New Zealand 7s Recap
Prior to the 2018–19 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, the United States men’s national team had registered just four appearances in a final, having won half of those appearances. This season has started with three straight trips to the final only to see the quest for a third-ever cup victory end with solid defeat. While the results in this season’s finals have been disappointing, none can question the impressive start to the season for the Eagles, which sits tied with Fiji for first place in the series standings at 57 points each.
Importantly, coming out of Hamilton, team USA now has an impressive buffer between it and England in fifth place (38 points). To put things into perspective, with the cup victor of a tournament claiming 22 points and the two teams finishing last adding just a single point, it would take England winning a tournament and the Eagles finishing dead last for England to close the gap in a single tournament. Even then, England would only have a two-point lead. The reason that is important is because the top four teams at the season’s end automatically qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games. Without a top-four finish, there are only two paths to the games for the Americans: (1) win NACRA or (2) win the Olympic qualification tournament for the final spot. For the foreseeable future, winning NACRA will mean besting Canada in a one-off final that can never be a sure bet. And just look to Canada and Samoa, who both sat at home in 2016 while then-non-core-team Spain, competed in the games.
Before delving into how team USA claimed a third-straight silver medal, one player deserves a special note. Folau Niua, who has long been recognized as the best restart kicker in the sport and one of the greatest to ever wear an Eagles shirt reached two huge milestones. First, he tied Zack Test for most career caps in for the men’s sevens team. And second, after years of inexplicably being overlooked in dream team selections, the selectors finally got it right and included Niua alongside Carlin Isles and Ben Pinkelman in the tournament’s dream team.
Now let’s turn to the Eagles march to a third final in as many tournaments.
The American’s pool became much more intriguing when Samoa edged Dubai bronze medalist England (12–10) right before the Eagles took on non-core invitee Tonga. With England’s defeat, a strong possibility for a three-way tie at 2–1 to top the pool emerged, meaning points differential would be vital. Nevertheless, Coach Friday chose a starting lineup leaving Captain Madison Hughes and two-time defending World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year Perry Baker on the bench. The starting lineup was otherwise consistent with what would usually be expected.
The Eagles scored first just seventeen seconds in with Martin Iosefo stealing the kickoff and the ball soon working to Niua for the score to make it 5–0. A second chance at points skirted into touch when Isles attempted a chip and chase off the wing at midfield. Tonga then won the ensuing lineout and cracked through the American defense, besting Isles in the tackle to score the leveler. The conversion gave Tonga the temporary lead, but proved to be the final points for Tonga in the contest.
The Eagles added twelve points to close the half with the lead and a buffer. The first seven points came from Carlin Isles who turned on the fancy foot work from a ruck twenty meters out. Stephen Tomasin added the two-points to make it 12–7. Tomasin would again find himself in the scorers’ column just moments later. Danny Barrett slapped the restart back into American hands, which eventually led to a try in the left corner for Tomasin off a kick past the defense by Niua to make it 17–7 at the intermission.
Unfortunately, the big news of the second half was not the two tries to extend the lead, the first coming from Tomasin via an offload by Ben Pinkelman a minute into the half, which Tomasin also converted, and the second coming by way of Maceo Brown. Rather, it was an injury to Baker in the final minute of the match. The injury came in a head-to-head collision in a tackle, yielding a yellow card. Despite the 29–7 victory, it was a big loss for the Americans. Baker will be out for next week’s match in Sydney but appears optimistic in a swift return, tweeting, “Thank you all for the wishes and blessings sent my way. See ya in a few weeks”. The injury pulled Pat Blair into the lineup from the reserve thirteen spot.
With the Samoa looking a tough competitor, team USA needed another strong showing to help secure a bid into the quarterfinals. And a strong showing the Americans produced. Samoa scored first with a run to the USA try line coming off the kickoff, eventually leading to a first-minute converted try. Despite the early deficit, the rest of the first half was dominated by the Eagles. The first American score was registered by Martin Iosefo off a tap-and-go from a penalty at the Samoa five-meter line. Madison Hughes added the extra points to draw the sides level. The next try was from Hughes that was produced by a great run by Tomasin to burst inside the Samoa twenty-two, ultimately leading to Hughes’s score and conversion. Two tries from Carlin Isles and one more conversion by Hughes to close the half made it a remarkable 26–7 in favor of the Eagles.
The second half saw points a bit harder to come by but still saw the United States extend the margin. Isles completed his hat trick twenty-two seconds into the half, to stretch the lead to 31–7. Samoa would manage to add another converted try to make it 31–14. But a penalty goal by Madison Hughes with a minute to go set the final score line: USA 34, Samoa 14.
With Samoa beating England to start the day and Tonga to close it, England needed a win to advance to the quarterfinal. The United States made it tough on England straight away when Madison Hughes capitalized on England’s kickoff error—failure to go ten meters—taking the pass from Niua for a streaking fifty-meter try. Hughes failed to connect on a conversion he would have expected to make, clanking it off the post, to keep England within five. For the remainder of the half, neither squad could find pay dirt.
In the second half, it was Tomasin finding a gap in the tenth minute to push the lead to two scores. Hughes slotted the conversion in front of the post. England’s Dan Norton answered back to pull England within seven. The lead was trimmed with Dan Bibby’s conversion to pull within 12–7. But England’s rejuvenated spirits did not last long. Right after the restart, Carlin Isles booked his fifth trip to the try zone of the day. The score was vintage Isles, outpacing everyone on the right wing. Despite the tough angle, Hughes’s shot at goal was good, to make it 19–7. That score held up on full time and sent team USA through to meet with Scotland to start Day 2.
Needing to get past Scotland to secure a third trip to the semifinals, team USA wasted no time as Ben Pinkelman came away with the restart and Madison Hughes, from the Pinkelman offload made it 7–0 a mere fourteen seconds in. Scotland managed to take the second American kick cleanly, but struggled against the Eagles’ defense, resulting in a knock on in a ruck just shy of midfield. The Americans won the resulting scrum and set into a consistent attack ultimately yielding points through Stephen Tomasin. A minute later, Carlin Isles extended the American lead with a third try for team USA. Hughes’s second conversion set the margin at 19–0 with just over two minutes left in the half. Scotland refused to go down without a fight, finding just enough space off a hard charge to close the half with a try by the post.
The second half looked poised for a perfect started by the United States when Martin Iosefo found space for what was sure to be a try. Unfortunately, Iosefo lost the ball in his attempt to ground it, resulting in a five-meter defensive scrum for Scotland instead of an American five-pointer. Scotland used the opportunity to begin to mount a comeback. Just past the midpoint of the half, Scotland worked inside the USA ten meter and eventually found space on the right wing for the score to pull within five points of the Eagles.
As the Americans looked to hold on, an error by Madison Hughes in the final thirty seconds gave Scotland one last shot at glory with a scrum on full time at the American ten-meter line. Scotland won the scrum, worked it to the wing and tested Isles’s defense. But Isles stood strong. Scotland maintained possession and worked the ball to the opposite side of the field, looking poised to break free. Instead, Scotland was penalized for taking a defender out, giving the ball to team USA and with it the match: USA 19, Scotland 14.
The victory meant a fourth meeting on the season with New Zealand. In Dubai, it was New Zealand claiming both matches. In Cape Town, the Americans came away on top. It is always a tough proposition to defeat the All Blacks Sevens, made doubly difficult when playing in New Zealand.
The New Zealand defense narrowly held off the Americans in the third minute when Isles and Niua failed to connect inside the New Zealand five-meter line for a likely score. Instead, team USA had to wait a bit longer for the opening points, which came by Madison Hughes who drove through a tackle to score in the right corner. His conversion was just off the mark, leaving the door open for New Zealand to take the lead with a converted try. That is precisely what New Zealand would do next by way of Regan Ware off an intercept leading to a try under the post.
New Zealand closed the first half with the narrow 7–5 lead and looked to carry that lead into a second finals appearance on the season. But that was not to be. Martin Iosefo was first to threaten with a hughe run down the left touchline, but the possession was soon lost inside the New Zealand ten-meter. The Eagles soon regained possession and earned a man advantage through a yellow to Vilimoni Kori for a dangerous tackle. With the advantage, the Americans took the lead through a try from Tomasin. Hughes’s conversion pushed the lead to five.
The result of the match remained very much in doubt until Carlin Isles crossed for his seventh try of the tournament, coming with just 43 seconds left. Although there was time for a restart, the ten-point margin meant the Eagles were through to the final.
In the finals, the Eagles just ran out of gas, with Fiji running to a 17–0 lead in the first half and completing the jaw-dropping showing with twenty-one more points in the second half, to finish on top 38–0.
All eyes turn to Sydney, which will be the last tournament before the United States heads home to try and defend last year’s cup victory in Las Vegas at the USA Sevens.