London Sevens Preview
After a mere five and a half months, the HSBC Sevens World Series season is down to one last tournament. This time last year, team USA was riding a wave of success into what would become a first ever cup victory. For the first time ever, the Eagles enter a series tournament as its defending champion. In sharp contrast to how last season ended and how this season began, the last two tournaments have been progressively worse finishes, each a season low. A team that began the year in third place finally fell from fifth to sixth after Paris and is in serious danger of slipping to seventh to end the year. Injuries and the departure of Andrew Durutalo for greener pastures in Japan make this a very different team from the one that claimed London glory a year ago. Nevertheless, the Americans still have the talent to shock the world again in London.
In order to get a feel for what to expect this weekend, let’s turn to the pool draw:
|Pool A||Pool B||Pool C||Pool D|
|South Africa||Australia||Kenya||New Zealand|
Pool B will be the focus of the home crowd as it includes the series leader and presumptive repeat champion, Fiji, against Australia, England, and Wales. Unless Fiji misses the cup quarterfinal for the first time since the 2014 USA Sevens, the Fijians will secure the series title before day 2 gets started. The Fijians are certainly the favorites to top Pool B and are one of the clear favorites to win the tournament. Australia, as always, poses a threat to tip Fiji for the top spot, but is more likely to be looking down and hoping to avoid an upset by England. Last year, England secured a fourth-place finish in the series to earn an Olympic bid for team Great Britain. This season started promisingly for the English by reaching the finals in Dubai but has been all over the results map ever since. In only four tournaments has England reached the cup round and even finished dead last in Vegas. The team currently sits ninth in the standings and could yet be passed by France.
In similar poor form this year has been fellow team Great Britain nation, Wales. The Welsh, largely due to weak pools capitalized on their opportunity to twice reach the cup round in Vancouver and Hong Kong. Since then, reality has returned and Wales has finished with consecutive defeats in the shield final. Pool B should end as it was seeded, with an England upset over Australia the most likely scenario to shake things up.
Pool C will likely be overlooked by most but may provide the most exciting rugby of the tournament. Atop the seeding is France having earned a third-place finish for the second time this season. France, like England, has been wildly inconsistent. In Cape Town, France finished third. Two tournaments later, in Sydney, France finished last. The current squad, which finished third in Paris, looks like it will be a serious threat to win the tournament. In the last two tournaments, France has gone 6–0 in pool play with wins over New Zealand, the United States (twice), and Argentina. France also boasts one of the most exciting players on the series in Virimi Vakatawa.
What will help make Pool C so exciting is not only the recent form of France but that each team in the pool is playing increasingly competitive rugby as the season has gone on. Kenya went from last place in Vancouver to champion in Singapore and can easily push to top the pool. Scotland is also poised to make a deep run. Only once this year has Scotland reached the cup round, but it is a team that has impressed in the bowl competition, winning the last two bowl titles. In Paris, a tough loss to eventual champion Samoa was the only result that prevented Scotland from reaching the cup quarterfinals. Relegated to the bowl, the Scots handled Brazil, survived a missed conversion on full time to beat the United States, and hammered England. Scotland is a competitive team that could come together and actually top Pool C.
Also not to be overlooked is a hungry Portugal. The Portuguese seem destined for relegation and will be desperate to make something happen in London. This young squad when playing relaxed can play some exciting rugby. Against the United States in the bowl quarterfinal, a bizarre decision to rush the conversion attempt at the end was all that separated it from a potential shocking upset of the Eagles, before downing Portugal and Wales to win the shield. If Portugal can use the threat of relegation as inspiration instead of fear, it could threaten to shake Pool C up a bit.
Picking the top two and bottom two teams of Pool D is a no-brainer. Brazil is still looking for a first win on the series this season and will be hard pressed to get it against either Argentina or New Zealand. Brazil’s only chance is to upset Russia, but even that seems highly unlikely. So too does Russia seem no threat to Argentina or New Zealand. This leaves the pool to be decided between Argentina and New Zealand. The safe bet is always New Zealand, but Argentina got the edge (19–17) last week in the cup quarterfinal and has been playing slightly better rugby of late.
Pool A is a meat grinder that may well require a miracle for the Eagles to snap the bowl skid. The United States will start against Samoa. The teams have split the season series with the Americans winning in Wellington (24–20) and Samoa taking the plate final in Vancouver (31–19). The Eagles need to win this match. Despite winning the cup last week, Samoa has consistently proven more vulnerable than South Africa. Although the Eagles have beaten the Blitzbokke this season (21–19 in Dubai), that was the start of the season. In their last two meetings, South Africa has won each by a combined score of 48–0. With Carlin Isles still nursing an injury, Perry Baker’s speed alone will probably not be enough to prevent a third consecutive loss to South Africa. If the United States can beat either South Africa or Samoa a rivalry match with Canada will likely be the decider. The Eagles should be the strong favorites over Canada having registered a 33–12 victory last weekend and winning 36–14 when they met in Singapore. Nevertheless, Canada is always dangerous in this rivalry. One need look no further than the 2015 Glasgow Sevens to see a shocking 40–0 rout of team USA by team Canada. The United States went on to finish third in that tournament.
After a year of roster changes and toying with starting lineups, Coach Friday will be focused on winning in London. There are still a great many uncertainties in what the squad will look like going to Rio, but London will not likely be where Coach Friday looks to sort that out. Across the channel, the USA Falcons developmental side, which won the Las Vegas Invitational, will be competing with familiar faces in a highly competitive tournament in Tours, France. Familiar faces from the Eagles lining up for the Falcons are Pat Blair, Will Holder, Peter Tiberio, Alladin Schrimer, and Nate Ebner. Ebner is being shifted from the Eagles to the Falcons to increase his playing time, which will be important in getting him back to rugby form after several seasons in the NFL.
Ebner is the lone change for the Eagles. In his place is the young Ben Leatigaga whose only previous run for the Eagles was in Vancouver after competing with the Falcons in the LVI. Leatigaga was impressive in limited action in Vancouver, featuring five times off the bench and scoring a consolation try in the plate final against Samoa. With Isles still out, Leatigaga may be crucial in supporting Perry Baker to allow him some rest. In the initial outing without Isles, Baker flourished. In the last couple tournaments, Baker’s productivity as dropped off as teams have schemed to stop him from making the big plays. Without Isles to sub, five to six matches of international sevens proves draining on Baker’s explosiveness.
Comparing the roster to last year’s is enlightening. In brackets next to each name is the number of tournaments each player competed in that season, counting London:
|Madison Hughes (9)||Madison Hughes (10)|
|Folau Niua (9)||Folau Niua (10)|
|Perry Baker (9)||Perry Baker (10)|
|Danny Barrett (9)||Danny Barrett (8)|
|Garrett Bender (9)||Garrett Bender (8)|
|Maka Unufe (9)||Maka Unufe (7)|
|Martin Iosefo (6)||Martin Iosefo (7)|
|Nate Augspurger (4)||Nate Augspurger (9)|
|Thretton Palamo (1)||Thretton Palamo (6)|
|Carlin Isles (9)||Zack Test (9)|
|Andrew Durutalo (9)||Ben Pinkelman (7)|
|Matai Leuta (4)||Ben Leatigaga (2)|
Notably, there are only three changes from last year’s squad. Carlin Isles, Andrew Durutalo, and Matai Leuta are out, Zack Test, Ben Pinkelman, and Ben Leatigaga are in. Test would have been in last year’s London side in place of Thretton Palamo but for an injury. The biggest difference, however, is the consistency of the squad. Last year, which only had nine tournaments, saw eight players compete in every tournament, and Test would have made it nine. This year, only three players, Hughes, Niua, and Baker have been in every tournament. Barrett would likely have joined that list if he had not been a major contributor in the Rugby World Cup and needed a bit of time to get back to sevens ready. Similarly, but for an injury, Test would also have been in every team. The rest of the squad has fluctuated and the cohesion has followed.
In addition to the fluctuation in the squad makeup, the starting lineup has been changed numerous times throughout tournaments. Last year, the only real question from match to match was whether Isles or Baker would get the start. This year it is not entirely clear what group would be Coach Friday’s preferred start. At times, even Test was relegated to bench duty. The clear favorites are Madison Hughes, Folau Niua, Danny Barrett, Perry Baker (or Isles when healthy). The other spots are still open for debate. Test, Iosefo, and Unufe each have a great deal of starts, but Pinkelman is a serious consideration as well. Throughout London we should expect to consistently see the squad Friday feels most comfortable with, unless he thinks he is not getting the level of performance he demands.
The season’s final tournament starts Saturday (5/21) and finishes Sunday (5/22). Make sure to check back for a complete recap of all the action.