Sydney 7s Preview
In college football, the saying goes, “The biggest improvements are seen between weeks one and two.” On the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, the biggest improvement is between the first and second legs of the series. After Dubai and Cape Town, the men’s national team, currently tied for eleventh place, is not where it wants to be. A sixth-place finish in the second tournament was certainly acceptable. But the winless showing in Dubai was as disastrous a start as could be imagined.
Dubai can easily be written off as a fluke, spurred largely by the injury to superstar Perry Baker in the opening match. In that light, the strong turnaround in Cape Town may be testament to the team’s greatness in getting as far as it did without him. But the Eagles do and should expect better. The 22–0 throttling of New Zealand, which went on to win the tournament, to start Cape Town shows the potential. Heading into the third and fourth tournaments of the year, the Eagles will look to return to the upper echelon of the standings.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are the USA women, who came within one win of hoisting the cup in Dubai. Currently ranked second after only one tournament, the women Eagles will join the men in Sydney, with each looking to take home medals.
For the men, the path to the podium is yet again through a meat grinder. Alongside team USA in Pool D are Canada, Australia, and Scotland. Each nation is not only accustomed to making the cup round, but in making the semifinals or further. Of those four nations, the host, Australia, is actually the nation with the longest drought since lifting a cup on the series, dating back to Tokyo in 2012. Since then, the United States won London in 2015, Scotland has won London in 2016 & 2017, and Canada bested the Eagles for the 2017 Singapore title.
The Eagles will begin the tournament in the penultimate match of Day 1 facing off against Australia. Since a 22–7 victory at the Hong Kong Sevens in 2016, the United States has dominated the series over the Aussies, going 6–2 in that span, dropping only the bronze-medal match in Hong Kong last year and a tough defeat in the Silicon Valley Sevens final back in November. In their lone meeting on the series this season, the Americans came away winners (31–14) in Cape Town. A partisan crowd will make extending the streak difficult, but it is certainly not impossible.
With news coming out that Australian stalwart Ed Jenkins, who was injured in Dubai and forced out of the Cape Town lineup, has now been forced to into retirement, the team will be without one of its all-time greats. Team USA should enter the match as the slight favorite, and will likely need a win to stay on track for the quarterfinals.
On day 2, the Eagles will start with Scotland and close with what could be the pool decider against Canada. The Scottish come to Sydney having largely been the reverse of the Americans through the first two tournaments. Scotland closed last season with a second consecutive London Sevens title and reached the cup round in Dubai. But Cape Town saw Scotland lose close matches to England and Argentina in pool play to miss the quarterfinal before being unceremoniously swept in day 2 by Spain and Kenya to finish tied for last.
As with Australia, the United States has had good fortune against Scotland in recent tournaments. After losing in extra time at the 2016 South Africa Sevens, team USA has won two of three against the Scots, falling most recently in the London semifinals. Scotland is a dangerous team and a crucial win to build momentum for a deep run.
In a pool that could easily see a 2–1 champion, the final match of Day 2 between the United States and its North American rival will almost certainly have quarterfinal ramifications. Since dominating Canada with a record of 8–2–2 from the start of the 2014–15 season through the 2016 Australia Sevens tournament, Canada has compiled a three-match win streak. Those wins have all been particularly painful for the Eagles. The first was the cup final at the 2017 Singapore Sevens, 26–19. The second in the 2017 London Sevens bronze-medal match, 22–19. And then an extra-time loss in the challenge trophy quarterfinal in Dubai, 10–5.
With the roster that Coach Friday is taking to Australia and New Zealand, barring injuries, the United States should be a favorite to snag the top seed from Pool D. The 12-man roster is the exact same as that named for Dubai, with one exception: Chris Mattina has been swapped in for Malon Al-Jiboori. This will be Mattina’s first cap on the series, but not his first time in an Eagles’ shirt. Mattina was part of the Eagles squad that fell just short of Australia in the final of the inaugural Silicon Valley Sevens. He acquitted himself well with two tries and has turned enough heads to get a look.
Importantly, returning to the team is the defending World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year, Perry Baker. Baker was concussed in the opening minutes of Dubai and the team never seemed to find its footing thereafter. Carlin Isles played respectably in Baker’s absence, accounting for nine tries in the first two tournaments, but is a meaningful step down in all-around ability compared to Baker, especially when compared to the option of having both players available.
As always, the squad will be captained by Madison Hughes and led in physicality on the pitch by bruiser Danny Barrett. The sure-fire boot of Folau Niua will be available and necessary to help the United States control the pace in the restart game. The more quiet, but no less vital, cogs of the American machine, Ben Pinkelman and Stephen Tomasin also maintain their places in the squad. This will mark Pinkelman’s tenth consecutive tournament for the United States and Tomasin’s thirteenth. For the magical playmaker touch, Martin Iosefo and Maka Unufe are in the lineup. And rounding out the solid core of the team is Matai Leuta who, like Tomasin, makes his thirteenth consecutive roster.
Joe Schroeder completes the twelve-man squad, making his fourth squad in a row since turning heads at the Silicon Valley Sevens. For the thirteenth-man, injury sub, Kevon Williams, who was brought in for Cape Town to replace Baker and scored a try, will travel with the team. Hopefully Williams will remain a spectator for this leg.
But the United States men’s team is not the only traveling party to Sydney. The women head down under to try and cement their place in the top-tier of the Series.
With only three pools, each is always a tough draw. But team USA has about as favorable a pool as could reasonably be hoped. The Eagles will start with an England team that has struggled mightily in its last two tournaments. The English fell to a disastrous last-place in Clermont to close last season and then notched only a single victory in Dubai to finish eighth. The Americans will then turn their attentions to a Japanese contingent that has mustered just six wins in its last seven Series tournaments. If the United States can win both matches, a spot in the quarterfinal will be secured before an always tough matchup with New Zealand.
The Eagles, like every nation not named Australia, has a long history of losses to New Zealand. To close pool play in Dubai, New Zealand hammered team USA 45–14. But the very next day, the Americans exacted revenge with a 14–12 win to end New Zealand’s run in the quarterfinal. The United States is not yet to a point where they will be favored against New Zealand in the foreseeable future. But, favorites or not, the Americans have what it takes to get through Day 1 undefeated.
The core of the squad that finished runners-up in Dubai remain together. Leading the way are Alev Kelter and Naya Tapper. Kelter was a Dream Team selection in Dubai and Tapper has quickly become one of the most explosive players in women’s rugby, trotting in five tries in Dubai. Returning as captain is Nicole Heavirland who has combined with Kelter to produce crucial points from the boot.
Returning from the Dubai squad are Jordan Gray, Olympian Ryan Carlyle, Abby Gustaitis, Tia Blyth, Sarah Buonopane, and Saskia Morgan. In place of Megan Foster, Sara Parsons, and, hero of the New Zealand victory, Kelsi Stockert are Hope Rogers, Natalie Kosko, and Cheta Emba. Rogers, Kosko, and Emba were each part of the team last season.
For both the men and women, action gets underway on Friday (1/26) and concludes on Sunday (1/28). The men’s matches will be available in the USA on ESPN3 and the women’s matches are on The Rugby Channel.