Team USA Narrowly Avoids Disaster, Claims Bronze Medal
After reaching the pinnacle of the sport at the USA Sevens by claiming the tournament trophy and having reached the final in the first five tournaments of the year, team USA has limped into the back half of the season. It started with a disappointing fourth-place finish in Vancouver, falling to a French team in the semifinal that had finished dead last just one week before. The Eagles went 3–3 in Vancouver and opened the door for a challenger to unseat them from the top spot in the series standings. In Hong Kong, it took a major break for the United States to even reach the cup round. Once there, it was a bit more business as usual, with the Eagles notching a sixth podium finish in seven outings. But with just three tournaments to go, the American grip on the overall title is beginning to weaken.
The tournament could barely have started better. As the top seed in Pool D, the Eagles took on the bottom seed, Spain, to get things underway. A first-half brace of tries from Stephen Tomasin, along with scores by Matai Leuta and Martin Iosefo gave the United States a commanding 22–0 lead heading into the second half. A quick score by Carlin Isles was answered by Spain. But the Spanish team could not crack further into the American lead before Brett Thompson could add a sixth try for team USA. Following Madison Hughes’s third conversion of the match, the Eagles stood atop the pool standings with the 36–7 victory to close Day 1.
That lone victory and dominant margin was fortunately just enough to save team USA after a disastrous Day 2. Against Wales, which is a side flirting with relegation, the Eagles looked anything but heavy favorites. Just 48 seconds in, Wales capitalized on a turnover inside the USA five-meter line by Isles by dotting it down to the left of the post. Three minutes later, Isles got the United States on the board. The conversion from Kevon Williams made it level at 7–7. But the American errors continued to pile up, with the restart kick going directly into touch. That gave Wales possession and soon saw the Welsh back in front by seven points. The conversion that would prove crucial came from the right touchline. The Eagles answered back with a second try by Isles after a tremendous team effort with no time remaining in the half. Folau Niua connected on the conversion to make it even at intermission.
Coming out of halftime, Isles completed his hat trick within the first forty seconds to apparently put the Eagles where they needed to be to come away on top. A win would have meant a sewn-up bid to the quarterfinal. The conversion, however, was off and Wales stood just five points behind with five and a half minutes to go. An error on the restart gave Wales its second free-kick of the contest and set the tone for the final five minutes.
With three minutes to go, Martin Iosefo looked set to score a try to put his side two scores in front. Instead, it was a tremendous Welsh chase and forced knock on to keep the Americans from increasing their lead. The effort proved crucial as Wales was able to be the next to score, adding a converted try to take the lead with 1:35 to go. The score gave Wales a lead that they did not surrender.
After a stunning defeat to Wales, the Eagles needed one of two things to happen: (1) Spain to beat Wales to open the door for a 1–2 team USA to advance to the cup round on points differential or (2) a win over England. Fortunately for the United States, Spain pulled the upset. That still left a matter of seeding in the matchup with England. The winner would go on to face Samoa and the loser would face Vancouver Sevens champion, South Africa.
With both sides looking for the easier path to the final, England proved the more determined squad. Harry Glover, then Dan Norton, and finally Phil Burgess each managed converted tries for England before the United States got on the board. Facing a 21–0 hole, team USA finally claimed points as the final minute of the first half got underway. The score came by way of Ben Pinkelman taking a pass from Hughes for the try under the post. Hughes added the conversion to make it 21–7. The Americans chipped away at the lead a bit more when Pinkelman added his second try just before the half, making England pay for trying to build on its lead instead of accepting the margin and going to intermission. With the conversion missed, halftime saw England in front 21–12.
The Eagles hopes surged when Pinkelman made it a hat trick in the corner off a fantastic pass from Niua. Hughes’s conversion attempt was again astray, keeping England ahead 21–17. With just over two minutes to go, Kevon Williams was sent off on a questionable yellow card for poaching a ball without a clear release. England instantly used the advantage to push ahead 28–17. With just twenty-two seconds difference between the game clock and the penalty clock, the two-point deficit was too much for team USA. The Americans added a consolation try from Marcus Tupuola to set the final margin at 28–22.
Fortunate to be into the cup round, the Eagles knew they had to play much better to get past the perennial power, South Africa. And so, they did. South Africa was first to score, just over a minute in. But Isles’s two converted tries were enough to put team USA in front at the close of the half. The first was signature Carlin Isles blistering down the leftwing midway into the first half. The second was no less impressive as he carved up the South African defense with tremendous footwork to end the half.
The second half, however, started with South Africa forcing an American turnover and rapid try just forty seconds in. The makeable conversion was no good, leaving the United States narrowly ahead. A third converted try for team USA, coming by way of Pinkelman, put team USA ahead 21–12 with a quarter of the contest to go. Disciplined play and staunch defense saw the line hold up and the United States come victorious.
While the quarterfinal was much kinder to the Eagles than either Day 2 contest, the semifinal did not go their way. Fiji’s first score was the epitome Fijian excellence: a great defensive stop and turnover at Fiji’s own five-meter line instantly turned into points going the other way. The United States did not back down; Isles answered back with a cracking run off his own in the sixth minute to try under the post and level the contest. As the half came to a close, it was another seven-pointer to Fiji. The Eagles had possession and an opportunity to grab the lead, but coughed up a penalty and the ball at the American ten-meter line, yielding seven points mere seconds later.
The second half started with a third converted Fijian try to put the Americans down 21–7, with the attack starting right after a turnover by team USA inside the Fiji twenty-two. The resulting restart was blown dead with a Fijian player ahead of the kicker. The free kick for team USA was taken by Kevon Williams who took the tap, picked up the ball, and carved up the defense for a seven-pointer to get the Americans back in the match.
A knock on by Fiji in the restart opened the door for an Eagles come back. But, again, it was Fiji soon forcing an American turnover inside Fijian territory and then breaking away for a converted score. Isles added another try to close the match, but it was too little too late. Fiji, not the United States, was heading to face France in the final.
With ranking-points on offer, team USA sought its sixth podium finish of the season and had to do so with Martin Iosefo as an injury scratch. Just over four minutes in, Maceo Brown crossed for a try to the right of the post. It became 10–0 for team USA when Isles fought through a tough defense to score in the left corner. The Samoans still had enough time to answer back before the half and capitalized on it with an unconverted try of their own.
Needing a strong finish to a tough tournament, the Americans won a yellow card in the first minute of the second half, opening the door for the Eagles to extend their lead. Joe Schroeder gladly galloped through the open door for a try just to the left of the post two minutes into the second half. Tomasin connected on the conversion for the twelve-point lead. The next points went to the United States as well, this time coming from Tupuola, to put the match out of reach. Samoa mustered one more score, but could not keep the Americans off the podium: USA 22, Samoa 10.
The result leaves team USA on the top of the table with 130 points, Fiji in second at 123, and New Zealand has slipped to third at 118. The battle for fourth will heat up as South Africa (99) is likely too far behind to reach New Zealand in third but within reach of England (90). Samoa in sixth at 74 points will likely need to look to the qualification tournaments to book a first-ever spot in the Olympic games, having missed out on qualification in 2016. For team USA, a strong showing in Singapore may be enough to secure a top-four finish with two tournaments to go.
Of additional note coming out of Hong Kong, Brazil has claimed the core spot on offer in the women’s series and Ireland has done the same for the men’s series. The action continues next weekend in Singapore.