Sydney 7s Preview
Coming off their worst finish of the season, tying their worst finish under Coach Mike Friday, the men of the United States Eagles return to the pitch in Sydney looking to bounce back to modern form. Team USA has been blessed with an extremely favorable pool draw, but will need to display better execution and focus than they were able to muster last weekend if they are to build some momentum heading into their home tournament in March.
Unlike the hugely unbalanced pools in Wellington, the draw for Sydney is fairly well balanced, with Pool D the likely outlier. On first glance, Pool A might be what grabs most attention. The Blitzbokke have proven the class of the series thus far and are paired with a resurgent English squad that has come leaps and bounds back from the pit of mediocrity that consumed them this time last season. A disappointing, close loss to rival Scotland (14–12) in the quarterfinal in Wellington was all that separated England from a third-consecutive semifinal birth. Instead, England fell to the fifth-place competition and was drubbed (24–0) by New Zealand to fall to seventh.
Also in Pool A are the puzzling Kenyans. A squad that finished last at one point last year and, just two tournaments later, won the cup in Singapore. This season has been very typical: eleventh in Dubai, sixth in Cape Town, and winners of the challenge trophy in Wellington. In pool play, the Kenyans struggled to find their feet, losing to Argentina (17–12) and England (24–7) while drubbing Papua New Guinea (47–5). Kenya could put it together and even top Pool A–as they did in a very similar pool draw at the 2015 South Africa Sevens–or they could finish third as expected. The expectation is for the pool to bear the same order on at the end of Day 1 as it began, with Japan a non-factor.
Although Pool A may appear the more formidable draw on first glance, Pool B might be the real meat grinder. Samoa, one of only four nations to ever win the series title (2009–10), has struggled in recent years. Despite winning the 2016 Paris Sevens, since reaching the 2014 Gold Coast Sevens final, Samoa has been mediocre at best, most notably missing out on Olympic qualification. With Sir Gordon Tietjens taking over head coaching duties, the future is likely bright, but the season has not been thus far. Nevertheless, Samoa is easily the most formidable fourth seed in the competition. Wales, at the three seed, finished fourth in Dubai and seventh in Cape Town before skidding to eleventh in Wellington, bumped from the top eight by a resurgent team Canada, showing its first signs of life in years. At the top of the pool is the two-time-defending series champion, Olympic gold medalist, and currently second-place Fiji. Despite a relatively young squad, Fiji showed little difficulty in reaching the Wellington final. The squad’s only losses in Wellington were to a peaking South Africa.
The biggest question mark in Pool B is France. The French are yet another squad that can reach a semifinal or finish eleventh depending on draw and the bounce of the ball. France has twice finished seventh, including in Wellington, winning the challenge trophy in between. France did just enough in Wellington to advance ahead of team USA into the quarterfinal, holding onto a draw with the Americans that was the result largely of two quick scores to end the first half. Once in the quarterfinal, France was dismantled (45–0) by South Africa and defeated by Argentina (17–12) to end the tournament with a 1–1–3 record. Fiji will be expected to top Pool B with the second seed in play among the other three teams.
Pool C is a pool that showcases struggling powers against a surging nation. Prior to the 2016 London Sevens, Scotland had never won a series tournament. In fact, Scotland had only once finished in the top eight that season prior to the final leg in London. Since then, however, the Scots have solidified themselves as a deserving top-four team, with a sixth-place finish in Dubai, followed by fourth and third-place finishes in Cape Town and Wellington respectively. In the same span, New Zealand has struggled to build consistency. The once unflappable powerhouse of sevens rugby enters Sydney as the defending tournament champion, having just ceded the title of three-time defending Wellington Sevens champion. The All Blacks Sevens have never failed to reach the top eight in any tournament on the series. This might be the best chance in a while for it to happen.
Although Australia has been out of form this season, finishing eleventh in Cape Town and tenth in Wellington, the Aussies are on home soil and have the talent to get back to a top-five finish as they had in Dubai. In order to do so, Australia will need to trip up Scotland or New Zealand, with the ability to topple both. Papua New Guinea will struggle to score on Day 1 and should not be expected to do much other than provide a potential tie breaker should the top three teams split their matches.
Pool D finds Canada the shocking number one seed. Canada blitzed through Scotland, Wales, and Russia to top Pool D in Wellington. From there, the Canadians beat Argentina to reach the semifinal before losing to South Africa and Scotland to settle for fourth. It is hard to say whether the result was a true reflection of Canada’s return to prominence or an aberration. Canada played magnificently on Day 1 but did not face the likes of South Africa, Fiji, New Zealand, or England in doing so. The win over Scotland was truly impressive, but the Canadians were unable to replicate it on Day 2. Further, Argentina is a tough squad to gauge, though it merits note that Argentina finished fifth. Canada will have a chance to earn a double over Argentina when the sides meet up in the final match of pool play.
For team USA, despite injuries and a slump, the squad needs to set the goal of winning this pool. The Americans certainly can do so, but the question is simply whether they will. They jump right into it with a first match against Argentina before a second match with Canada. If the Eagles can secure wins in each, a third over Russia should be expected.
The roster remains largely unchanged from Wellington. Captain Madison Hughes heads the squad, joined by the bruise brothers, Andrew Durutalo and Danny Barrett, speedsters Perry Baker and Carlin Isles, veterans Folau Niua, Martin Iosefo, and Stephen Tomasin, along with Matai Leuta and Don Pati. Remaining with the squad is Connor Wallace-Sims who replaced Kevon Williams due to injury shortly before departing for Wellington. Not on the roster for Sydney is Brett Thompson, who was forced out of the Wellington squad due to injury. Still listed on the roster is Pago Haini, a Wellington native who received a cap for the Eagles last weekend and appears to have American qualification through a tie to American Samoa. It is unclear whether Haini has traveled with the squad to Australia or just remains in Wellington as a possible fill-in should there be a midweek injury.
Haini’s inclusion was largely the product of funding problems for team USA prohibiting the Eagles from carrying a thirteenth player in the traveling party. With Thompson’s injury and traveling costs remaining a problem, the team has also listed a new local player on the squad: Chris Coyle. Coyle, who played tight end in American football at Arizona State, formerly signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Houston Texans, has been tied to the ACT Brumbies in Australia since the summer of 2015. In November 2016, Coyle competed with the Brumbies 7s team at the Australian Nationals. Coyle is a much more natural fit to the Eagles and the exposure may help garner attention for a possible future in the Eagles XVs squad.
It seems likely that the Eagles will continue to pick up local American qualified players to fill the thirteenth spot for the remainder of the year. A similar fill in was used to great effect at the 2015 London Sevens in Thretton Palamo. The pool of American qualified players for the USA Sevens and Canada Sevens should not be a problem, the same with the final two tournaments in Paris and London. The Tokyo and Singapore legs might be more problematic, but Coach Friday and company seem resourceful enough to figure it out.
In order to reach their goal of winning Pool D, the team will need to ask a lot of its starting seven. In Wellington, Haini and Wallace-Sims combined for mere seconds in a single match. This left the burden to be born by a mere ten players. Of further concern is that Isles did not look back to his old self in Wellington. He was unable to find space, seemed unwilling to back his old self at times, and was subpar in defense. Isles certainly expects more of himself and one has to wonder if he is playing with any lingering concern of injury after a year on and off the shelf.
Perhaps of greater concern to the American game plan has been the restart kicking of Niua stretching back to the Olympics. In the two years leading up to Rio, Niua was arguably the best restart kicker in the game. Since then, things have been a bit off. In the world of international sevens, a bit off can be what separates a top-four finish from eleventh. With the Eagles relying heavily on stealing restarts, inconsistency in the kicking game can have rippling effects.
Drawing the two most difficult matches in pool play to begin day 1 should play in favor of an Eagles squad relatively thin on the bench. The Americans will also benefit from an additional week to acclimate to the time change.
For the second time this season (Dubai the other), the men of the HSBC Sevens World Series will be joined by the World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series. The two series were overlap again in Las Vegas at the USA Sevens in March. Just as the USA men are in desperate need of a strong showing, so too are the USA women, who narrowly avoided a last-place finish in Dubai their last time out.
The American women have drawn Russia, England, and Spain in Pool C. They have fortunately avoided New Zealand, Canada, and Australia. Despite a 1–2 record in pool play, including a loss to (12–10) to team USA, Russia chalked up a surprising third-place finish in Dubai, edging England (17–14). The two squads will prove formidable obstacles to an Eagles team currently 2–3 on the season with losses to South Africa (26–7), Australia (19–10), and Ireland (28–5) and victories over Russia and Brazil (26–17).
Coach Richie Walker has named several players from his fifth-place Olympic squad, a couple players who received their first caps in Dubai, two true debutants, and a return of a veteran. Captain Kelly Griffin, who missed Dubai, heads the Olympic alumnae joined by Ryan Carlyle, Alev Ketler, and Joanne Fa’avesi. Carlyle, Ketler, and Fa’avesi each competed in Dubai. Griffin steps in as Lauren Doyle, who featured heavily in Rio and competed in Dubai, steps out. Another member of the team that went to Rio as a reserve is Cheta Emba. Emba debuted in Dubai. Of the four other women to win their first caps in Dubai, only Kayla Canett returns for Sydney. Bulou Mataitoga was originally named, but has been replaced. Also returning from Dubai are Nicole Heavirland, Naya Tapper, and Kate Zackary. Gaining their first caps on the series will be Sarah Buonopane and Hope Rogers. Rogers, the standout Eagles XVs player, was called up from the non-traveling reserves to replace Mataitoga. The biggest addition is Kristen Thomas, who suffered an injury at the close of the 2015–16 season, depriving her an opportunity to compete for a spot in Rio.
The combination of new blood and veterans along with a manageable pool should help the USA women improve upon their struggles in Dubai. The team has the talent to defeat Spain and has already beaten Russia this season. A victory over England seems unlikely, but a top eight finish is a reasonable goal for this team in Sydney and a plate title equivalent to their finish in Rio is not outside the realm of possibility, though would be a sizeable accomplishment.
The women get started on Friday (2/3) and finish the following day, the same day the men start (2/4). The men wrap things up on Sunday (2/5). Check back for a breakdown of the 2017 Australia Sevens.