New Zealand shines in Cape Town
As horribly as Dubai went for team USA, added to an extremely tough pool draw for Cape Town, American fans would be forgiven for not holding high hopes for this leg of the tournament. But by Day 2, fans were disappointed to not be in the final. What an amazing turn around. There is no two ways about it, the resolve shown by the Eagles to put Dubai behind them and start anew in South Africa is testament to the leadership of Coach Mike Friday and the tremendous work effort and class of the men representing the United States. In the end, this did not prove to be team USA’s fourth trip to a cup final–though the actual runner-up was a fairly rare sight in a final–but it was an excellent about-face to the season. Here’s how it happened.
Looking for a complete 180 after Dubai, the Eagles trotted out to face the New Zealand All Blacks Sevens team that sent them to 0–3 in pool play for the first time in Mike Friday’s career, with a 24–12 defeat. But the Eagles were looking to return to world-beater status and that would mean beating New Zealand. The opening kick for team USA failed to go ten meters, continuing the lack of crispness at the restart that plagued the Eagles in Dubai. Two minutes into the match, fans would be forgiven for believing that team USA was still not back in form.
But a forced turnover by penalty to close the second minute gave the Americans their first taste of possession. A minute later, that possession turned into a cracking run down the left wing by Carlin Isles for a try. Hughes’s conversion was off, leaving the Eagles up only five points to none. The restart kick was spot on but Martin Iosefo was unable to get the steal. The American defense stood strong for the next minute before getting the ball back. Now on offense, a marvelous offload from Folau Niua to Stephen Tomasin got the Eagles down by the New Zealand try line. A little bit more work and Isles was across for his second try of the half. Hughes’s kick clanged off the post to leave it 10–0 at halftime.
In the second half, New Zealand’s hopes of a comeback were diminished with a yellow card for an intentional knock on less than a minute in. With the man advantage, the United States stretched it out to a three-score lead with a try from Ben Pinkelman to the right of the post. Hughes added the conversion for a shocking 17–0 lead. With the lead, Folau Niua took his time on the restart, but New Zealand still had enough time for a come back following the restart. A chance by New Zealand to get on the board was ended with an excellent defensive effort by Maka Unufe to force a knock on and regain possession for his side. As the clock ticked into the final two minutes, Danny Barrett revved his engine and hammered through New Zealand defender after New Zealand defender to steam roll into the New Zealand twenty-two. The Eagles did not score then, instead giving up possession moments later. But New Zealand could do nothing with the limited ball before giving it right back to the Americans. With just a minute left in the match, Maka Unufe ran a perfect angle through the New Zealand defense for a try in the left corner. Hughes’s conversion attempt was well taken but just wide. The restart was taken as the hotel sounded and New Zealand, as it had since giving the ball up after the first two minutes of the match, was unable to do anything with the ball. On full-time, USA 22, New Zealand 0. It was the first ever shutout by the United States over New Zealand.
Looking to build on a fantastic start, team USA squared off against Australia. The United States was extremely successful over Australia last season, winning 4 of 5 with a cumulative score line favoring the Eagles by one hundred points. Australia started with an impressive victory over a tough Spanish squad, coming out ahead 36–12.
Australia got on the board first with a try on the right wing in the second minute. The conversion made it 7–0 at the restart. Just moments after the restart, Carlin Isles picked the ball from the back of a ruck and ran untouched past two tacklers for a try under the post. Madison Hughes added the easiest conversion possible to tie things up three minutes into the match. The Eagles then won the restart and set to work. Isles looked to test a solid Australian line, pushing well into the Australian ten-meter line, but Isles was unable to find a gap and lost the ball in the tackle to give Australia a scrum feed. Despite winning the scrum, Australia struggled to do much with the possession against a tough American line. Possession returned to the United States with a sloppy pass bounding to touch just shy of midfield. After probing the left wing, the ball worked back right and Danny Barrett bruised a couple Australians to gain valuable meters. With Australia scrambling to reset, the Americans capitalized on the attack and worked the ball left for what would be Isles’ second try of the half, this one fighting through a tackler. Hughes could not connect, but the USA had the lead.
Seconds away from halftime, team USA looked to steal the restart and won a penalty in the process. A second penalty for a high tackle soon after set up the Americans for a third Carlin Isles try in the left corner to end the half. Hughes again could not land the extremely difficult conversion, but he had succeeded in captaining his squad to a ten-point lead at the break.
The Eagles started with possession and made Australia pay thirty-five seconds in with a blistering try up the gut from Stephen Tomasin. Hughes added the conversion to make it an impressive 24–7 scoreline with most of the second half to play. But Australia was gifted with an opportunity almost instantly after the restart when Maka Unufe was sent to the sin bin for an intentional knock on. Australia used the penalty to kick to touch inside the American half. The defense played hard, but an inside move sent Australia’s Lachlan Anderson free for a try under the post to cut the lead down to ten. The restart came with the yellow card still active, but the Eagles got ball-in-hand. Isles initially tried to catch the left edge but lost his footing in the process. Nevertheless, he maintained possession and team USA successfully burned the rest of the yellow card.
With 2:26 remaining, the Eagles were ahead 24–14. Unufe returned from the yellow card and Kevon Williams came in for Isles. But it was not the fresh legs who were next to lead to an American try, it was captain Madison Hughes. Hughes went into contact, went to ground, he released the ball, popped back up, grabbed the rock and streaked away for a try right under the post. Hughes added the conversion with just over a minute remaining to pull ahead 31–14 and secure the result.
With New Zealand beating Spain, right after USA had beaten Australia, the Eagles entered the final match of pool play already having secured the top spot in Pool B. Consequently, a win over Spain was of little importance. As a result, Danny Barrett, Carlin Isles, and Martin Iosefo each got a rest on the bench as Matai Leuta, Maka Unufe, and Kevon Williams got the starts.
The Eagles threatened early and the pressure paid off when Kevon Williams stepped through a tackle and dodged a second tackler for a try on the left wing, starting in place of Isles. Hughes hit the long-conversion kick from an angle that had given him fits earlier in the day for the 7–0 lead. Having stolen the ensuing restart, the Eagles put Spain on the back foot but were unable to capitalize before a knock on in contact by Matai Leuta gave Spain its first possession of the match. A Spanish penalty soon gave the ball back to the United States. In the resulting defense, Spain was shown a yellow card for an intentional knock on, giving the Eagles a personnel advantage. Kevon Williams tried to catch the corner for his second try but ran out of space and was late on the offload, being dragged to touch at the Spain five-meter line. Following a Spanish knock, Madison Hughes easily scored from the resulting scrum, though he was unable to add the conversion with the tricky wind. After a minute of sloppy Spanish play to run the clock to zero, team USA got the ball back and Maka Unufe outclassed the defense for a break away try under the post. Hughes’s kick made it 19–0 on halftime.
In the first minute and a half, Spain looked to have righted the ship, but a poor decision to chip over the defense inside the USA twenty-two gave the Americans a lineout throw, and its first chance with the ball of the half. That possession paid off with Stephen Tomasin’s second try of the day as he crashed through a tackle and streaked away for a try under the sticks. Hughes made it 26–0 with the conversion. With fewer than three minutes remaining, the Eagles made substitutions with an eye toward well-rested legs for Day 2. Despite three fresh subs, Spain was next to score, doing so at the twelve-minute mark. The missed conversion left Spain three full scores behind. Spain came within a breath of a second try as the match neared the close, but a knock ten meters out from the American line gave the ball back to team USA. With Carlin Isles in for Kevon Williams, he picked up the ball from the resulting scrum and caught the corner. He was set to get the score right under the post right up until he dropped the ball forward clear and away. It was a sloppy error to end the match, but a venial sin on a tremendous day 1 in South Africa.
The cup-round draw was very favorable for a run to the final. For what may well be the first time ever, all four teams in the Eagles’ side of the bracket missed the cup round in the prior tournament. A win over Argentina would mean a semifinal match with rival Canada, a team that the Eagles ultimately fell to in Dubai in extra time, but a team the United States should expect to defeat.
In the final quarterfinal match, team USA looked to get back to its winning ways over Argentina. The Eagles swept Argentina last year, going 5–0, but lost their meeting in Dubai (22–14). Team USA had early possession but faced a swarming, disciplined Argentine defensive front, unable to get out of the American half. A penalty against Stephen Tomasin deep in his own half gave Argentina its opening possession and moments later resulted in a converted try for Argentina in the third minute of the match. Martin Iosefo was unable to come up with the restart and Argentina scooped it up, won a penalty, and dove across the line for a second try a matter of seconds after the kick. The conversion made it 14–0 in favor of the South Americans. At that point in the match, the United States had dominated possession, but it was Argentina in its limited ball-in-hand that proved considerably more effective. As the half ticked into the final two minutes, the United States won a penalty and Folau Niua struck a long kick toward touch, but a strong effort by Argentina managed to keep the ball in play, depriving the Eagles of excellent attacking position. Still, team USA got the ball back and pressed to score to end the half, but Carlin Isles was stopped as he tried to catch the left corner and dragged to touch to end the half with his side scoreless.
The second half kickoff by the Americans was out on the full, giving Argentina a free kick at centerfield. But again, an Argentine handling error gave the Eagles early possession. A penalty for not-releasing, mere moments after gaining possession, gave the ball back to Argentina with just under five minutes left for a comeback. On that possession, Argentina managed to avoid any costly mistakes and got over the line for a third converted try of the match, with just a quarter of a match left. Stephen Tomasin got the Americans on the board with 2:46 left in the match, with a try in the left corner. Tomasin was trailed by Isles and, under the circumstances, would have been well done to offload to Isles to get the ball closer to the post. Instead, Hughes was unable to hit the tough kick, keeping the United States down three scores (21–5) with just over two minutes remaining. The Eagles stole the restart and set to work, getting a try under the post from Folau Niua at 1:28 left. Hughes hit the conversion quickly and the Eagles jogged back to try and get a quick third score.
But Argentina collected the restart and knifed through the American defense for a fourth converted try with only 37 seconds left. The score set what would be the final score: Argentina 26, USA 12. Niua came up just short of adding a consolation try under the post, dropping the ball in the process of attempting to ground it, but it would not have changed the outcome. For Argentina, it was the first of two wins on the day, beating Canada in the cup semifinal before falling to New Zealand in the final. It was Argentina’s twelfth finals appearance, which sits 7th on the all-time finals appearances list, behind Australia at 19. For New Zealand, it was a record-extending 56th cup title and record-extending 91st trip to the finals. It was also New Zealand’s first cup title in the last sixteen tournaments, which was the longest such streak in New Zealand’s illustrious sevens history.
Although the cup was now out of reach, ranking points, important to both the series standings and seeding for the Rugby World Cup, were still on offer. A loss to France would end the tournament for the United States on a down note of 0–2 on Day 2 after a remarkable Day 1. Fortunately for the Eagles, that was not how their day would end.
Danny Barrett got the United States on the board with a try from the right wing after powering through a tackler with a mighty stiff arm and fending a second tackler with another stiff arm. Madison Hughes hit the conversion for the first-minute 7–0 lead over France. A second try came three minutes later with Folau Niua capping off a powerful run by Ben Pinkelman, who fended off two defenders for a dozen meters before hitting Niua with the pass from the deck. Hughes again hit the long conversion for the 14–0 lead. But that lead was short lived, with France hitting back right after the restart to pull within seven. As the half came to a close, France gave up a penalty. Niua took a slow tap and let the French defense come up before passing out and finding Hughes for a knifing run through the defense with a delightful dummy. The conversion was off, leaving the United States up 19–7 to start the second half.
Barrett looked to have something going for the Eagles to start the half with yet another powerful run down the gut of the French defense, but his offload went to the deck, giving the ball to France. The Americans got the ball back and had to play from their own territory, but mustered a good attack and won a yellow card with four and a half minutes remaining after a high tackle against Carlin Isles. Playing up a man, Isles found plenty of space for an unconverted try in the right corner. On the resulting restart, France was shown a second yellow card, this time for playing the man in the air. With a 7–5 advantage in personnel, Matai Leuta took the long pass for a try on the left wing, putting the United States up 29–7, with Tomasin’s kick unsuccessful. Despite still being down a man, France got a consolation try with under a minute remaining. On full time: USA 29, France 12.
That left one last match against Fiji to close the tournament, with fifth-place points on the line. The Americans were on a rare 3–0 run over Fiji in international play (2–0 on the Series) coming into the match. But only New Zealand has bluer blood than Fiji in rugby sevens, and Fiji did not hesitate to remind team USA which side is the reigning Olympic Gold Medalists. The one notable lineup change heading in was the choice to start Kevon Williams in place of Carlin Isles.
Martin Iosefo stole the opening kick for team USA but an offload to Kevon Williams hit the deck, giving Fiji a scrum inside its own twenty-two. Fiji quickly got into the USA half, but were dragged to touch to give the United States a lineout throw. The lineout was sloppy and Fiji got the possession and used it for a converted try just over two minutes into the contest. The United States won the restart and again looked to have an attack going until another offload attempt from Iosefo to an unmarked Williams was dropped, giving Fiji a scrum inside its own ten-meter line. After exchanging possessions, Fiji got free for a second try, this one unconverted, with under a minute remaining in the half. Martin Iosefo just missed breaking down the right wing for a try, but was forced into touch before he could catch the edge, ending the half in the process.
The Eagles started the half with possession but conceded a penalty just thirty seconds in to give the Fijians the ball. Fiji got inside the USA twenty-two but a knock on from a ruck gave the Americans a scrum and Stephen Tomasin quickly got his side back in the match with a streaking score up the middle. Hughes missed the conversion, leaving Fiji ahead 12–5. But the next to score was Fiji with just over three minutes remaining, dotting down under the post after a kick and chase through the American line found no sweeper to contest the ball. At two minutes left, there was still enough time for the United States to reverse the outcome, but a quick turnover gave Fiji possession and ate into the valuable time. But more disastrous to the American effort was a fourth Fijian try with just over a minute remaining. The score sealed the outcome of the match, but still left enough time for the Eagles to battle for pride. That paid off when Ben Pinkelman caught the restart, broke a tackle, and set his team up for what would eventually be a try by Maka Unufe. Hughes added the final two points to end the match: Fiji 26, USA 12.
The final result was not what the United States had hoped, but it was a magnificent return to form over Dubai. With almost two months off and Perry Baker expected to return, the Eagles should be set to do great things in Sydney come January 28. But, as the perpetual unlucky team when it comes to the pool draw, team USA will face Canada, Australia, and Scotland in Sydney. It is the only pool that includes four teams to have reached a cup quarterfinal in either Dubai or Cape Town and includes the four teams ranked fifth through eighth at the close of last season. Every single team in the pool will expect to make the cup round, so it will be a tough test to be sure. But, if we learned anything from Cape Town, it is a test the Eagles are capable of acing.
The series returns January 26, 2018 in Sydney, Australia. It will then skip across the Tasman Sea to Hamilton, New Zealand. But, for American rugby fans, the big stop is the one right after, which takes the series to Las Vegas, Nevada for the annual extravaganza that is the USA Sevens, March 2nd through the 4th.