Sydney 7s Preview
Fresh off third-consecutive trip to the finals, team USA crosses the Tasman Sea to Sydney, Australia. The Eagles enter the Sydney Sevens tied for first in the world alongside Fiji. The Fijians are coming off consecutive cup victories over the Americans in Cape Town and New Zealand, making them the in-form team to beat. Team USA’s hopes for only a third ever cup victory and first of the year are strengthened by having reached a final in every tournament this season. But the task is made tougher by last week’s injury to Perry Baker.
Baker was injured in the opening match in Hamilton and has returned home. But even without the two-time reigning World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year, the Eagles were able to top their pool, defeat Scotland and New Zealand, and claim another silver medal. With Baker out, Matai Leuta has been flown to Sydney to complete the thirteen-man roster with Pat Blair returning to injury-reserve duties.
Also of note in the lineup is that Folau Niua, who is fresh off finally being recognized for his amazing talent with inclusion in a tournament dream team with his selection in Hamilton, will overtake Zack Test for most tournament caps with his appearance in Sydney. Few men are more deserving of that accomplishment that the humble and remarkably consistent Niua.
Topping Pool B, the Americans will see three nations for the first time this season. First up is France, a squad that was only able to muster a single victory a week ago. That said, the French managed to keep it close against good teams on day, falling to Scotland 26–21, Kenya 19–15, and South Africa 17–5. On Day 2, however, France was handily bested by England (21–5) and non-core invitee Tonga (33–10). In between those two matches, France laid it on Wales (35–19). Last season, the United States went 4–1–0 against France and will be strong favorites to come away with the win in Sydney.
Next up is Kenya. The Kenyans are always unpredictable in results. Last season, Kenya put together a two-tournament stretch finishing runner-up. Despite the silver medals, the Kenyans still only finished eighth in the overall rankings thanks to two thirteenth-place results. This season, they were last in Dubai, thirteenth in Cape Town, and tenth in Hamilton. But never sleep on Kenya. Last year, despite team USA being the persistently better team, Kenya went undefeated in four contests against the Eagles, winning two and drawing in the rest. Given recent form, team USA will expect a strong showing against Kenya with the hope of securing a quarterfinal spot with one pool match to go.
The final match of pool play will be against archrival Canada. The Canadians put together a quarterfinal run in Hamilton but couldn’t get anything going on Day 2, losing to Fiji (33–7) and Samoa (28–19). Despite the success of reaching the cup round, the accomplishment was most likely the result of a favorable pool draw than of a strong indicator of upper-echelon form. The Eagles are carrying a five-match win streak against Canada and should make it six in Sydney.
If the United States can finish on top of Pool B, it will likely mean either a rematch with Scotland or squaring off with Spain in the quarterfinal. The Eagles jumped out to a 19–0 lead against Scotland in Hamilton only to see Scotland with a chance to win mere moments before the final whistle. If some upsets happen in either the Eagles’ pool B or Scotland’s pool C, then a potential matchup with New Zealand could be on offer. It would mark the fifth match against the All Blacks Sevens this season, and fourth in a knockout match. The United States dropped the first two meetings in Dubai but have won the last two.
A trip to the semifinals would most likely mean a match with either Samoa, who team USA crushed (34–14) last week, or a first contest with South Africa on the season. South Africa tends to be a tough matchup for the Eagles, which could mean snapping the streak of finals. But South Africa has not been in dominant form, so this could be an opportunity for the United States to claim a rare win over the blitzbokke.
The United States men are not the only Eagles side competing in Sydney. Returning to action for the first time since Dubai, the Women’s Sevens World Series coincides with the men’s competition. The Americans are riding high with back-to-back trips to the semifinals, including a finals appearance in Glendale.
The Americans are in pool C alongside China, Spain, and Australia. With both China and Spain having failed thus far to reach the quarterfinal, it looks likely that the Eagles will finish in the top two of the pool, and with that securing another quarterfinal appearance. Australia will provide a much greater obstacle. Playing as the defending champion and on home soil, the perennial top-two nation is looking for a return to form.
One reason Australia currently sits in the unfamiliarly low spot of fourth in the world standings is thanks to team USA. In Glendale, the Americans shocked Australia in the quarterfinal (26–5). Dubai saw team USA win the first encounter (22–17), which was one of two loses in pool play for Australia, but the Australians got the edge in the bronze medal match (26–21).
Team USA will need a strong showing to help secure a top-four finish and secure Olympic qualification. Currently sitting in third the Eagles are two points back of Canada and four points ahead of Australia. While it is likely that Australia will ultimately overtake the United States in the standings, it is crucial that team USA preserve the ten-point margin over fifth-place France. Olympic qualification could get awfully interesting if both Canada and the United States stake claim to a series qualifying spot, opening up NACRA qualification and decreasing the likely number of European teams.
Notably, American Naya Tapper will take the pitch looking to overtake Victoria Folayan for number one atop the American all-time try scorers list. Folayan’s mark of 64 is just two beyond Tapper’s current total.
The squad is a mix of veterans and debutants. Alongside regulars Cheta Emba, Nicole HEavirland, Lauren Doyle, Tappper, Joanne Fa’avesi, and Kristen Thomas, there are five players with fewer than four tournaments under their belts. Ilona Maher has the most experience on the series of those three with three tournaments, Alena Olsen and Amelia Bizer each have two, and Kasey McGravey makes her debut along with Kristi Kirshe. By comparison, Jordan Gray-Matyas’s six prior caps make her a veritable grizzled veteran.
The women’s pool competition can be seen the evening of January 31st into the morning hours of February 1st, with knockout play following the next night. The men’s competition can be seen in the United States starting on the afternoon of February 1st and finishing early Sunday morning. Make sure to check back for a complete breakdown of all the action.