2019 USA Sevens Rugby | Sydney 7s Recap | Sydney 7s
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Sydney 7s Recap

Coming into the 2018 Australia Sevens in Sydney, the Australian men’s team had not scored a cup victory since Tokyo in 2012. The men were slotted into a difficult pool alongside Scotland, Canada, and the United States who had each claimed a tournament crown more recently than the host nation. Nevertheless, the Australian men proved the class of the competition, running through undefeated.

Unlike the men, the Australian women have been the pure class of women’s rugby over the past several seasons. Winning the series title and Olympic gold in 2016, the Australians have bounced back from a, by their lofty standards, poor seasons one year ago, that saw them thrice fall in the final to archrival New Zealand and not win a single cup title. Through two tournaments, Australia has now swept both Dubai and Sydney to top the leader board.

Although the competition proved magnificent for the home crowd fans, it was also an important indicator for fans of the team USA squads. For the men, a horrendous, winless outing in Dubai shook an energetic fan base to its core. The men were able to right the ship a bit in Cape Town, posting an unprecedented shutout of New Zealand–the ultimate tournament champion–in pool play ahead of a loss to Fiji in the fifth-place match.

The American women, on the other hand, began the season as they had never done before. Doing just enough to sneak into the quarterfinal, the Eagles rattled off two consecutive wins before losing to Australia in the final. Entering Sydney as the second-ranked team in the world was extremely unfamiliar territory. Their fans, familiar with a history of occasional bursts of greatness followed by mediocrity, waited with bated breath to see if history would repeat itself, or if the Eagles were ready to soar.

The women were drawn into a tough, but winnable pool. The Eagles started against an England team that mustered but one victory in Dubai. Unfortunately for the Americans, England tied that mark early in Sydney. Two tries for England, each converted, set the pace in the first half. It took the always explosive Naya Tapper to get the United States on the board just before the break. Alev Kelter was able to strike the conversion to pull her side within a score. Tapper’s second try of the match, coming early in the second half, along with Kelter’s conversion, drew the sides level. But England quickly answered back with a try from England’s Jess Breach. Holly Aitchison added the two points for a 21–14 lead. Needing an answer to stay in the match, Kelter crossed for the USA’s third try of the match, but the conversion was off the mark, leaving England ahead. As the clock ticked away, Breach crossed for her second try of the half to put England more than a score clear of the Americans. A third score for Tapper, also unconverted, may have given the scoring phenom a hat trick, but was not enough to slide her team into the winner’s column: England 28, USA 24.

Clearly disappointed in the opening loss, team USA took out its frustration on Japan in the second match. The Japanese entered having already been throttled by New Zealand to the tune of 48–7, and could do little to stop the Eagles. Tapper picked up right where she had left off against England scoring twice in the first half. But it was Kelter who paced the Eagles in points at intermission. She also scored two first-half tries and booted three conversions for a 19–0 lead. In the second half, with the victory well in hand, the Americans sounded the call for subs early and eased back on the onslaught, but not without adding two tries by Hope Rogers and a conversion from Nicole Heavirland to earn the crucial 38–0 win.

Heading into the final round of pool play, the +34 points differential all but assured the United States of advancing to the quarterfinal even pending a loss. Thankfully, for the Americans a victory over New Zealand was not necessary to reach the quarterfinal, because the Kiwis were keen to not allow a repeat of their loss to the Eagles in the Dubai quarterfinal. New Zealand’s Portia Woodman got her side started with an unconverted try right out of the gate. A second try before the half, converted by Tyla Nathan-Wong was good for a 12–0 halftime lead. Still within touch to start the second half, the Americans had hope of mounting a comeback, but it was not to be. Instead, Michaela Blyde added an unconverted try to make it 17–0 early in the half. And Woodman completed her hat trick with a quarter of the match remaining. Nathan-Wong hit the conversion and added one more conversion of a try at the end of the match for Gayle Broughton: New Zealand 31, USA 0.

Thanks to a surprising upset by Japan over England (17–14), which dug deep to overcome the earlier beat downs, the Eagles not only reached the quarterfinal, but did so to the exclusion of England. Although not where England wanted to finish, the team did close with two strong wins to claim the Challenge Trophy. For team USA, it was a date with Russia that lay ahead in the quarterfinal.

Although the Americans came out the better team when the two teams faced off in the Dubai semifinal (21–12), it was not to be repeated in Sydney. The Eagles failed to get things going in the first half, which in the end cost them the match. An opening unconverted try by Alena Mikhaltsova gave Russia the initial lead. That margin grew to 12–0 when Elena Zdrokova crossed for another score. Mikhaltsova’s conversion found the mark. With the match very much in reach to start the second half, Russian Baizat Khamidova made it a three-score lead right away. Mikhaltsova again added the conversion to push Russia ahead 19–0. Then the Americans came charging back. A quick try by Kelter, which she converted, cut the lead to twelve. And a try for Cheta Emba along with the Kelter conversion made it a single score with plenty of time to complete the comeback. But it was not to be this day, with Russia hanging on to book passage to the semifinal: Russia 19, USA 14.

Left playing for ranking points, the Eagles matched up against Spain for the right to compete for fifth place. The two teams had not met since the 2017 Japan Sevens, which saw the United States victorious (19–10). It was a match team USA expected to win. But as had happened against Russia, the Americans allowed their opposition to build a big lead and then had to mount a comeback. In this match, team USA once more spotted the other team a 19–0 lead. Two first-half tries and two conversions by Patricia Garcia along with an unconverted try for Iera Echebarria built that lead by the fifth minute. But then the American comeback began. A try by Ryan Carlyle as the half drew to a close, with conversion by Heavirland made it 19–7 at halftime. A second try by Carlyle midway into the second half along with a conversion by Heavirland pulled the Americans to within five. That five-point gap was then closed by Tapper. But the conversion did not find its mark. With time for the restart, Spain managed to keep the ball alive long enough to send Garcia in for her third try of the match, and the winner: Spain 24, USA 19.

Having gone 1–4 on the weekend, team USA was left with one match from which to selvage what was quickly becoming a disastrous follow up to Dubai. For that, the Eagles had to beat an always game Ireland. But, as had become the norm since reaching the quarterfinal, the Eagles fell behind 19–0 before closing the gap. An early try from Louise Galvin, converted by Lucy Mulhall made it 7–0 in favor of the Irish. As halftime neared, Amee Leigh Murphy Crow extended the lead with a try of her own. Mulhall’s second conversion of the half made it 14–0. As the second half got under way, Galvin added another score, making it 19–0. Unconverted tries by Cheta Emba and Hope Rogers produced ten points for the United States, but were too little too late: Ireland 19, USA 10.

With the result, the United States slips to fifth in the standings, just two points ahead of France (22) and six behind Canada, Russia, and New Zealand (30 each). With a break until late April, the Eagles will need to regroup to get back on track to a record-setting season.

For the USA men, Sydney was a completely different story. In the end, the men would reach yet another semifinal under Coach Friday and may well have gone further but for a rash of injuries that left team USA down three vitally important players by their final match of the tournament.

Things got started with team USA taking on eventual champion Australia. Despite having won the last three meetings, the match was sure to be a tough one with the Aussies playing in front of their home crowd. Australia took the initial lead in the first minute of the match with a cracking run up the gut with a remarkable offload for a try under the post, leading to an easy conversion. Perry Baker looked like he might draw the match level shortly after the restart, but was tackled and deemed to have knocked on in the tackle despite the ball appearing to have rolled backward. Australia gained possession through the resulting ruck and a minute later, Australia was on the charge gaining a yellow card against Martin Iosefo in the process. With Iosefo in the bin, Australia extended the lead with a quick step by Ben O’Donnell to skirt in for the score between the sticks. The simple kick made it 14–0 for Australia, still with the man advantage at the restart.

The Eagles took the restart well, but an intercept on an ill-advised offload by Madison Hughes set Australia up for its third score, this one coming against the left touchline, resulting in the conversion missing the mark. As Iosefo returned, the American men found themselves in a 19–0 deficit. The swarming Australian defense proved difficult to crack. Baker tried to find space on the left touchline, but could not break free and was dragged into touch to end the half.

Down but not out, the Americans were fierce in the second half. Baker finally found the space he needed a mere twenty seconds into the half, taking a pass from Stephen Tomasin then running two Australian defenders into the left corner and cutting back in field, breaking a tackle and then curling up for a try under the post. Hughes added the points on offer to make it 19–7. After the restart, points again came from the left wing, this time with a solid pass from Tomasin to Iosefo who charged untouched in for a score just to the left of the post. Hughes made short work of the conversion to close to within five points with five minute remaining. Stealing the ensuing restart, the Americans looked to take the lead with a converted score. The try from Ben Pinkelman in the left corner less than a minute later tied the scores. Hughes could not hit the difficult conversion.

With everything to play for, the restart kick failed to go ten meters, giving Australia a free kick at midfield and three minutes to work for a score. Thirty seconds later, team USA regained possession and looked to take its first lead of the match. The Eagles gained ground, but a poor offload from Tomasin went to Australian hands with two minutes left. And from there, Australia found a gap and Tim Anstee galloped away for a try under the sticks. The conversion made it 26–19, but left enough time for a restart to give the United States a shot at the draw. Maka Unufe caught the restart, but tumbled into touch. Australia had to win the lineout, but failed to do so. A tremendous steal by Folau Niua gave the Eagles one last go. Carlin Isles looked like he might be able to catch the edge of the defense, but wisely came back in field. Still, Australia’s defense stood tall and forced a penalty to end the match: Australia 26, USA 19.

With a loss in their lone match on Day 1, team USA was facing tough tests against Scotland and Canada to book a second consecutive quarterfinal appearance. And the day 2 starter against Scotland was looking anything but easy, after the Scots demolished Canada 52–5. That Canadian team was fresh off a semifinal run in Cape Town. The task was to be even more difficult with Captain Madison Hughes unavailable for the remainder of the tournament. That brought Kevon Williams into the lineup as the thirteenth man. And it shifted Maka Unufe into the starting lineup.

Unlike the loss to Australia, the win over Scotland saw team USA come out strong in the first half. After a couple minutes of back-and-forth play, Perry Baker made an intercept and ran away untouched for an easy score. Stephen Tomasin taking over the kicking duties from his injured captain, slotted the conversion kick. Danny Barrett soon extended the lead with a try of his own. Tomasin’s second conversion made it 14–0 heading into the fifth minute. A steal of the restart soon sent Tomasin in for his own try. Tomasin’s kick was just off, leaving it 19–0 with the final restart of the half. Scotland seemed to have the restart, but it still worked its ways to American hands, leading to a kick ahead by Folau Niua for Baker, who easily scooped and scored. Tomasin added two more points to make it 26–0 at intermission.

As the second half got under way, Martin Iosefo looked like he was about to be free for a try, but a peculiar call brought the ball back as Ben Pinkelman was penalized for tackling a player while not himself on his feet. As a result, Scotland escaped giving up a score there, and ultimately held off the Americans for the remainder of the half. The Scots managed two tries of their own and one conversion in the half to close the gap, but could not change the result: USA 26, Scotland 12.

With one win from two matches, and Scotland losing to Australia, team USA entered its final match of pool play against Canada needing a win to advance to the quarterfinal. Due to points differential favoring Scotland, an American loss to Canada would have seen the Scots in over the United States. Fortunately for American supporters, a victory was at hand.

The match was dominated by the United States from the opening whistle. An almost instantaneous try was scored by Perry Baker as the benefactor of Martin Iosefo’s tremendous work in setting it up. Tomasin added the simple conversion, his first of five in the match. Maka Unufe stole the restart and the Americans once more got the ball to Baker who wrapped around the right edge of the Canadian defense from an offload by Danny Barrett, giving Baker his second try of the match, with more to come. Tomasin hit the kick, making it 14–0. Another stolen restart set up a third American try, this time coming by way of Ben Pinkelman through an offload by Baker. With Tomasin’s third conversion, the lead grew to 21–0. But the blitz of the Eagles was not done yet. Once again stealing the restart, the Eagles continued to pressure with Folau Niua kicking ahead for a chasing Unufe. Canada managed to get back and touch the ball down in goal, but the drop out failed to hang up for Canada and the Americans were once more with ball in hand and Baker danced through defender after defender after defender for a first-half hat trick. Tomasin’s fourth conversion of the half, made it 28–0 before Canada even had a meaningful second with the ball. Finally, with six minutes gone, Canada won a restart and staved off a turnover that could have been more USA points had Canada not intercepted the Iosefo offload. Following a penalty, Canada was able to finally get on the board with a converted try on halftime.

Not content with a 28–7 lead coming out of the break, the Eagles looked to the best player in the world, Perry Baker. After a Canadian penalty, Niua kicked to touch inside the Canada twenty-two. The Eagles won the uncontested throw and worked it left. Iosefo hit Baker on the left touchline for try number four. With that score, Baker’s match was ended and in came Carlin Isles. Stephen Tomasin’s conversion failed but it didn’t matter. Another steal of the restart, set Ben Pinkelman up for his second try, this coming up the gut off a pass from Maka Unufe. Tomasin added his final conversion, with just under four minute remaining in the half. Canada managed two more tries and a conversion in consolation, but it was a dominant win for the Eagles on full time: USA 40, Canada 19.

Having booked a place into the quarterfinal, team USA was set to face an always tough Fiji. And the United States would have to do it without Stephen Tomasin or Madison Hughes, both driven from the starting lineup due to injuries. The two teams last met in the fifth-place match in Cape Town, with Fiji proving the better team on the day (26–12). This day, however, was not for the Fijians.

Perry Baker looked to increase his try haul with a burst down the left touchline thirty seconds into the match, but Fiji’s star Jerry Tuwai was able to get Baker just into touch. It took three more minutes before the United States got on the score board. This time from a great combination of strong dummy by Unufe, offloaded to Iosefo, who then found an unmarked Folau Niua for the streaking try. The conversion was off the mark, leaving the door open for Fiji to take the lead. Although team USA won the restart, the Americans conceded tremendous field position in the process. Fiji eventually got possession following a USA knock on, but it took five and a half minutes for Fiji to finally feast on some ball and a minute later, Fiji got on the board. The crucial conversion gave Fiji the temporary lead. But with just enough time for a restart, the halftime lead was not to be Fiji’s. The restart went into touch, giving the Eagles a free kick at midfield. The Americans gladly took the kick and became points when Iosefo found a sliver of space up the middle of the Fijian defense. Folau Niua’s conversion kick was true, and the Eagles were back in front by five to end the half.

The Eagles started the second half with a stolen kickoff and a quick Fijian penalty. Following a kick to touch and a lineout, it was Maka Unufe taking an offload from Iosefo for a third American try. Niua’s conversion was just off keeping the lead at only ten points with five minutes to play. Although no team can strike more quickly than Fiji, that requires Fiji to have the ball at some point. But again, the United States won the restart and soon worked the ball to Baker for a try under the post with just over four minutes left. The score was Baker’s only points of the match, but not his last of the tournament. Niua added the conversion to move in front 24–7. The Eagles again stole the restart and set to work for the final three minutes of the match.  Fiji managed to force a turnover and win a penalty thirty seconds later, but could not break through the American defense.

After a remarkable win over Fiji, team USA was certainly eyeing a fourth ever trip to the final. But to do so, the team would have to overcome the side that has proven to be the worst matchup for the Americans on the series: South Africa. In the opening minute, the Eagles looked to have something going, with a stolen kickoff and a penalty just short of the Blitzbokke twenty-two. But South Africa held off and won the ball when it came loose in a tackle of Martin Iosefo. A short while later, Seabelo Senatla exploded down the pitch for a try under the post. Down 7–0, the Americans found themselves in a position they hadn’t been in since losing to Australia to open pool play. South Africa pursued a technique on restarts that has served them well against team USA in recent years, kicking deep. Despite conceding the possession, it forces the United States to go the distance against a team with tremendous speed across the board. But an intentional knock on at midfield, put South Africa a man down following a yellow card. The Eagles kicked to South Africa twenty-two. South Africa narrowly avoided a second yellow card following the lineout and soon forced a penalty turnover for hanging on, although the attempt to strip the ball looked like the tackler never released the ball carrier. But the Eagles did not squander the yellow card. A quick penalty forced by Danny Barrett gave the ball back to the Eagles and Folau Niua hit Baker on the wing for his eighth try of the tournament, which pulls Baker to within one try of the all-time American record of 143 tries held by Zack Test. Niua then hit the very long conversion to level the match with just enough time for a restart before halftime.

Rosko Specman took the restart and almost broke away for a try, but was slowed just enough to not score immediately. The method for slowing Specman down, however,  was an illegal high tackle, sending Folau Niua to the sin bin. South Africa made short work of the possession with the man advantage, bursting free for a converted try to end the half with the full-score lead.

In the second half, it was all Blitzbokke. Thirty seconds in, Werner Kok pushed the lead to two scores. The Americans managed to get some possession following a South Africa penalty, which brought Niua back onto the pitch. It then looked like Maka Unufe, supported by Matai Leuta were going to score. Slowed up, the Eagles passed back inside and knocked the ball on. Then some thrilling back-and-forth rugby ensued for the next thirty seconds before Justin Geduld was left wholly unmarked for an easy try. Geduld converted his try, as he did with each South African try in the match. South Africa would add one more converted try, this time completing a brace for Senatla. On full time, South Africa 35, USA 7.

Left to play for bronze, team USA headed out against Argentina without three of the best American players. After reeling off five wins and no losses to Argentina last season, the Americans entered the bronze final having lost to the Argentines in each tournament this season. Without Hughes, Tomasin, and now Danny Barrett, Sydney was not where that streak would end.

Playing only with ten men, the Eagles came out expecting a win. Despite not winning the kickoff, a massive effort by Joe Schroeder soon led to a turnover. But possession was short lived and Argentina was on the offensive. A handful of turnovers eventually resulted in a try for Argentina by Franco Sabato from a sloppy throw by Folau Niua attempting to avoid being dragged into touch inside his own twenty-two. The next score also went to Argentina, this time by Lautaro Bazan Velez. Gaston Revol’s conversion left the United States in a 12–0 hole. The Eagles began to dig back out as the half crept toward a close. A strong run by Joe Schroeder ended deep in the Argentine half. The ball was worked back inside to Iosefo who chipped ahead and got to the ball in time for a try. Niua failed on the makable conversion, instead cracking off the post, leaving it 12–5 on halftime.

Two quick scores in the second half from Conrado Roura and Sabato, with each converted by Revol, put the match out of range. One more try for Argentina as the final minute from Maximiliano Filizzola set Argentina’s final score. Ben Pinkelman managed a consolation score for the United States on full time. Despite scoring under the post, the Americans could not add the conversion, but it would not have changed the result.

In all, it was a promising performance for team USA. Ben Pinkelman’s efforts earned him a spot on the Sydney Dream Team. And the result has seen the United States climb up to 7th in the standings, nine points behind England (37) and a country mile behind South Africa (58) atop the standings. The result also has led to the most favorable pool draw for the Eagles in quite some time. In Hamilton, they will be paired with Kenya, Samoa, and Canada. The Canadians fell to Samoa in the Challenge Trophy quarterfinal before beating Papua New Guinea and avenging the throttling by Scotland (14–12) to claim thirteenth place. That makes Canada the top-ranked four-seed, but both Samoa and Kenya are tied for bottom-ranked seeds in their respective spots. In terms of series standings, the pool will have #7 USA with #9-tied Kenya, #9-tied Canada, and #11 Samoa.

But the real question is fitness for next weekend in Hamilton, New Zealand. Being without Madison Hughes or Stephen Tomasin is a major problem. But being without either is a recipe for disaster. Add to that Danny Barrett, and the team may struggle to win any matches next weekend. If those three men remain unavailable, Coach Friday will be forced to either bring in reinforcements from home or, as he has done in the past, snag nearby USA-eligible players to make the numbers. Last year, it was Pago Haini and Christopher Coyle who were called into the lineup following injuries during the Oceania legs of the tournament. But Haini appears to be currently in Texas with the Houston Sabercats and it is not clear if Coyle is still in Australia right now, with the Brumbies season having concluded. Some other possible names that ply their trade in New Zealand are Toni Pulu, Tony Lamborn, and Pas Dunn. Pulu would be a fantastic spot fill-in if he’s available and willing. His former Chief’s coach Dave Rennie, now with the Glasgow Warriors, has called him the fastest man in Super Rugby.

Hopefully no additions are necessary, but with three players driven from the starting lineup, it’s tough to imagine that each will be ready to go in a week’s time.

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