Medals Elude Team USA in London
In a record-setting season of highs and lows for team USA, the 2017 London Sevens proved a perfect example of how good the Eagles can be, but that costly errors still can find a way to keep medals just out of reach.
Two years ago, the United States claimed its first cup victory. The following season, the Eagles once again claimed three semifinal appearances and two third-place finishes, but crashed out of the Olympics in the pool stage, settling for ninth place in the consolation matches. This season started poorly. The Eagles won the inaugural challenge trophy in Dubai (9th place), reached the quarterfinals in Cape Town, but went winless on Day 2 (7th place), and bottomed out at eleventh place in Wellington.
Then the team made a strong showing in Sydney (6th), carried largely by a Dream Team performance from Danny Barrett who had struggled in Wellington. In the six tournaments since Sydney, team USA has finished in the top five each time, reaching five semifinals in the process. The Eagles had only reached nine semifinals ever prior to this season. The high-water mark was in Singapore with a third-ever finals appearance, though ending with a loss to Canada in its first cup victory.
In London, the United States put together what would have historically been considered a tremendous tournament, but by very modern standards was disappointing. The tournament started with high hopes of topping a tough pool that included Wales, Kenya, and series champion South Africa.
Although Wales entered the opening match against the United States leading the all-time series at 20–15, team USA was on a ten-match winning streak over the Welsh. Perhaps looking ahead to hopes of claiming a first victory over South Africa on the season after going 0–6, the Eagles found themselves in a heap of trouble after their opening match against Wales.
Leading out team USA was Folau Niua, earning his fiftieth cap for the Eagles. Few, if any players, have been more vital to the recent run of success for the Americans than Niua. The match started poorly when Wales was gifted a lineout in American territory. Wales took the lineout and found room for a try under the post less than a minute into the match. The Eagles again found themselves under pressure on the restart, but survived an apparent turnover with a Welsh penalty. A short while later, Ben Pinkelman got his side on the board. Madison Hughes added the conversion to pull the sides even. The Eagles manage to win the ball back following the restart and set into attacking pressure right away. The Americans broke through the Welsh defense with a powerful Andrew Durutalo shaking off three tackles to add the five-pointer. Hughes was unable to connect on the conversion. With just over a minute left in the half, Wales scored its second try. The conversion put Wales in front, where the side would remain at the half. An offload just a hair forward prevented a third American try to end the half.
Down two to a side that the United States would have expected to dominate, the Eagles looked for a strong second half to keep a run of five straight top five-finishes intact. The Eagles stole the opening kick and Martin Iosefo strolled in for what should’ve been an early score. Iosefo failed to account for Luke Morgan chasing him from behind. Morgan slapped the ball loose, setting up a Wales five-meter scrum. After probing the Eagles defense for a minute and a half, the Welsh found the edge around Iosefo for a third try. The conversion was good, keeping team USA two scores behind with a quarter of the match to play. Wales kicked deep and committed to grind the clock on defense. Team USA won several penalties but continued to go quickly instead of kicking for territory. The Eagles finally found a gap on the left wing, but Stephen Tomasin failed to bring in a pass to him on the wing, gifting Wales a scrum just inside the USA half with little more than two minutes remaining. A poor pass with 1:43 left, gave the United States a scrum feed a hair out from the American twenty-two, but yet another error led straight away to a Welsh scrum feed from the same spot with under a minute left. As the final seconds ticked away, Wales continued to attack, adding one last converted try to end the match.
A second loss in pool play could still see the Eagles into the quarterfinal, so long as Wales lost to South Africa and Kenya and the Eagles second loss was only to South Africa. Team USA desperately needing a win, took the pitch against an almost always game Kenyan squad. Kenya came off a tough (12–10) loss to South Africa to start the tournament. Heading into this match, fans would have had reason to fear team USA perhaps slipping to an 0–3 pool showing. Instead, team USA proved ready for one of its finest efforts ever.
Off the opening kick, the United States looked crisp in passing, moving the ball easily through the Kenyan line, hitting pass after pass after pass in the process. Following an offside penalty inside the Kenya twenty-two, Folau Niua took the tap and go for his fiftieth career try. Madison Hughes added the conversion from the left side of the post. Maka Unufe stole the restart, batted it back to Niua who added made it a brace in less than a minute. Hughes again hit the conversion for the 14–0 lead. Unufe again stole the restart and moments later the ball was passed out to Perry Baker on the right wing for a try in the right corner. The score was Baker’s fiftieth try of the season. His first, but far from his last, in London. Hughes was unable to send over the difficult conversion. Kenya finally won a restart, giving the Kenyans their first taste of possession, but Kenya lost the ball right away in contact, giving the Eagles a chance to put the match virtually out of reach with close to two minutes left in the first half. Kenya had the chance for a twenty-two drop out, but was penalized for having a man in front of the kicker, gifting team USA an attacking scrum at the Kenya twenty-two to end the half. The Eagles won the scrum, and Hughes picked it from the back and danced through the Kenyan defense for a try on the right side of the uprights. Hughes connected on the goal to make it 26–0 to start the second half.
Baker tried to steal the opening restart, but knocked it on in the process. Far from a problem, as it forced Kenya to go slowly with a scrum inside its own ten-meter line. On Kenya’s limited touches, the American defense was swarming and came up flat and quickly. Even when Kenya could find some space to work, it could not find big enough holes to go the distance and struggled to maintain support. It took three minutes into the second half before the Eagles extended the lead from a try by Tomasin in the right corner. Hughes nailed the extremely difficult conversion. A second try of the half came through Ben Pinkelman, who placed it directly under the post, giving his captain a simple conversion, to make it five goals for Hughes in the match. One last try was on offer for team USA as Tomasin got in behind the Kenyan defense for the score and the conversion. On full time, team USA had done enough to get back on track to reach the quarterfinals: USA 47, Kenya 0.
With Kenya upsetting Wales (28–17) moments before the final pool match, anything short of a huge loss to South Africa would mean team USA was through to the quarterfinal. A USA victory would send the Eagles to the top of the pool and avoid England in the quarterfinals. It was the seventh time the Eagles faced the Blitzboks this season, with series champion South Africa winning all six. Four of those losses were by fewer than a score, with one coming in extra time.
The Eagles brought in the kickoff but gave away possession with a penalty near midfield. South Africa came within inches of getting a first-minute try in the right corner, but the runner was dragged into touch by Stephen Tomasin to stave off the try. The overthrow at the lineout gave South Africa the ball at the USA five-meter. A knock on gave South Africa a scrum feed at the USA five, but the Eagles struck against the head. From there, Tomasin chipped and chased, offloaded to Hughes in support, who offloaded back to Tomasin for a try under the post. Hughes hit the conversion for the 7–0 lead. A minute later, South Africa answered back with a try from Ruhan Nel on his own chip over the top and chase for the score. Cecil Afrika’s conversion made it seven all. The Eagles got back in front with a monstrous effort from Ben Pinkelman. Pinkelman stepped through a tackle at midfield, staved off a second tackle with a stiff arm, and had just enough power to drag a tackler over for a try in the left corner. Hughes was unable to hit the conversion, keeping it a five-point game.
In the second half, South Africa struck first with a try in the far right corner fifty-nine seconds in. For South Africa to win the match, it needed to break the twelve-point-ceiling that it had faced throughout pool play (12–10 over Wales and 12–10 over Kenya). For Eagles fans, fortunately, it was not until the fifth-place semifinal that South Africa would finally score more than twelve in a match (losing 17–12 to England in the quarterfinal).
With team USA needing a big play, Perry Baker shook off a tackle, then diced through the South African defense for a try in the far right corner. Hughes missed the conversion, keeping South Africa less than a full score behind. After helping to force an excellent turnover, Andrew Durutalo added notched his fortieth career try to put the match out of reach. Again from the right touchline, this time, Hughes’s kick was true. With under fifty seconds left, the Eagles stood twelve points ahead, all but assuring a victory over the series champion South Africans. With the moo of the hooter (it was a cow sound for some bizarre reason), South Africa continued to look for a consolation try, but a knock on ended the match: USA 24, South Africa 12.
Having survived Day 1 and finding themselves right where they had hoped to be, the Americans turned their attentions to the quarterfinals. Looking for a fifth semifinal appearance in the last six tournaments, team USA trotted out to face Australia in the quarterfinal. The United States had proven a tough matchup for the inconsistent Aussies this season, with the USA having won three of four matches this season. Most recently, the Eagles throttled the Australians (40–7) in Singapore. In order to get over that hump, Australia needed to start on the right foot. Its opening kick was the exact opposite of what Australia needed, failing to go ten meters, giving the Eagles a free kick at midfield. After a strong run on the right wing by Ben Pinkelman, the team worked the ball to the left wing for speedster Perry Baker, who scored in the left corner to open the match. Madison Hughes was unable to add the two extra points.
Next up for the Americans was Maka Unufe who blew down the left touchline for a try. A pleasant surprise to see Unufe speeding across the pitch on Day 2 after leaving yesterday with a blow to the knee. Hughes’s conversion found its mark to go ahead 12–0. Another American steal of the restart gave Hughes a chance to chip through the Australian defense, but Australia was able to bring the ball in, but failed to do much with it, losing the ball with a kick attempt of tis own. Moments later, Unufe completed his brace with a sixty-meter try under the post. Hughes took the easy two points for a monumental 19–0 first-half advantage. Australia finally won the restart, but was crushed by American pressure, almost giving up an interception try for Baker, instead surviving with a knock on. Australia won the resulting scrum and looked to capitalize on the possession before a poor pass inside the USA twenty-two, gave the ball directly to Baker. The Americans were unable to do anything with the ball, surrendering it back to Australia, who managed to finally score, drawing to within twelve at the break.
Australia started the second half much better than the first. The Aussies won the restart, but a great counter ruck by the Americans got the ball back, where it soon found the hands of Baker for his second try of the match. With the dot down in line with the sticks, Hughes easily drove home the goal, returning his team to a nineteen-point lead. Martin Iosefo stole the restart again for the Americans. After tracking back to find space, the Eagles tried to probe the left touchline, but ended up with a foot just in touch, giving Australia a lineout at its own ten-meter line. The Eagles stole the lineout throw, and once more got the ball to Baker, drawing in virtually every yellow shirt in the process. Pinkelman got the ball to the five-meter, where Durutalo tried to get in, but in the end it was the man who began it all taking the ball all the way on the left wing and curling back inside for a try to the right side of the post. Hughes’s conversion attempt never had a chance.
On the following restart, Martin Iosefo slammed into Australia’s James Stannard, causing Stannard’s tooth to visibly pop out of his mouth. A little known fact, if a tooth comes loose in rugby, the official has the option to say no to putting it in his own pocket. Craig Joubert opted to not become the keeper of the tooth. Stannard instead handed it to a physio on the sideline. The only consolation for wayward Australia was a consolation try to end the match. But the Eagles easily booked a spot in the semifinal, creating a pairing of the last two London Sevens champions: USA 31, Australia 14.
The semifinals are always tough for the United States. Entering London, the Eagles had registered thirteen semifinals appearances but only thrice reaching the final. Scotland, had just the week before reached the Paris final. Scotland entered the match on a similar high to the United States after overcoming a 21–0 deficit against New Zealand. With England to play Canada in the other semifinal, the 2017 London Sevens marked the first time in Series history that a semifinal was composed of only northern hemisphere teams. Notably, two-time defending series champions, Fiji, failed to make the quarterfinal in London, settling for the challenge trophy.
Maka Unufe got the Eagles started against Scotland with possession after stealing the kickoff. A minute into the match, Perry Baker tried to make a break up the right wing, but was dragged into touch. Scotland won the lineout and entered into several phases of methodical attack. A bobble on an offload causing a delay in the Scottish attack, resulted in a penalty in favor of the United States inside the American twenty-two to avoid surrendering the opening score. After a short kick to touch, the Eagles won the lineout and worked the ball wide to Baker who rolled through a tackle and broke another, but still could not find enough space to break through for the score, ultimately yielding possession to Scotland with a knock on.
A short while later, Andrew Durutalo powered through a tackle and offloaded to Ben Pinkelman in support, who looked likely in for a score, but was pulled into touch a meter shy of the line. Scotland took the lineout quickly and worked the American defense until Dougie Fife found a gap at the Scottish twenty-two and was away for a converted try under the post in the seventh minute. With just enough time for a restart, the Eagles took the restart, worked it out to Baker who finally found just enough space to step through two defenders for an answer under the post. Madison Hughes added the two points to level the match at the half.
Scotland kicked the restart deep, and it was taken cleanly by Baker. The ball worked out to Folau Niua who found Maka Unufe for space up the middle. Unufe slipped on the choppy turf, preventing a likely score. The Eagles kept the pressure on, with Niua crossing the line in the left corner, but, for the second time in London, in-goal contact cost the Eagles the score as the ball was knocked loose from Niua while he was diving to ground it. Scotland survived the near try and was awarded a five-meter scrum.
Having survived the scoring threat, Scotland again went to methodical work gaining territory slowly but consistently. A penalty gave Scotland the ability to kick a marvelous touch-finder to give Scotland a lineout inside the USA twenty-two. After winning the lineout and a scrum, a short while later, Scotland finally conceded possession to a good American turnover. Baker again struggled to make it through the swarming Scottish defense, losing the ball around the Scotland ten. The Scots then tried a kick through the American line and were quickly in attacking position, capped by a try in the left corner to put Scotland in front with two and a half minutes remaining. Success with the difficult conversion strike made it a full seven-point lead in the final ninety seconds.
Ninety seconds was plenty of time for the Eagles to answer back as Martin Iosefo took contact and hit Baker in support for a break away score under the post after streaking down the right wing. Hughes added the leveler with ease. As the final seconds ticked away, Niua booted the restart up, giving Iosefo a great chance to knock the ball back to his side, but a red shirt of Scotland was waiting for the ball from Iosefo. Moments later, the side official called a neck roll against team USA, but it was clearly a penalty that should have gone against Scotland. Instead, the Scots were gifted the penalty and soon crossed between the post to book a second-consecutive appearance in the final.
A thrilling victory over England (12–7) would ultimately see Scotland defend its London crown in the all-Britain final. For team USA, however, it was a second shot at archrival Canada. Unfortunately, the Eagles would have to compete without Ben Pinkelman, who was injured in the match against Scotland, opening the door for the thirteenth man, Naima Fuala’au to win his first cap.
In a rematch of the Singapore Sevens final, team USA headed out to grab a second bronze medal of the season, but would need to overcome archival Canada. A USA knock on gave Canada an attacking scrum to start the match. After a couple minutes of probing, the unmarked Mike Fuailefau crossed in the right corner for the early 5–0 advantage. The conversion clanked off the post, to keep the Eagles just a converted try away from the lead. A penalty on the kickoff, gave the United States a free kick at midfield. After a run down the right wing by Matai Leuta in a rare start, passed back inside to support, Maka Unufe danced over a tackler for a try just to the left of the post. Hughes added the simple conversion for the narrow lead with 2:30 left in the half.
The Eagles stole the restart and looked to build on the lead. Baker found a steam and passed inside to Matai Leuta who looked set to score, but was pulled down just short. Canada forced the turnover with the Eagles not running in support. A forward pass narrowly staved off disaster for the Eagles. Team USA struggled to get a clean scrum with the five-meter feed, but finally won a short-arm penalty. From there, Perry Baker made it eight tries in London on the stroke of halftime. Hughes added the goal for the narrow two-score lead. (14–5)
Unufe tried to steal the restart, but Canada brought it in and charged to the USA twenty-two, finding pay dirt forty-one seconds into the half. The conversion didn’t have the distance, keeping team USA in front by four. Stephen Tomasin, with a lift by Andrew Durutalo, brought in the restart. The swarming Canadian defense sent the Eagles trolling backward to set its line. A penalty near half way, gave the Americans some space. Baker and Niua combined to get the ball twenty-five meters shy of the Canadian line, winning a penalty in the process. But Canada’s defense held strong and forced a turnover, then won a penalty with just under four minutes remaining. Canada kicked for touch, finding it at the USA ten-meter. Canada won the throw and managed to work in for the try with under three minutes left. The simple conversion missed its mark, giving Canada only a single-point lead. (15–14).
Madison Hughes grabbed the restart, but a pass out to American support was a turnover to Canada. The Eagles survived thanks to a Canada knock on inside the USA twenty-two. With the scrum to come, Captain Madison Hughes yelled to his squad, “Do you want to win!” The Eagles won the scrum and Hughes looked to kick deep, but Nathan Hirayama blocked the kick and scooped it up for the try. Hirayama’s fourth attempt finally went over the bar for the crucial two-points and eight-point lead. With twenty-eight seconds left, the Eagles had too little time to get back in it. With no time left in the match, Perry Baker danced through three tackles and offloaded to Alex Schwarz for the consolation try: Canada 22, USA 19.
In the end, a handful of marquee mistakes sent the Eagles home without a medal from London. Three major mistakes stand out, though many smaller errors prevented scores for team USA or set up scores for the opposition as well. The first is the Iosefo lost try against Wales. The error found him slip from the starting lineup against Wales to the bench against Kenya. The second was Niua’s lost try against Scotland. Certainly less egregious, Niua’s decision to try and fend the Scottish tackler instead of going low for the score opened up the chance to lose the ball. The final error was Hughes’s clearance kick attempt against Canada. By far the most venial error of the three, Hughes held onto the ball for just a second too long, giving Hirayama the ability to run it down and put the match out of reach for his team.
Mind you, I do not mention these mistakes to heap blame on the team for coming up just short. It is a reminder of just how razor thin the margins are at the level team USA is now competing. Look at Fiji, less than a year from Olympic gold, failed to reach the quarterfinals in London. In many ways the fact that a handful of errors so easily stand out is testament to just how good team USA is playing right now.
At the end of the tournament, Perry Baker was named to the London Dream Team. It was his fourth selection this season (Vancouver, Hong Kong, and Singapore). Danny Barrett was also selected to three Dream Teams this season (Sydney, Las Vegas, and Singapore). And Stephen Tomasin was selected to the Singapore Dream Team. Baker is also in prime consideration for the Series player of the year after leading both the season tries (57) and points (285) tables. Baker also led the series in clean breaks (76) and finished third in the DHL performance tracker. Madison Hughes was third on the points table (279) and second in conversions (107), just one conversion off from Scotland’s Scott Wight (108). Hughes, who leads the series in tackles over the past two seasons, finished fifth this year (143) with teammate Tomasin in second (156). The top tackler was South Africa’s Philip Snyman (158).
Most notably, Baker and Danny Barrett were each selected to the series Dream Team. Barrett’s body of work was hampered by a leg injury keeping him out of the last two tournaments, but his selection was well earned. Also of note, Madison Hughes, who easily leads the United States all-time scorers list, edged over the 1,000 point mark in London, now standing at 1,004 for his Series career, which has moved him into twentieth all-time on the series. Baker’s 133 career tries sits second on the USA list, just ten back of Zack Test, and is good for sixteenth all-time on the series. The top of the list is England’s Dan Norton (261) who overtook Kenya’s Collins Injera (244) earlier this season.
Although the international season has finished, there is still one more huge sevens event on the horizon. The Collegiate Rugby Championship will pit the best collegiate players in the United States for college rugby’s highest prize in just two weeks. Don’t miss the action from Philadelphia.