South Africa Wins Cape Town 7s
Last year, it was not until the seventh tournament–the Japan Sevens–that chaos reigned supreme. This year, it took only two stops. What seemed so clear after Dubai–that there were five healthy teams that could be expected to compete for cups–is as unclear as ever after Cape Town. The only certainty is that anything can happen.
Day 1 started with team USA trotting out against Wales. The Welsh reached consecutive cup quarterfinals to start last season but have become fodder for bowl semifinal defeats ever since. Nevertheless, the one-time Rugby World Cup Sevens champion nation remains a threat to pull an upset every time the team takes the pitch. This was a fact soon thrust upon the Americans.
The match seemed to begin in the favor of the surging Eagles as Brett Thompson took the kickoff cleanly and passed to Zack Test. Things changed, however, when Test’s pass was intercepted for an unconverted Welsh try a mere 20 seconds into the match. Things got worse when the Eagles took the restart, worked it through their line but a pass from Garrett Bender missed Carlin Isles on the wing and bounded into touch. Although Wales surrendered a quick penalty after winning the lineout, team USA once again committed a turnover on a sloppy exchange allowing Wales to push the lead to 12-0.
Wales was penalized on the restart, allowing Test to take a tap at midfield, but this time it was Captain Madison Hughes responsible for the give away after a knock on in a ruck. Wales threatened to extend the lead to three scores, but good tackling provided a turnover opportunity. The ball ended up in the hands of Carlin Isles who started from just inside the American five-meter line and ended under the Welsh post for the Eagles’ first score. Hughes added the simple conversion to pull within five. The Americans won the restart but again surrendered possession with poor execution in the passing game. Wales managed to work inside the USA half and took a shot with a 50/50 chip and chase, but Test recovered the ball for the Eagles. The decision proved costly when an off load from Maka Unufe sent Thompson into the right corner for a try to level the match at the half.
The second half began again with a mistake from team USA as Bender knocked the kick on. Wales won a penalty in the resulting scrum and attempted to capitalize on a penalty for the Eagles not being back ten. Fortunately, the Eagles stayed strong in defense and soon benefitted from a try from Test after a poach and go that saw him score in the left corner. Hughes converted the difficult kick and provided the first American lead of the match at 19-12. It was a short-lived lead, as Bender again contested the restart but in knocking the ball behind him, hoping to find the hands of a teammate in support, the ball instead found Welsh hands. Wales capitalized on the field position and strong pressure, ultimately scoring the tying try.
With three minutes remaining and the match level, Wales erred in the restart not going ten meters. Team USA strung together great passes and worked the ball to Test who passed inside to Baker. Baker took contact and passed to Test, sending Test across for his second try. Hughes added the conversion to extend the lead to 26-19. With less than a minute remaining, Wales won the restart and looked for a line break, but Hughes made a crucial tackle to prevent that from happening. Team USA earned a turn over, but soon Wales had an opportunity to get the ball back. Wales squandered that opportunity with a knock on resulting in a scrum to the United States. The Eagles won the scrum and Folau Niua booted the ball into touch to take the win.
The second match for Pool C was much less contentious. Australia showed no mercy, putting an inexperienced Portugal to the sword (45-0). The Australian win kept team USA and Australia on path to a pool decider when they meet in the third round of pool play. In order to stay on that path, the Eagles needed to post another victory over Portugal–having claimed a sound 45-14 victory in Dubai. The game against Portugal provided one of the most methodical halves the team has ever posted. After less than a minute, Perry Baker crossed for the first score. The next score came when Folau Niua made a strong run inside after and passed outside to Madison Hughes for the second try of the match. The Eagles won the restart and Niua picked the ball from the deck and crossed for his first try of the match. Hughes added the conversion to push the lead to 17-0. Niua’s second try came much as the first on the next restart. Hughes’s second conversion pushed the lead to 24-0. The final score of the half came on the next restart when Hughes ended up with ball and hand and used a strong solo effort to score in the left corner. Hughes then added the difficult conversion to set the lead at 31-0 at the half.
Portugal won the second half kickoff but lost possession with an unsupported ruck. Two passes later, and Hughes had his hat trick. Adding his own conversion, Hughes pushed the lead to 38-0. Not to be outdone, Niua added his third try to claim a hat trick of his own. Hughes added the conversion, and the lead was a wide 45-0. After Niua’s third try, Coach Friday sent in the subs. With the bench playing less crisp than the starters had, Portugal managed a consolation try after Kevin Swiryn with a face full of blood was sent off with a yellow card. Portugal looked to add a second try, but squandered a certain scoring chance with a bad pass. In the end, the final points went to the Americans when Carlin Isles put on a virtuous display of halfback play out of a scrum and scampered unscathed for the final try of the match. Will Holder added the conversion to set the final line at 52-7 to the USA.
Australia posted a tight (21-14) victory over Wales. While Wales was not going to the cup round, the team looked vastly improved on Day 1. The Dragons played Australia even for ten minutes and held a lead in the second half. Unfortunately, for Wales, close losses count for very little when you post two of them on Day 1. The third match for Wales went much more favorable as the Welsh dismantled Portugal 40-5. Portugal finished Day 1 with an embarrassing 12 points for against 137 for a tournament-worst -125 points differential.
The Pool C decider came down to the winner of USA vs. Australia. The two teams entered the match level on points differential, but the United States held the edge on points for and tries for. Thus, a draw or win would see team USA top the pool. The match started with a penalty on the USA kickoff. The official deemed the ball had not gone 10 meters. It was a close call, but probably the correct call. Despite the early hiccup, the Eagles struck first when Madison Hughes scored his fourth try of the day and added the long conversion to take a 7-0 lead. Australia was penalized for a late hit against Hughes after the try and was left down a man with a yellow card. The yellow card, however, did not slow the Aussies down. Australia won the restart, picked the ball off the deck and crashed through the American defense for an easy score under the post. Australia then won the restart and earned a penalty. The Aussies kicked for touch to burn clock on the penalty. The Eagles stole the lineout but were unable to do anything with it, ending up with a scrum on their own five-meter. The scrum also allowed Australia to return to seven. The ball took an unfriendly bounce out of the scrum and Australia was able to scoop and earn a penalty. The Aussies took a tap, passed inside, and scored the easy try. At the end of the half, Australia led 14-7.
In the first half, the Eagles were starved for possession. The second half started with possession when Zack Test ran under the kickoff that was set to fall well short of ten meters, but the Americans soon gave up the ball on a penalty. Australia kicked to the USA 22. From there, Australia won the lineout and worked the ball to the unmarked wing for the try and a 21-7 lead. With just under five minutes remaining, Australia kicked deep and the Eagles let the ball bounce into touch. The Eagles won the lineout and Hughes tried to kick for space to set Carlin Isles up for a chance to show his speed, but the ball took yet another unfriendly bounce, causing Isles to come back to the ball. Australia looked to pull Isles to touch, but instead were penalized. Ultimately, the Eagles were able to maintain possession and send Kevin Swiryng in for a try with 3:37 left. Hughes added the conversion to cut the deficit to seven. Folau Niua uncharacteristic sliced the kickoff and sent it directly into touch, giving Australia a kick at midfield. Australia soon began to probe the American defense and looked to break through for a try, but Carlin Isles managed to strip the Australian ball carrier right before a try that would’ve put the match out of reach. Team USA won the scrum and earned a penalty on the next ruck. The ball worked out to Isles and he found the corner for a try, complimented with Hughes’s conversion to tie the match.
With the match level, Australia won the restart and a penalty against the Eagles for taking the man out in the air. Australia kicked deep for a lineout just outside the USA 22 to come on fulltime. Threton Palamo–filling in for Nate Augspurger who left the team after Dubai to attend his brother’s wedding–forced a turnover on a penalty. With the match level and the Eagles the benefactor in the event of a draw, the Americans played for the win. Unfortunately, Australia regained possession and scored the deciding try to top the pool.
In the end, the loss was not the worst thing in the world due to chaos in the rest two of the other three pools. Pool A went as expected: Fiji dominated, beating Scotland 34-19, Russia 52-0, and Argentina 43-0. Russia went winless losing 33-5 to Argentina and 33-10 to Scotland. This left the second seed decider as the match between Scotland and Argentina. Argentina claimed the win 19-14 victory to secure consecutive cup quarterfinal appearances to start the season.
The madness was in pools B and D. In Pool B, Kenya came out swinging with a 19-19 draw against Dubai runner-up England. South Africa easily fended off Zimbabwe 26-5. Zimbabwe then faced an England team desperate to get back on the right foot and was throttled 43-0. Kenya then took the pitch and shocked the home crowd with a 14-12 victory over South Africa. Through two rounds, the two births from Pool B would go to each winner of the final two matches. Kenya took the top seed after a 36-point shutout of Zimbabwe and South Africa sent England tumbling to the bowl round with a 10 blanking.
Pool D was predictably uncertain. New Zealand, the perennial king of sevens, was decimated by injuries in Dubai. The All Blacks Sevens started with a hard-fought victory over Dubai bowl champion France (19-14). The second match saw Samoa top Canada 24-10. It would prove to be Samoa’s lone victory on the day. In the second round of pool play, Canada claimed a second-ever victory over New Zealand (24-12) and France edged Samoa (22-19). Just as with Pool B, the winners of each match in round three would advance to the cup round. For France and Canada, there was no winner. The teams drew at 26-26. The draw allowed France to reach the cup round despite standing level on point differential because France had a narrow two-point advantage in points for. Despite the injuries, the top spot went to New Zealand with a 19-10 victory over Samoa. Had New Zealand lost, it would have been the first time the side had ever missed the cup round.
The upsets on Day 1 meant that team USA drew a quarterfinal match against Kenya, a team the Americans claimed a 3-1 record against the year before instead of facing South Africa, a team that has historically had the Eagles’ number. If team USA could get by Kenya, the path to the cup final seemed friendly with the semifinal opponent being either Argentina or the depleted New Zealand. But that meant defeating Kenya first.
Team USA entered the quarterfinal in the unusual posture of the favored side to reach the semifinal. Nevertheless, the first half was dominated by Kenya. The biggest issue was a lack of possession for the Eagles caused by the inability to take a kickoff cleanly. The Americans won the initial kickoff but a bad pass sailed over Carlin Isles’s head and was gathered up by Kenyan hands. Stiff defense managed to drive the Kenyan ball carrier into touch just shy of the try line. Kenya, however, stole the lineout and dove over for the try. Kenya then stole the restart and benefitted from two penalties by the Eagles to add a converted try a quarter of the way through the match. The restart was again lost and bounced to Kenyan hands. The Eagles survived a third try when a pass just in front of the try line drifted forward. The play may have cost Kenya a try, but it also cost the Eagles Garrett Bender who limped off the field. The Eagles won the scrum, but gave away a penalty in a ruck right after. Kenya was soon over for a third try and a 19-0 lead. The restart was again the undoing of the Americans with a knock on. Kenya won the scrum and booted the ball to touch to end the half with a comfortable lead.
The second half became more promisingly. The Eagles contested the restart and forced a knock on by Kenya. USA won the scrum and sent the ball left to Kevin Swiryn. Swiryn managed to draw two defenders before off loading to the unmarked Perry Baker on the wing for the first try of the match. Although the kick was from the left touchline–Madison Hughes’s better side–the kick clanked off the upright, leaving the Eagles behind 19-5. On the restart, Baker barely missed winning the ball. The staunch American defense soon forced a Kenyan knock on. Soon, it was Swiryn again drawing two defenders before feeding Baker to a try in the left corner. The kick again, was left wanting, but with four minutes left, there was enough time for a miracle comeback.
Baker won the restart but a pass from Hughes that may have sent Zack Test away for a crucial try was forward giving the ball away at the Kenyan ten-meter. Kenya soon won a penalty and kicked inside the USA ten-meter. With under three minutes remaining, Kenya won the lineout and looked to hit the corner for a game-sealing try. The American defense managed to stave off the try and forced a poor pass that hit the deck and was scooped up by the Eagles. The ball was sent to Baker in the middle of the pitch who sprinted for the edge, but ran out of space and was drawn into touch. Kenya won the resulting lineout, but Brett Thompson was able to get a turnover to give the Eagles with enough time to stave off defeat. The Eagles looked poised to score, but a pass inside the Kenyan twenty-two from Matai Leuta, meant for Thompson, hit the deck and was scooped up by Kenyan captain Collins Injera for the score that put the match out of reach. Kenya managed to slap the restart ball backward but it ended up on the deck. Kevin Swiryn attempted to gain the possession but surrendered a penalty instead. Kenya kicked for touch to end the match: Kenya 26, USA 10.
After falling to Kenya, the Eagles set their sights on the highest prize remaining: the plate. The United States was certainly not alone in disappointment. The four semifinalists in Dubai–Fiji, England, the United States, and New Zealand–each failed to reach the semifinals in Cape Town. For England, it was disappointment on Day 1 that yielded the bowl quarterfinal instead of the cup final. For Fiji, it was a remarkable upset at the hands of France (17-14) after squandering a first-half lead. The loss was Fiji’s first since losing to Australia in the cup semifinal in London to end last season. Since then, Fiji claimed ten consecutive victories. Joining Fiji in defeat was the somewhat surprising quarterfinalist New Zealand. The winning score coming from a rare drop goal from a penalty giving Argentina the 22-19 victory–only the second ever for Argentina over New Zealand. The fourth plate semifinalist was Australia. Australia lost to South Africa in the plate final in Dubai and repeated the result in the cup quarterfinal in Cape Town: South Africa 25, Australia 5.
In order for team USA to win the plate and claim the fifth-place point total, the Eagles had to defeat New Zealand. This once unthinkable task–built upon a record of 0-28–has become more than realistic. After winning twice over New Zealand in Dubai, the Americans entered the match as the favored side. As in Dubai, New Zealand entered the match with only six healthy bodies and a legion of the walking wounded.
The United States struck first when Will Holder managed a strong run just short of the line and Kevin Swiryn was able to take the ruck ball cleanly for the score. Madison Hughes added the conversion to put the Eagles in front 7-0. The Eagles won the restart and provided the early pressure, but a knock on gave the All Blacks Sevens a scrum at their own 22. The Americans won the scrum but lost a great deal of ground probing for a gap. New Zealand got turnover ball and, after pulling Hughes and Swiryn in to make a tackle on a single player, scored with an offload to the unmarked runner for a try in the corner. New Zealand slotted through the difficult conversion to draw the match level. The restart went directly into touch to set up a USA free kick at midfield. Again, the Eagles gave ground looking for space, but were rewarded with a New Zealand penalty in the process. The penalty was kicked to touch inside the All Blacks Sevens ten-meter line. The Americans won the lineout. From there, brilliant passing started by Thretton Palamo to Folau Niua to Zack Test and ultimately to Will Holder for the score under the post. Hughes’s second conversion gave the Eagles a 14-7 lead at the half.
The second half started with Palamo taking the kickoff cleanly, but New Zealand soon gained possession when Hughes was dragged into touch at midfield after looking for space to run. The All Blacks Sevens won the lineout and worked the ball through their line but lost possession with a bad pass forcing the wing into touch to try and haul it in. The Eagles won the lineout. After several phases, it was time for the explosive playmaker Carlin Isles to get a score of his own. It came when Isles picked the ball from the back of a USA ruck and danced around the pile for a try in the right corner. Although the long kicks from the right had proven the more difficult for Hughes in the past two tournaments, he took the kick perfectly for the 21-7 lead. Notably, much of last season saw goal-kicking duties go back and forth between Niua and Hughes, with Niua taking the longer kicks. This season, so far, Hughes has taken most every conversion when he’s been on the pitch. Strikes like the conversion on the Isles try show why.
With enough time for the depleted Kiwis to mount a comeback, Will Holder won the restart. After working the ball through the line, Holder got the reward for his steal with a try after a stiff arm that sprung him free to curl in from the touchline and score under the post. Hughes’s fourth conversion of the match set the lead at 28-7. Although a New Zealand comeback seemed out of reach, Brett Thompson wanted to make a certainty of it. He stole the restart cleanly and set the Eagles up for good attacking position. A New Zealand penalty only helped the American cause. Ultimately, the Eagles surrendered possession with a knock on at the back of the ruck and were penalized in the resulting scrum. New Zealand took the tap and added a converted try with less than twenty seconds remaining in the match. With the score at 28-14, the restart ball bounced into the hands of Carlin Isles who ended up in touch for the final whistle.
The victory meant not only a three-match winning streak over New Zealand, but also a third consecutive World Series tournament in which the Eagles have finished ahead of the All Blacks Sevens. The victory also meant an opportunity to claim hardware in the plate final. Joining the United States in the plate final was Fiji after a commanding victory over Australia (38-19).
After a comfortable victory over a formerly impervious foe, the Americans entered the match with Fiji hoping to once again defeat a classic sevens power. The tail of the match, however, was one of sloppy play and mistakes that could not be overcome. Each side looked sloppy and lethargic by the exemplary standards to which they usually hold themselves. In the first half, it looked as though each team was fighting off sickness and running flat footed and slowly. Fiji struck first with a converted try a quarter-way into the match. Two minutes later, Fiji added a second try to push the lead to 12-0. On the resulting restart, taken cleanly by the United States, Fiji cut through the American lines for an easy intercept on a telegraphed pass. Fiji looked certain for a third try but Carlin Isles stayed committed to tracking down the ball carrier. Isles won a penalty and saved the score. Starved of possession the entire match, the Eagles finally got ball in hand. Folau Niua finally got the United States on the board from an offload by Zack Test. Madison Hughes’s conversion pulled team USA within five at the break.
The second half started perfectly for the Eagles. They won the restart when Maka Unufe slapped the ball back to his side. Isles soon passed outside to Test who danced through the Fijian line before finally taking contact and offloading to Madison Hughes for the go-ahead score. After Hughes’s conversion of his own score, the United States led 14-12. It would prove to be the last lead for the Americans. Unufe again challenged the restart ball, but this time, his slap backward ended up in Fijian hands and the ball was cleanly taken in for the answering score under the posts for an easy conversion. The United States then won the restart but sloppy passing let the ball go to the deck and Perry Baker knocked it on while attempting to scoop it up. Fiji scooped it up and scored to push the lead to 24-14. There was still enough time for a miraculous come back. The Americans won the restart but quickly gave up ground. Test finally gained territory but went into contact just shy of midfield and was stripped. Fiji attempted a chip and chase that was fumbled forward just inches shy of the line, setting up a USA five-meter scrum.
With a scrum just outside their own try zone, the Eagles needed immaculate execution. Instead, despite winning the scrum, Hughes lost the ball forward in a tackle. Fiji took possession and scored easily to take a commanding 29-14 lead. On the ensuing restart, the Eagles finally started to look awake. The reinvigorated side was able to add what would certainly be a consolation try from Brett Thompson to pull to 29-19. Fiji knocked the restart forward, Folau Niua scooped the loose ball up, cut through the Fijian line and attempted an offload to Maka Unufe in support. Unufe fumbled the pass forward with no time remaining. The knock on ended the match and in a single moment accurately summarized the match as a whole.
For team USA, the first two tournaments have been a marked success leaving the team tied with Argentina for third in the series standings and behind only Fiji and South Africa–each with a cup and plate in hand. Nevertheless, there is room for improvement and the team is still not the crisp machine that tore through London and NACRA. Coach Friday will expect more in January when the side departs for Wellington.
In the consolation bracket, Scotland dispatched Samoa in the bowl semifinal (26-14). The loss sent Samoa to the shield competition for the fourth time in the span of a year. Ironically, as Samoa’s showing in the shield bracket and Scotland’s performance in the bowl showed, the signs of Samoa’s improvement in the first two tournaments may not be an illusion. Joining Samoa in the shield competition were Portugal after losing 49-7 to England, Russia after being blanked by Canada 55-0, and non-core invitee Zimbabwe with a respectable 21-12 loss to Wales.
In the shield semifinal, Russia sent Portugal home winless for the third consecutive tournament: Russia 38, Portugal 5. On the tournament, Portugal was outscored 224-24. Portugal’s losing streak now stands at sixteen in a row, with the last victory coming in Edinburgh 10-7 over Russia. It has also been since Wellington last year that Portugal finished above the shield competition. The loss not only heaped misery upon Portugal, but gives Russia a one-point advantage in the series standings. Both teams will likely struggle all season long and the competition for relegation may be considerably closer than a year ago. Rounding out the shield competition, Samoa dominated Zimbabwe (33-0) and hammered Russia (40-5) to win the shield.
The bowl competition was perhaps the most thrilling since Tokyo, when Australia and the United States competed for the bowl–the Americans winning. In the semifinal, Scotland ousted Wales (29-14). It was the seventh time in the last nine tournaments that Wales ended the day with defeat in the bowl semifinal. In the other semifinal, Canada surrendered a second-half lead to fall 21-14 to England. In the bowl final, two teams that will combine to play as team Great Britain in Rio gave it all they had to demonstrate to the selectors which nation’s players should dominate the selections. On the day, Scotland’s defense proved the decider: Scotland 19, England 0. It was the largest victory in a shutout for the Scots over the English.
In the surprising cup semifinals, Argentina broke Kenyan hearts with a 24-22 victory. The win booked Argentina to its first final appearance since winning the 2009 USA Sevens. Joining Argentina was the home team that started the tournament with a shocking loss to Kenya as South Africa toppled France 21-12. The third-place match saw France finish off Kenyan aspirations with another tough defeat: France 28, Kenya 26. In the final, Argentina started strong, but the Blitzboks were never going to be stopped at home: South Africa 29, Argentina 14. It is the Blitzboks third consecutive South Africa Sevens title.
The series will return at the end of January (30–31) for a two-tournament run in New Zealand and Australia.