinian one went on a long while and it was a passionate rendition, and then the American one just boomed out straight after. The fans got behind it, and it just kind of allowed the whole event and the whole occasion to rise up. The boys came out and delivered off the back of that and lived up to the national anthems, both teams. The passion, the pride, the power and the physicality. We saw all that in the breakdown and we saw the way the boys embraced and took control of that, which allowed us to control the game.”
Amidst the celebrations that lasted long into the night in Las Vegas, some may have lost sight of the fact that the United States accomplished their goals with an incomplete team. They were banged up going into the tournament, and lost players to injury along the way. They still got it done.
With plenty of momentum behind them, the United States will head north to Vancouver to try and ride the wave to another tournament win. In a pivotal year for rugby in the United States, this Cup title looks to be a massive boon to the Eagles and to the growth of the game.
“It means everything,” Baker said. It’s a build-up for the World Cup. I can imagine the stadium is going to be packed out, especially with it being televised. There’s not much going to be on TV then either, so the only thing is to watch this rugby. Everyone’s going to enjoy it.”