Paris 7s Recap
Expect the unexpected has been the constant theme of this season. This season has shown parity dominates the series to the point where Kenya, the winner in Singapore, registered a cup victory in the same year as a last-place finish. Similarly, the home French side also sank to a last-place finish earlier in the season before twice grasping a third-place medal. As some teams have ascended, others have slumped at the wrong time. Standing at opposite ends of the spectrum on surge and fade are team USA and Samoa. For one, Paris was a much-needed revitalization. For the other, Paris was an expose of inconsistency.
As with Las Vegas and Hong Kong, Paris is a three-day tournament. Like Hong Kong, Day 1 is dedicated to a single pool match for each side. Getting things started for Pool A, after a first ever cup victory in the last leg of the series, was Kenya taking on a Portuguese side that seems all but a lock for relegation. Portugal jumped out to the startling 14–5 lead at the half, but was outclassed in the second half to the tune of twenty-four unanswered points. In the other Pool A match, the only nation within reach of Portugal, Russia, took on perennial series leaders New Zealand. The Kiwis took care of business, winning convincingly (35–10).
For Pool B, series leader and defending series champion Fiji hammered Scotland 38–12. The other Pool B match saw similar dominance by a pacific nation over a British power of the fifteen-a-side game: Samoa 52, Wales 10. Continuing the rough start for what will become team Great Britain, in Pool C, South Africa topped England (24–5). As expected, the other Pool C match saw Australia blank Brazil (38–0).
Coming in, Pool D was one of the more intriguing pools of the season. A strong surging Argentine contingent laid claim to the top seed followed by a French side that shocked many in the last leg. For the first time this season, team USA founds itself in the bottom tier of the pool draw–due to missing the cup quarterfinals in Singapore. At the bottom was slotted Canada, a team now two season removed from its best season to date, which has struggled to build any momentum this year.
France easily dispatched Canada (42–5). In the other match, the United States looked to build on strong (26–14) victory over Argentina from Hong Kong. With expectations of a victory over Argentina, the weekend could not have started worse for the Americans. A minute into the match, Argentina capitalized on a missed tackle by Martin Iosefo for a converted try. A second try was added a short while later. After a masterful restart kick that bounced in field shortly before rolling into touch, Argentina intercepted an offload deep in Eagles’ territory to add a third try before the half. There would be time for a restart but the United States was unable to garner any points, leaving the margin 17–0 at the break. The typically well-composed team USA did not fare any better in the second half. Errors plagued the team and Argentina capitalized time and time again. The second half would end much as the first, with Argentina adding three tries to claim the jaw-dropping shutout: Argentina 36, USA 0.
The loss left the Eagles desperately needing to win out to snap the bowl-round slide. A second failure to reach the cup round would pose a serious threat of leading to a third by way of a difficult pool draw for London as a result. If that should happen, a streak of nine consecutive cup round appearances would seem a distant memory by the time the side heads to Rio.
For Pool A, Day 2 left few surprises. Kenya defeated Russia (22–7), and New Zealand blasted Portugal (31–0). The result set up a pool decider between New Zealand and Kenya. Kenya led at the break and late in the match, but lost on a full-time try and conversion: New Zealand 19, Kenya 17. In the consolation match, Russia left Portugal winless: Russia 17, Portugal 10.
In Pool B, Fiji vanquished Wales (33–14), but Scotland put fear into Samoan fans. Scotland led (7–0) at the half and was still ahead by five into the thirteenth minute. Two late scores by Samoa saved the day: Samoa 17, Scotland 12. In the battle of British rivals, Scotland dominated Wales (35–7). In the pool decider, Fiji throttled Samoa (42–5), a loss Samoa would not quickly forget.
Pool C started with South Africa heaping more woe on overmatched Brazil (30–7). The second match, however, was much more closely contested. England led 14–12 over Australia at the half. In the second half, Australia answered back to take a 24–12 lead before yielding a consolation score to leave the match 24–19 at the end. In the final two matches, England finally notched a victory (38–12) over Brazil. The pool decider was virtually no contest as South Africa overwhelmed Australia (31–0).
In Pool D, Argentina continued the pressure on team USA by beating Canada (28–7). With Argentina’s win, a loss to France would mean a second consecutive tournament missing the cup quarterfinal, and almost certainly mean Argentina would overtake team USA in the series standings. Against France, things started well. Despite not soring against Argentina, the Americans struck first against France when Perry Baker broke through the defense for a try under the post two minutes into the match. Madison Hughes added the conversion for the initial 7–0 lead. France won the restart and some good passing found space for its own try under the post to draw the match level. Baker was unable to handle the resulting restart, allowing France to gain possession. After a French knock on, the Eagles were backed up on their own try line. Hughes tried an aimless clearance kick that was taken by France at the twenty-two and soon ended up a score in the left corner for France. The next kickoff was stolen by France and led to a third score in the left corner before half, to give France a 19–7 lead.
Baker won the second-half kickoff for the United States. The Eagles worked the ball down the chain before working it back to Baker who found space on the right corner. At the France 22, facing a one-on-one with the defender having a slight angle to use the touchline, Baker chose not to back himself, instead attempting an offload that want to ground for a French scrum. Eventually, France added a fourth try with three minutes remaining. The United States answered back with a try from Zack Test in the left corner with just under two minutes left. As time continued to tick away, the Eagles offense could not do enough to stave off defeat. In the end, France claimed the victory and with it the spot in the cup quarterfinal alongside Argentina: France 24, USA 12.
In the pool decider, France made it three from three by besting Argentina (26–14). For team USA, the final match of pool play was still an important match for pride, in facing bitter rival Canada. Against France, the Eagles finally found a semblance of form that had been sorely lacking in their first two matches. The United States stole the opening kick and jumped on Canada with tremendous early pressure that paid off when Zack Test crossed for a try in the left corner. Madison Hughes added the difficult conversion to make it a full seven-pointer. The next score would come from Maka Unufe who stopped masterfully through the Canadian defense for a try under the post. Hughes added his second conversion to push the lead to fourteen. Canada won the restart and soon looked to have a try scoring opportunity with an overlap, but the offload that would likely have resulted in a score was sloppy and led to a hard chip kick sending the ball too far out of reach to prevent rolling through in-goal. Folau Niua took a crafty tap for the dropout and maintained possession for his side. From there, it was a matter of seconds before Unufe was through for his second try under the posts of the half. Hughes again converted the score. Canada would finally answer back just before the half to make it 21–5.
In the second half, the Americans struck again when Hughes scored off an offload from Martin Iosefo for what was Hughes’s fiftieth career try. Hughes, yet again, added a difficult conversion to push the lead to 28–5. The next score came from a try in the left corner from Niua. Augspurger, who had substituted for Hughes, was unable to land the tough conversion. Canada added a consolation score, but the result was well-earned: USA 33, Canada 12.
A win over Canada is always pleasant, but at the end of Day 2, the Eagles realized that they were far from where they had expected to be at this juncture in the season. Teams such as Argentina, Samoa, Kenya, and France are surging at the right time while the United States is fading. Perhaps more alarmed are Canadian backers. Unlike the United States, Canada has not clinched a birth in Rio. What was always going to be a difficult task in claiming the final bid to the Olympics seems almost impossible the way Canada is playing when an in-form Samoa is in the mix for the spot.
Although no team aims for the bowl competition on Day 1, once in the bowl quarterfinal, each team seeks to post an undefeated final day to claim the hardware on offer. For team USA, a match with Portugal was the first step to lifting the adjusted goal of a bowl title.
Team USA stole the opening kick, but squandered good territory with a high floating pass that was stolen by Portugal. Fortunately for the Americans, Perry Baker was able to charge down the Portuguese runner and pull him to touch at the five-meter line. Not long thereafter, it was the United States that scored first when Zack Test gashed the Portuguese line for a try in the left corner. Hughes, as he had against Canada, remained in excellent form from the boot and hit the tough conversion. A try from Maka Unufe in the familiar left corner accompanied by another solid conversion by Hughes made it 14–0. As the first half came to a close, it looked like team USA would add a third score. Instead, a fumbled ball by Unufe deep in Portugal territory gave possession away and Portugal was able to use the possession and a chip and chase to add a crucial try on the stroke of halftime.
The second half started well for the Eagles when Zack Test picked the ball from a scrum and ran untouched for a try in the right corner. Hughes was unable to hit the long-distance conversion, making it 19–5 with five minutes left in the match. A short while later, after a series of penalties, Portugal looked to be free for a much-needed try but fumbled the ball forward for a five-meter scrum. The United States won the scrum but were instantly under pressure. Portugal forced a loose ball to bounce in goal and Garrett Bender was penalized for grabbing a Portuguese player to prevent the player from getting to the loose ball. The result was a yellow card to bender and a penalty try for Portugal. The Eagles won the kickoff but soon lost the ball just outside their own twenty-two with a little over a minute remaining. Portugal quickly broke through for a try in the left corner. The runner, wisely, sought to center the ball, but was held at bay by committed defenders. Oddly, the Portuguese kicker hurried the attempt and flubbed the opportunity to draw the match level. The Eagles once more won the kickoff and a penalty. Up two points with no time remaining, they kicked for touch to end the match. It was a win, but it left much to be desired.
In the other bowl quarterfinals, Russia dominated Canada (33–0), England got by Wales (17–12), and Scotland easily saw off Brazil (38–14). In the bowl semifinal, England bested Russia (19–12) to book a place in the final against the winner of USA vs. Scotland.
Scotland and the United States last met in the Singapore bowl final, a 14–10 victory for the Scots. Scotland struck first with a converted try. Backed up deep in their own half, the Eagles would answer next. Perry Baker, one of the most explosive speedsters in the sport, found space on the left corner to cross the try line in the left corner. Instead of settling for the difficult conversion, he passed back in field to the unmarked Folau Niua who took the ball under the post for the score. Madison Hughes added the conversion to level it. The United States would add some pressure before the break, but neither side would add a score.
In the second half, Scotland, as it had in the first, scored first. Adding the conversion, Scotland stood seven points ahead. The Scottish defense remained a constant problem in the second half with the United States struggling for the big-play line breaks that have been at the heart of the team’s recent success. As the final seconds ticked away, Perry Baker found space on the right wing but was reluctant to plow ahead for a likely try in the far right corner. Instead, Baker turned in field and was tackled inside the twenty-two. The Eagles retained possession and would end with a try by test in the left corner. With no time remaining, Hughes looked to add yet another conversion from the left touch line, but was unable to do so to force extra time: Scotland 14, USA 12.
In the bowl final, Scotland defeated England (28–10), leaving selectors for team Great Britain, a side once expected to be dominated by Englishmen, to seriously question the composition of the team.
In the shield competition, Wales ensured Canada would end without a single victory, losing (17–12) and Portugal did the same for Brazil (24–5). In the final, Portugal surprised Wales (24–19). Portugal now sits six points behind Russia in the standings and will most likely need to reach the cup competition in London to stave off relegation. Any finish below the bowl final guarantees Portugal will be off the series next year. Based upon Portugal’s trajectory, it is hard to say when Portugal might ever be expected to return.
In the top tier competition, the quarterfinals led to surprising results. Argentina upset New Zealand (19–17), Samoa shocked South Africa (21–10), France made home fans proud by comprehensively defeating Kenya (24–5), and only Fiji’s narrow (17–15) victory over Australia went the way as most had expected. In the plate semifinal, South Africa ended New Zealand’s day early (29–19) to book a place in the plate final. Joining South Africa was Australia after hammering Kenya (26–7). In a rematch of 31–0 shellacking in pool play, South Africa again got the better of Australia, but in a more competitive match: RSA 17, Australia 7.
In the cup semifinal, Samoa overcame halftime deficit to pip Argentina (14–12) and Fiji cruised by France (22–5). For the second time this season, France claimed the third-place points thanks to an impressive victory (26–15) over Argentina. In the cup final, Samoa entered looking to avenge a humiliating loss the day before. Things did not start well for Samoa. Fiji led 26–7 early in the second half. Things changed, however. In what might be the most impressive comeback victory, Samoa scored twenty-two unanswered points to win 29–26. The victory is Samoa’s first since winning the 2012 Dubai Sevens. The result, though heartbreaking for Fiji, all but locks up the series title. If Fiji reaches the cup round in London, the title will be secured.
The series finishes next weekend in London.