Team USA Just Misses Consecutive Podium Finishes in Vancouver
It still seems unimaginable how far the United States men’s national sevens team has come since the one-year run under coach Matt Hawkins. Hawkins, one of the most accomplished sevens players in American history took over for coach Alex Magleby who had found moderate success with team USA, winning two plate titles and finishing in a third plate final in as many tournaments to close the 2012–13 season. The end result was an eleventh-place finish, a result surpassed only twice for a nation that had never finished above tenth.
In Hawkins’ lone season in charge, the team finished last twice, won four shield titles (the equivalent of thirteenth place), and only cracked into the cup round twice. Once Mike Friday, the former England coach who won Hong Kong four times and brought Kenya back from obscurity to a sixth-place finish, became available the powers that be wasted no time in ousting Hawkins and bringing in Friday.
Some might have felt Hawkins was hard done. The two and a half seasons since have not only validated the decision but completely redefined the program. Prior to Friday’s arrival, the Eagles had reached three semifinals That’s it. Only one of those semifinals resulting in a final’s appearance, coming under the leadership of coach Al Caravelli and ending in a 38–10 loss to Samoa at the 2010 Australia Sevens final.
In his first year (2014–15), Friday’s team reached three semifinals–tying the all-time mark for team USA. The team also broke through for a first-ever, and remains only, cup victory. The squad also finished sixth, which was easily the best finish in the final standings ever for the United States. The following season, with the pressure of the Olympics mounting, without Andrew Durutalo, and without the consistency of selections from the prior seasons, the Americans once more reached three semifinals, including two third-place finishes, and finished sixth, but looked less sharp than the year before.
A disappointing failure to reach the knock out round in the Olympics caused many to fear that the 2014–15 might have been the peak for the Eagles program. A failure to reach the cup round in Dubai, despite a challenge trophy victory, caused concerns to grow deeper. A bounce back to a seventh-place finish in Cape Town despite missing captain Madison Hughes helped to temporarily sooth nerves, but an eleventh-place finish in Wellington had the same old fears back on the mind. Mind you, the year before Friday took over, the team finished eleventh or worse (all but once worse) in seven of nine tournaments. Eleventh is tied for the worst finish under Friday, a mark met once in each of his three seasons. For perspective, in that same span, only Fiji, winner of two Series titles and gold in Rio, South Africa, on pace to run away with the Series this year, and New Zealand, which has never failed to reach the quarterfinal, have failed to finish eleventh or worse in a tournament. Put simply, it happens, but it certainly was becoming worrisome.
A mere one week later, the Eagles seemed to change gears and have not looked back. In Wellington, en route to the eleventh-place finish, Danny Barrett struggled mightily, as did much of the team. Ever since Sydney, in which Barrett made the first of consecutive dream team selections, the fortunes of the whole squad have changed as Barrett has exploded from a consistent talent and bruiser to one of the finest sevens players in the world. His combination of power, aggression, and speed has rarely been seen on this side of the pond, and even rarer in the game of sevens.
In Sydney, the United States topped its pool and reached the fifth-place final for the first time this season, losing to Fiji to finish sixth. The following tournament, just a week ago in Las Vegas, found the Eagles in the semifinal for the first time this season but third consecutive year at the USA Sevens. Remember, this was a nation that had reached three semifinals ever before Mike Friday came on board. Now, the team has not only surpassed that mark but tied it in Vegas alone. A bronze medal victory, tying for third best finish in any tournament and best finish at the USA Sevens propelled team USA back to where it was at the start of 2015: a team feared by all and expected to compete for the cup.
In Vancouver, team USA wasted no time in stamping its claim to contender status. The pool draw, though never easy, was certainly fair. Nevertheless, it was a draw that earlier in the year could be seen as manageable but far from even assured to result in a quarterfinal birth. The first match the United States not only beat Japan, the Eagles dominated the nation who less than a year ago was in the medal round of the Olympic games.
A mere thirty-five seconds into the match, Stephen Tomasin scored the first try of the match for the United States and broke the flood gates open. By full time, Tomasin had a brace, Ben Pinkleman did as well, Madison Hughes had four conversions, Tomasin two more, and Perry Baker had burst away for a hat trick of tries. The Americans dominated the restarts, never once allowing Japan to gain any meaningful possession from the kickoff. At the halftime, the Eagles led 26–0 with their coach imploring them not to take their feet off the gas. Despite substitutions as the match ran further and further out of reach, the Americans never did. In the end, it was the United States 52, Japan 0, for one the most lopsided victory in Series play of the Mike Friday era. The only match even close was a 52–7 victory over Portugal at the 2015 South Africa Sevens.
Of course, it is one thing to dominate an anemic team Japan, but the real test of whether the Eagles really came to play was the second match against France. The last time the teams met was a 21–21 draw in Wellington, and last season France earned the 3–2 season edge. Once the United States was through with France in Vancouver, there could be no doubt that Day 1 was something special in the making. A try twenty-nine seconds in for Madison Hughes that started from a pass by Danny Barrett inside the USA twenty-two put the United States ahead 7–0, with Hughes adding his own conversion. A tremendous cleanup of untidy ball by Stephen Tomasin in the French twenty-two led to a try for Martin Iosefo from an offload by Ben Pinkleman to push the lead to 12–0. An error in a dangerous exchange between Folau Niua to Hughes on the USA try line gifted France an easy seven pointer to get back in the match, but a second try of the half for Iosefo, stepping through a tackle in the process, gave the united states a third try and Hughes his second conversion for the 19–5 lead at intermission.
A failure of the second half kickoff to go ten meters once more permitted France attacking possession, leading to a try. The makeable conversion went wide, leaving the United States in front 19–12. Maka Unufe and Perry Baker turned on the jets right after the restart to make sure that France did not remain in striking distance for long, as Baker’s fourth try of the tournament and Hughes’s third conversion of the match saw the Eagles pull ahead 26–12. Andrew Durutalo’s capping of a great run by Niua for the fifth try of the match resolved all doubt as to who may prevail. Although France was able to add a converted consolation try against the American bench, the match ended without any doubt as to the better side: USA 31, France 19.
Two wins from two outings left the Eagles facing Australia in the pool decider to determine who would play Argentina in the quarterfinal and who would face off against the Vegas runner up, Fiji. If the United States impressed against Japan, it stunned against Australia. Perry Baker got thins started with his fifth try of the tournament. Again, Hughes made short work of the conversion. The try for Baker was his ninety-sixth career score, leaving him behind only Zack Test’s 143 tries in the American record book. A short while later, Hughes’s chip ahead helped Baker close that gap even further as Baker completed his brace early in the first half. An explosive run by Danny Barrett that started in his own half and required a stiff arm to break free gave the United States a third try before halftime.
Up only 17–0 the match remained within reach for Australia. One need only look at the 19–0 deficit that the Eagles overcame against Argentina in Vegas to see how quickly fortunes can change. Such a reversal was not in the cards in Vancouver, however. Maka Unufe snagged the second half kickoff from the air and ran untouched for a try under the post a mere fifteen seconds into the half. Hughes’s second and final conversion of the match all but finished off Australia. Had any doubt remained, Unufe’s second try in the tenth minute stamped it out. Australia avoided total humiliation with an unconverted try on full time, but the result was long cemented: USA 29, Australia 5.
Few, if any, times can the United States boast a more dominant Day 1 performance. Day 2, however, did not start where Day 1 ended. The quarterfinal matchup against Argentina could not have started much worse than it did. Argentina won the kickoff and Danny Barrett was shown a yellow card for a high tackle. Although it only meant two minutes off for Barrett in the quarterfinal, the penalty had repercussions that will spill over to Hong Kong. Down a man, Argentina’s Bautista Delguy capitalized on the advantage for the seven-pointer in the third minute. The delay in obtaining the score brought Barrett back on for the restart. Off the restart a try looked on offer for Ben Pinkleman with support down the right touchline, but a knock momentarily saved Argentina. The Eagles struck against the head on the ensuing ruck and worked the ball Perry Baker for yet another try from the pass by Martin Iosefo. A try to end the half for Argentina by Matias Osadczuk who threw a dummy to pull off Barrett and was able to work his leverage over Bake for the try in the corner made it 12–7 at the start of the second period.
The United States won the second-half restart and managed to maintain possession through fierce rucking. The match was easily the most physical of the tournament for team USA. Iosefo tried a kick and chase for Baker, but Argentina was easily able to gain possession. Committed defense by Baker and Iosefo dragged the Argentina counterattack to touch. Although Iosefo’s kick through was not enough to send Baker through on attack, Hughes’s attempt from the successful lineout was. Baker was unable to make it yet another try, but succeeded in gaining great ground and pulling in the defense, allowing Danny Barrett to break through a tackle for the try to level the match. Hughes’s conversion from midway between the post and the left touchline found its mark for the lead.
As the match wound down, the Americans consistently tried to back themselves in individual play instead of playing sound, disciplined team ball. The performance was reminiscent of the final three minutes against England in the pool decider of Vegas, in which errors yielded two late tries to give England the win. In the end, the United States held on for the win as Folau Niua was able to take a penalty and sprint toward his own goal to burn the clock and then step into touch. The crowd booed the decision to end the match on defense instead of attacking, but Niua made the right call. Coach Friday after the match was extremely disappointed in his team’s performance, and rightly so. Nevertheless, the win meant consecutive semifinals for the first time since back-to-back-to-back podium finishes spanning from the 2015 Scotland Sevens through to the 2015 Dubai Sevens.
The semifinal gave the United States a fifth crack of the season at the South African Blitzbokke. Two of the four previous losses were close (19–17 in Dubai), including a near run thing in Vegas (20–17). Unfortunately for the United States, Barrett’s prior yellow card was reviewed and resulted in a three-match ban, a surprisingly harsh sanction occasioned by the increased focus on high tackles; Barrett’s forearm ended up above the shoulder and striking the side of the runner’s head. Without Barrett, the depth of the United States proved problematic. Starting in his place was Ben Pinkleman, who, although young, is a rapidly rising star for the Eagles.
The Eagles struck first when Perry Baker forced a turnover ball and worked the ball wide down the chain to Andrew Durutalo who hit Martin Iosefo for a try in the left corner. It was a well-earned sixty-meter team try. Hughes’s conversion attempt fell wide. After an exchange of possession on penalties, Philip Snyman found a seam in the American defense for a South African try in the left corner. Cecil Afrika’s impressive conversion from long distance put the Blitzbokke ahead 7–5, where, thanks to a knock by South Africa in attacking position to end the half, saw the score at halftime.
Stephen Tomasin’s amazing interception of the second-half restart ultimately resulted in the Andrew Durutalo try in the right corner with 4:41 remaining. Hughes’s conversion again failed to find its mark, leaving the advantage a mere 10–7. Almost instantly, Rosko Specman put South Africa back in front with a try under the post. Afrika’s conversion made it 14–10 to the series leaders. As time expired, the United States had one last chance for the famous victory. Andrew Durutalo plowed across the line with no time remaining but was unable to ground the ball. Instead, he was held up and the match ended with Durutalo and the ball mere inches from the famous victory.
It would have been the first win for the United States over South Africa since the 2015 Dubai Sevens. South Africa now claims a remarkable eight-match win streak over the United States. South Africa also preserves a remarkable season accomplishment of losing only to England. Astonishingly, England which had twice defeated South Africa earlier in the season and drawn with the Blitzbokke in pool play, was able to add a third win over the heir apparent to the series title, beating South Africa 19–7 for the Canada Sevens title.
For team USA, it was a third-consecutive trip to the bronze medal final. Last week, the Eagles added yet another win over New Zealand to the record books. An accomplishment that had never been claimed until Dubai in 2015 and has been done five of the last nine meetings between the Eagles and the All Blacks Sevens. This time, it was the United States taking on Fiji for the podium finish. Despite Fiji boasting a two match win streak on the season, the last time the two sides faced in the third-place decider, at the 2016 London Sevens, it was the United States who came out on top (26–19).
Team USA competed for the restart well, but Fiji collected it and turned the opening possession into a classic Fijian try as Waisea Nacuqu chipped over the defense for the first-minute try. The solid connection on the conversion made it 7–0 before the Americans even had possession. Martin Iosefo took the restart and the Americans worked the ball to Perry Baker on the wing for his ninety-ninth career try in the right corner to pull his side within two. The try was Baker’s eighth of the tournament, but not his last. Baker fought for the restart, but once more the ball ended up in Fijian hands. Fiji continued to dominate possession and keep the Americans under pressure, finally cracking lose for Fiji was Samisoni Viriviri for the try under the post. The simple conversion made it a two-score lead (14–5), with under a minute left in the half. Ben Pinkelman grabbed the restart and won a penalty for being hit in the air. Folau Niua kicked for touch on halfway, the USA won the penalty and the ball worked out to Martin Iosefo who hit the flying Eagle, Perry Baker, for try number 100. Hughes was able to add the points for the narrow deficit (14–12) at the break.
Fiji stole its own deep kick to start the second half. Although the American defense stood strong for longer than might have been expected, Fijian Vatemo Ravouvou could not be stopped. Ravouvou’s third conversion of the match put the Eagles increasingly into a do-or-die situation, but with plenty of time to come back. Maka Unufe’s try in the tenth minute kept the United States very much in the match. Unufe’s recent form shows exactly why Coach Friday chose him for Rio: his upside is tremendous. In the prolonged absence of Carlin Isles, Unufe’s current form has been vital to team USA’s recent success. Madison Hughes added the conversion to make it 21–19. The Eagles looked poised to finally take the lead after a turnover. Had an offload from Hughes to Andrew Durutalo gone to hand, the lead might have been to the Americans. Instead, the ball went to the deck and bounced up to Fijian hands for a try in the far right corner. Unufe’s effort to prevent the curl back in for the easier conversion seemed huge to keeping the Americans within one score, but Ravouvou’s monster kick from the touchline pushed the match back to two scores. With under a minute remaining, team USA had just enough time for the miracle and Unufe’s second try with fifteen seconds remaining kept the American miracle chance alive. The Eagles declined to take the conversion to preserve one last chance for points. Matai Leuta stole the restart up against the touchline, but three Fijian tacklers had great position to force Leuta to touch, leaving him no choice but to throw back inside. The pass back into the field found Fijian hands, ending the match.
The loss was the fourth in two weeks against a team in the top three of the series standings that so easily could have gone the other way. Had Barrett been available, the edge may have gone to the United States in either match–of course, had the Eagles defeated South Africa, they would have faced England in the final instead.
Although the tournament ended without a second medal, there can be no doubt that the team is firing on all cylinders right now. If coach Friday is able to keep his squad healthy and together–with fears that a renewed focus on fifteens for some players ahead of the summer world cup qualifiers might pull the likes of Andrew Durutalo back to the fifteen-a-side game–and further build depth into his team, the sky is the limit for the Eagles. The result pushed the United States past the deadlock with Australia for fifth place. This is the best ranking ever for the United States at this late in the season. The top three of South Africa (126), England (103), and Fiji (100) are almost certainly out of reach for the United States (67), but overcoming a seventeen-point deficit to New Zealand is a serious possibility for the United States in the final four tournaments.
A few notes from throughout the tournament. The home team, Canada, built a strong run through pool play and almost toppled New Zealand but was unable to find a win on Day 2, leaving Canada with consecutive seventh-place finishes. The once serious contender for a top-four finish, Scotland, made it three straight in the consolation contest and finished thirteenth, to tumble to eighth in the series standings. Wales, which looked likely to reach the cup round after defeating Argentina, but was edged by a single point in the differential after Argentina upset Fiji, claimed the challenge trophy with a victory over Samoa. France, which had seemed to pose a threat to return to the cup quarterfinal finished last along side Russia. Russia’s finish allowed Japan to inch closer to Russia in the standings. Japan sits in major danger of once more being relegated (12 points) a mere six points back of Russia (18). A challenge trophy final in Hong Kong could see Japan overtake Russia, should the Russians finish last for a third consecutive tournament.
And for those looking ahead to Hong Kong for who may be the next core team, Chile’s hard work paid off with a win over Russia in the challenge trophy quarterfinal, before losing to Wales in the semifinal. The six series points puts Chile ahead of Uganda (4) and Papua New Guinea (2) on the list of non-core invitees, each of which will compete in Hong Kong. Nevertheless, Spain, the Olympic repechage winner and former core team remains the favorite to return to the series.