London 7s Preview
After eight stops, the final two legs of the 2017-18 HSBC Sevens World Series are upon us. This season, the stops in London and Paris have switched spots, with the series closing out in France. The first stop, however, takes the Eagles to the home of their first ever cup victory back in 2015. Having claimed a second ever cup in Las Vegas earlier this season, team USA is looking to be the first team from the Americas to win two cups in a single season and the first team from that part of the world to win three cup titles.
It is hard to script a more up-and-down season for the Eagles than 2017-18. The team started with the worst showing for any team under Mike Friday’s leadership by going winless in Dubai following an injury to the reining sevens player of the year, Perry Baker. They bounced back Cape Town to finish sixth, reached the semis in Sydney, won the challenge trophy in Hamilton, and broke through for a cup win in Vegas. When the red-hot team travelled to Vancouver, it looked like a second cup may well be on offer, but a semifinal loss to Kenya derailed the surging Americans. Then a strong showing finishing sixth in Hong Kong was followed by another challenge trophy in Singapore.
As fans of the team are painfully aware, the key to the slumps has been a jaw-dropping number of injuries. It started with Baker’s concussion in Dubai. Then it was Madison Hughes and Stephen Tomasin suffering knee injuries in Sydney along with Jose Schroder and Maka Unufe in Vegas. Unufe managed to make it back into the lineup but was again knocked out of the squad in Hong Kong along with Folau Niua. Finally, Baker was again banged up in Singapore, which has him out the rest of the season.
There are only five players in the lineup for London who have been in the squad for every tournament this year. Compare that with Coach Friday’s first season leading team USA, in which eight players competed in every leg of the series and Zack Test was a concussion in Scotland away from making it nine.
Fortunately, there are some big-time players returning for London with Hughes and Niua back in the squad. Unfortunately, Baker and Unufe were both remain stateside working on being fit for the World Cup. With Hughes returning to his captaincy, Ben Pinkelman gives up the role, having filled it remarkably well in Hughes’s absence. Pinkelman is one of the five players to be in all nine squads this season. Joining him are fellow nine-cappers for the season Danny Barrett, Martin Iosefo, Matai Leuta, and Carlin Isles.
It is possible that no player has stepped up more in the wake of injuries than Isles. Four years ago, Isles and Baker were viewed largely interchangeably. Following some injuries that kept Isles sidelined, Baker exploded into the best player in the world, which allowed many to forget just how amazing Isles can be. This season, Isles has shown that he is among the elite players in the game, amassing thirty-five tries on the season, good enough for second on the season list behind only Baker’s thirty-seven. Over the last three tournaments, Isles has averaged seven tries per tournament.
If anyone could rival Isles for capitalizing on doors opened by injuries it would be Kevon Williams. Not on the squad for Dubai and the thirteenth man in Sydney, Williams was not expected to make the impact that he has. He has posted ten tries this season, including four in Singapore, and cemented a spot in the squad. It is hard to imagine that Williams will not be in strong consideration for a spot in the World Cup roster, as long as he is healthy.
Rounding out the squad are Brett Thompson, making his fourth-straight squad, Malon Al-Jiboori, who makes it five in a row after wearing the thirteen shirt in Hong Kong, and Chris Mattina, who has been in every squad since Sydney. Donning the thirteen shirt in London will be Faitala Talapusi. Let’s hope he is unnecessary.
Two pools in London standout as absolute meatgrinders. Pool A with Fiji, New Zealand, Scotland, and Argentina is unimaginable. Fiji has won the last three tournaments and four of the last five. New Zealand won Cape Town and sits comfortably in third of the Series standings. Scotland is the two-time defending London Sevens champion. And Argentina has two silver and one bronze medal this year. If Scotland can find a way to get out of pool play in search of another title defense, it will either drastically shake up the battle for the series title by relegating Fiji to the consolation bracket or have to drop New Zealand to the consolation bracket for the first time in the nation’s history. The same is true for Argentina’s path to the cup round.
As team USA fans should be accustomed, the other tough pool is, of course, the one that includes the United States. Pool C is headed by England, who won the bronze medal in Singapore right after a bronze in the Commonwealth Games. The second seed is Kenya. The Kenyans reached consecutive finals in Vancouver and Hong Kong before poor showings at the Commonwealth Games and Singapore brought them back to earth. Still, Kenya has been a difficult puzzle for the Eagles to solve this season, posting a record of 0–1–2 in three matches.
The fourth seed in Pool C is likely to be the biggest surprise. France has only reached the cup round once this season, losing both matches on that side of the bracket. But France has won half of the challenge trophies this season, with only the United States (2), Scotland, and Australia winning at least one. And, most importantly, the squad will be set to compete in Paris next week, meaning that France will trot out a squad far better than the one that finished last in Vancouver and Singapore.
Each team in Pool C is a team the Eagles can beat, but no team will be an easy win. Hopefully the return of Niua’s restart kicks and Hughes’s conversions will help to propel team USA to a strong close to the season.
The action gets under way on Saturday (6/1) and will finish Sunday (6/2). Make sure to catch the matches Live on ESPN+.
|AIR DATE||START TIME (ET)||END TIME (ET)||ROUND|
|6/2/18||4:28 AM||7:28 AM||Pool Play 1|
|6/2/18||7:34 AM||10:34 AM||Pool Play 2|
|6/2/18||10:40 AM||1:40 PM||Pool Play 3|
|6/3/18||4:28 AM||7:28 AM||Quarterfinals|
|6/3/18||7:34 AM||10:34 AM||Semifinals|
|6/3/18||11:05 AM||1:25 PM||Finals|