New Zealand Sevens Preview
For the past month and a half, team USA has sat in unprecedented territory atop the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series standings. Back-to-back finals appearances have seen the Eagles add to silver medals to the trophy cabinet but gold medals accompanying cup victories will eventually be necessary if the United States is to lay ultimate claim to the Series championship.
The strong start to the season has carried the Americans into a favorable draw as the Series heads to its third leg in Hamilton, New Zealand. Leading Pool B, the United States will face non-core invitee Tonga to open its bid for a third-straight appearance in the final. Despite the Tongan’s status as a non-core team, the Eagles have a spotty record against Tonga on the circuit. First meeting in the 2002 Wellington Sevens’ bowl quarterfinal, team USA notched the first win. But losses the following year in Brisbane, at the 2004 Wellington Sevens, the 2005 USA Sevens, 2005 Rugby World Cup Sevens, 2006 Wellington Sevens, and the 2008 Wellington Sevens built a long list of failure at the hand of Tonga. That winless streak was snapped in 2009 at the Australian leg of the Series and flipped into an impressive 7–0 run for the Americans between 2009 and 2013. Since 2013, the teams have not met on the Series, instead competing against each other only once, at the 2017 Silicon Valley Sevens in San Jose, CA. In that last contest, the American contingent came away with the easy victory (29–7). In Hamilton, the United States will look to make it 9 in a row over Tonga. Given the recent form of the Eagles, a loss to Tonga would be a monumental upset.
The second match in Pool B is a definite trap game. In recent years, Samoa has been a far cry from its former preeminent status as one of the elite sevens nations. Nevertheless, Samoa is a nation that can always muster a surprisingly successful run, as was last seen with a cup victory at the 2016 Paris Sevens. Last season, a Samoan squad that struggled to break into the cup round (three total trips), registered one last-place finish, and narrowly notched a top-ten finish in the Series standings (finishing tenth), still managed to take two of three contests against the United States. Coming off consecutive appearances in the challenge trophy final, Samoa is not a team to sleep on. With the match falling between what may well be a cracking win over Tonga and a tough final pool contest with England, the Eagles must avoid looking ahead to a potential pool decider and falling victim to an upset.
The final match of pool play will see team USA take on England. The bronze medalist in Dubai and fifth-place finisher in Cape Town, England poses a daunting challenge. A victory may be crucial to the chances of the Americans reaching a third-consecutive semifinal. The Eagles carry some momentum against England in from a 19–12 quarterfinal win in Cape Town but will, as always, need to fire on all cylinders to overcome an opponent currently sitting at fourth in the world.
Winning Pool B is an important goal for team USA. It will mean facing the runner-up in Pool C to start Day 2. Pool C is led by South Africa, which tends to be the worst matchup on the Series for the United States. Since the start of the 2014–15 season, team USA has gone 3–1–14 against South Africa. By comparison, the record in the same period over the other three teams in Pool C are: Scotland 6–7; France 10–2–4; and Kenya 6–2–6.
Pool A will provide the most intrigue as Fiji, Australia, and Argentina are each nations accustomed to the cup round, but only two of the three can advance. As the defending cup victors from Cape Town, Fiji will almost certainly advance, leaving Australia and Argentina to battle it out for the other quarterfinal bid. Fiji has not missed the cup round since London 2017. Australia last missed the cup round in the 2017–18 season finale in Paris. And Argentina has played in the challenge bracket in four of the last five tournaments.
Pool D will be of great interest to North American fans, giving Canada its best shot of the season to reach the cup round, needing to finish above Japan and Spain. Spain played its best rugby since shocking the world by edging Samoa for the final bid to the 2016 Olympic Games, registering in a sixth-place showing in Cape Town. Still, the two teams are comparable in skill level and the trip to the quarterfinal will likely come down to the winner of their match, which is the first in their pool.
Adhering to the adage of it isn’t broken, don’t fix it, the United States returns an almost identical roster from the first two tournaments. Leading the way is Captain Madison Hughes along with two-time defending World Player of the Year Perry Baker, and Cape Town Dream Team selection Danny Barrett. Stephen Tomasin returns fresh off leading the team in points (43) and tries (5) in Cape Town. Also part of the core lineup of the past several seasons are restart master Folau Niua, playmaker Martin Iosefo, speedster Carlin Isles, reliable Ben Pinkelman, and the versatile Kevon Williams.
Also bringing experience into the squad with a combined 33 caps are Pat Blair and Brett Thompson. This is Blair’s first appearance in a Series traveling squad since the 2017 Canada Sevens, though he was also named as part of the unused injury cover for the World Cup. Making his third straight squad, Maceo Brown will look to add to his resume after dotting down his first career try in Cape Town. Joining Blair in the welcome-back category is Anthony Welmers. Last wearing the Eagles crest at the 2017 Silicon Valley Sevens, Welmers returns to the Series squad for the first time since earning three caps in the 2016–17 season.
The only two changes to the lineup are the unavailability of Matai Leuta and Marcus Fasitupe Tupuola. Tupuola was the unused thirteenth man in the first two tournaments. Leuta, on the other hand, has combined for four tries on the season and will be a big omission from the lineup. With the final spot on the twelve-man roster left up for grabs, Welmers and Blair will both compete to determine which slides into the active roster and which provides hopefully unnecessary injury cover.
The action gets under way on Friday (1/25) and will finishes Saturday (1/26), broadcast in the United States on ESPN+. Make sure to check back for a complete breakdown of all the action.