USA Miss Cup Round; Kenya Makes History
The HSBC Sevens World Series was born in 1999. As of this time last year, only eight teams had ever claimed a cup title: New Zealand, Fiji, South Africa, England, Australia, Samoa, Argentina, and France. The United States broke through at the London Sevens in 2015 to increase that number to nine. In the series return to Singapore for the first time since 2006, Kenya increased that number to ten.
Kenya’s victory comes a little more than a year after the program all but imploded under budgeting issues and allegations of doping. The victory also comes in the second tournament after a dead-last finish in Vancouver. Recent results aside, this has been a day long in the making. Kenya is a proud rugby sevens nation that has long been recognized for playing an exciting brand of rugby and with fan support unmatched, at least among nations to have never previously lifted a cup title.
Kenya first reached a cup final at the 2009 Adelaide Sevens where the Kenyans were throttled (26–7) by South Africa. It would not be until 2013 that Kenya once more reached the final, this time losing 24–19 to England in the 2013 edition of the Wellington Sevens. In Singapore, the Kenyans left no doubters.
For team USA, Singapore was a far cry from the excitement and joy that surrounded Kenya.
Singapore would provide some of the most memorable upsets of the season, but it did not start that way. Pool C got things started. The opening match saw South Africa demolish Scotland (33–0). Kenya then took the pitch and took care of Russia (21–7). In the second round of matches, South Africa continued winning, but with a closer match against Russia (21–10). Kenya stumbled against Scotland and fell to a late draw (12–12). A South Africa victory over Kenya and a strong win for Scotland over Russia would mean that Scotland, not Kenya would reach the cup round. Kenya controlled its own destiny, however. If Kenya could defeat South Africa, then Scotland had no hope.
Scotland took the pitch against Russia first. Scotland soundly defeated Russia, but not without conceding seventeen points (36–17). This left Scotland at -14 in points differential, meaning Kenya would need to lose by more than twenty-eight. Kenya did, in fact, lose to South Africa but only by fourteen (14–0). This sent the Kenyans through to the cup quarterfinal and left Scotland to fight for the bowl.
Pool D was an interesting pool with each team having reached the cup round at some point in the season. Australia entered the strong favorite to top the pool, but Argentina entered desperate to snap a two-tournament bowl-round skid. The inspired Argentines, fresh off a bowl victory in Hong Kong, upset Australia (12–7). Japan, having just earned the right to return to the series as a core team in 2016–17, looked to build on a plate final in Las Vegas, which was Japan’s last series event. Japan succeeded in its first match, defeating Wales (26–19).
In the second round of matches, Japan gave Australia a game, but was unable to send Australia to a second loss (17–12). In the other match, Argentina continued to show great form, doubling up Wales (42–21). This left the third round as the decider. A Japanese upset over Argentina and an Australian victory would mean a three-way tie. Japan came close, but in the end was only able to claim a tie (21–21). Australia had little trouble with Wales (31–12). At the end of Day 1, Argentina topped the pool and Australia claimed the second seed to advance to the quarterfinal. The result knocked Wales out of consecutive quarterfinal appearances and prevented Japan from a second-consecutive quarterfinal.
In Pool A, the early story was Samoa upsetting series-leading Fiji (28–14). Portugal tried to follow suit with an upset over England, but was unable to mount enough offense to support a solid defensive performance. In the end, England came out on top (14–7). Against a Fijian side no doubt angry with a loss to Samoa, Portugal did not stand a chance: Fiji 38, Portugal 0. Things got even more interesting when England defeated Samoa (12–5). In the final round of pool play, Samoa defeated Portugal (28–12) and Fiji beat England (26–12). England’s low scoring proved its undoing as the English finished behind both Fiji and Samoa, respectively, on points differential.
For North American rugby fans, the opener to Pool B between Canada and the United States carried a great deal of excitement. Pool play began with France blanking New Zealand (24–0). Clearly Pool B was going to be every bit as difficult to advance from as many feared. The United States carried a record nine consecutive quarterfinal appearances into Singapore. If the Eagles were to make it ten, they would need to start by defeating Canada.
The first half could not have gone better for team USA. Madison Hughes got things going with a try after chasing a kick through the Canadian defense and then chipping the ball into goal and diving on it for the score in the right corner. The second score came when Perry Baker stole the restart and ran directly under the post for the second try. Hughes added the conversion to push the lead to twelve. The following kickoff was again stolen by Baker. The Ball worked to Hughes who chipped through the line for Zack Test and the try in the left corner. Again, Hughes was unable to connect on the conversion. Baker was again able get a hand on the restart, but this time was unable to bring it in. The Eagles would eventually regain possession and add a fourth try when Folau Niua kicked through the Canadian defense for Zack Test’s second try. Hughes added the conversion to push the lead to 24–0, where it would remain at half.
In the second half, the Eagles struck again early. Baker stole the restart and passed it to Danny Barrett for a try under the post. Hughes added the conversion. Canada would answer back with two converted tries, but the final score of the match would go the way of the United States when Hughes was able to score from an offload by Maka Unufe. Final score: USA 36, Canada 14.
With New Zealand looking vulnerable, hopes quickly sored of the United States topping the pool. First things first, however, team USA needed to defeat France. Typically, two victories would be enough to reach the cup round, but as England proved, it is not always enough. New Zealand beat Canada (24–17), meaning that even with a win over France, a tenth consecutive quarterfinal would not be assured by a win over France.
The match began with both teams playing sloppy rugby. France won the kickoff but was backed up early and lost possession by throwing an errant pass into touch just outside its own five-meter line. The Eagles won the lineout but lost possession when Danny Barrett was dragged into touch at the French five-meter. Ultimately, the Eagles would strike first when Madison Hughes picked the ball from the back of a scrum and ran a perfect line for a try in the right corner. Hughes, who struggled throughout the tournament from the boot, missed the conversion. It would come back to haunt him. France would add a five-pointer of its own to level the match at the break.
In the second half, France added two converted tries within the first three minutes to put the United States under serious pressure. Hughes closed the gap when he scored a try under the post from a pass by Zack Test and added his own conversion. Perry Baker soon added a third try in the right corner. Folau Niua stepped in for the long-distance conversion attempt to draw the match level. The conversion was no good. The final restart came with less than a minute remaining. The kickoff went behind France, but the Eagles could not get to the ball before the French. France managed to hold onto possession as time expired. With no time remaining, France booted the ball to touch to leave team USA needing a fourth ever victory over New Zealand to reach the cup round.
Before this season, the United States had never defeated New Zealand. The Eagles did so three times to start the year. New Zealand entered the match particularly vulnerable with captains Tim Mikkelson and D.J. Forbes out. A loss for New Zealand would mean falling to the bowl competition for the first time in program history. No other nation has reached the cup round in every tournament.
Perry Baker won the opening kick and turned on the speed to try and catch the right edge, but the All Blacks Sevens’ defense was swarming and kept him from finding space. New Zealand soon earned a penalty and booted for touch at the USA 10. The Kiwis won the lineout and broke through the American Defense for an unconverted try in the right corner. It did not take long for New Zealand to strike again with a converted try. The All Blacks Sevens added a third try and a conversion before the half to lead 19–0 at the break.
In the second half, the United States struck first when Maka Unufe broke several tackles to score under the post. Madison Hughes added the conversion with over four minutes left. Perry Baker looked to have a second try for the Americans when he kicked through the defense then chipped the ball into in-goal. By the time Baker was able to bring the ball into hand, he was unable to stop his foot from hitting the dead ball line, costing the score. The resulting dropout came with 2:49 left. New Zealand kicked deep, forcing team USA to work from deep in its own territory. The Americans managed to work into New Zealand territory when Danny Barrett tried to kick through the New Zealand defense for Perry Baker. Unfortunately, Barrett misread the defense and New Zealand had no difficulty scooping up the ball. Folau Niua forced a turnover at the New Zealand ten-meter line and soon kicked through the defense to Zack Test for a try in the left corner with just over a minute left. Hughes was unable to add the conversion. The restart came with fifteen seconds remaining. Baker was able to steal the restart and passed inside to Martin Iosefo, but the ball soon fell loose to the deck. New Zealand managed to kick the loose ball down field and into touch.
The loss left team USA in the bowl round for the first time since last year’s Tokyo Sevens. With France defeating Canada (26–19), New Zealand would be the second seed and France atop the pool.
After a disappointing Day 1, team USA looked to make a run through the bowl competition to claim the hardware on offer. Before the Eagles took the field, England defeated Wales (26–17), Scotland was victorious over Canada (26–19), and Portugal surprised Japan (14–7). This left the United States facing off against series newcomer Russia for the first time this season.
Getting his first start, Nate Ebner replaced Garrett Bender from the Day 1 lineup. Russia kicked deep to start the match and soon forced a turnover to setup great attacking position. At times, gaps formed in the USA defense but Russia proved incapable of exploiting them before conceding a penalty. From there, the Eagles executed textbook passing through the chain to eventually put Perry Baker in position to step through a tackle to score under the post. Madison Hughes added the conversion for the 7–0 lead. Danny Barrett added a second first-half try in the left corner to give his side a 12–0 lead going into the second half.
In the second half, Russia was awarded the first score of the half despite the replay clearly showing the Russian player had spilled the ball prior to reach the try line. The Americans answered back with a try from Maka Unufe off a great pass from Barrett. The conversion was no good. A fourth try came when Zack Test carved up the defense for the 135th try of his career. Hughes added the conversion to set the final margin: USA 24, Russia 5.
In the other semifinal, Scotland defeated rival England (19–14). It is the second time this season that the Scots have topped their British rivals in the bowl round. The loss for England comes just one week after winning the plate in Hong Kong. Inconsistency for what will be team Great Britain must remains a serious concern for selectors. For team USA, its semifinal opponent was Portugal. Though a historical sevens contender, Portugal has fallen to dead last among core teams and will be lucky to avoid relegation at year’s end.
Coach Friday went with a different looking starting lineup that left his captain and Danny Barrett on the bench. There was not much offensive success for either team in the first half. Nate Ebner was able to score the lone try of the half–his first career–when Zack Test managed to draw two tacklers and pass back inside to Ebner for the try under the post. Nate Augspurger added the conversion. In the second half, team USA blew the scoring open. Maka Unufe scored from a set piece off a pass from Pat Blair. Peter Tiberio added the conversion. The next score came when Portugal lost possession after two Portuguese players collided. Martin Iosefo got the ball moving forward and passed to Blair who passed to Ebner for another try. The conversion was no good. The next score came from Zack Test who sliced the defense for a score under the post. Augspurger added the conversion to set up the final score: USA 26, Portugal 0.
This left team USA right where it hoped to be once the cup round was out of reach: the bowl final. The United States entered as the favorite over Scotland, but not a strong favorite. The usual Eagles starting lineup took the pitch with the exception of Nate Ebner in place of Perry Baker. Scotland got on the board first after several minutes of a back-and-forth defensive struggle. Scotland scored and added the conversion just over four minutes into the half. It looked like the match would head to half with Scotland up by 7 as the waning minutes drifted away. Scotland tried to kick through the American defense but Maka Unufe looked primed to kick the ball to touch to end the half. Instead, the hard charging Scottish player arrived at the same time as Unufe who had attempted to position himself to kick the ball laterally into touch when a boot across the end line would have met the same result. The decision turned it into a soccer battle between Unufe and Scotland’s Robertson. Robertson got the better of Unufe and chipped ahead for the try. After the conversion, the match stood 14–0 in favor of Scotland at the half.
Zack Test added his sixth try of the tournament two minutes into the second half to inch his side closer to Scotland, but Hughes’s missed conversion left it a two-score game. Martin Iosefo knocked the restart ball back to Nate Ebner and the Eagles moved quickly inside the Scotland five-meter. The possession was lost when the ball was knocked loose from Test’s hands. Scotland won the five-meter scrum and tried to run from in goal. The Americans managed to force an untidy ball from the ruck and pounce on it. The ball worked to Unufe who pounded through the defense for the second try. Again, Hughes failed to convert, but this miss hardly mattered. The final restart came with under two minutes remaining. Unufe contested the ball but could not get a hand on it. Barrett then forced a turnover at midfield and the ball ended up in Folau Niua’s hands. Scotland was penalized and Niua kicked to touch inside the Scotland ten-meter. The Eagles won the lineout and worked the ball down the line, assisted by a possession saving tap pass by Hughes. The Eagles continued to hammer forward until Nate Ebner was tackled and called for a penalty with no time remaining. Scotland booted the ball into touch to end the match: Scotland 14, USA 10.
Falling to the bowl round is troubling at this late stage in the season. However, it merits note that the bowl final, though there a victor, is exactly where team USA was with two tournaments remaining last year. In the last two tournaments, the Eagles finished fourth and first. The pool draw for the next tournament, in Paris, provides favorable matchups for a return to the cup round. The pool includes Argentina, France, and Canada. Each are teams team USA can beat or lose to. It will not be easy, but the United States should be expecting a quarterfinal birth from that pool.
In the other competitions in Singapore, Wales defeated Canada (24–22) in the shield semifinal to drop Canada to last place and Russia did the same to Japan (17–15). In the bowl final, Russia comfortably slayed the Welsh dragon (24–7).
In the cup competition, the surprising Day 1 results led to an unbalanced bracket. The top four teams were each in the top half of the bracket with the less established nations in the bottom half. In the top half, Fiji edged Australia (19–14) and South Africa just got by New Zealand (12–7). In the lower half, Argentina booked a birth in the semifinal with a win over Samoa (12–7) and Kenya hammered France (28–7).
In the plate semifinal, New Zealand throttled Australia (31–7) and Samoa beat France (21–7). It was a disappointing finish for France after a great Day 1. The losses for Australia were also very disappointing after reaching four consecutive semifinals. In the plate final, Samoa claimed a second plate title in the last three tournaments, edging New Zealand 26–21.
In the cup semifinal, Fiji and South Africa battered each other in what many expected to be the de facto cup decider. Fiji came out on top: Fiji 26, RSA 21. In the other semifinal, Kenya got by Argentina (15–12). South Africa made short work of Argentina in the third-place match (28–0). Many expected Fiji to do the same against Kenya, but those of us who expected a blowout were right only in that there was a blowout, but dead wrong on who would prevail. Kenya turned on the style to finally bring home a cup to a nation that has long deserved it: Kenya 30, Fiji 7.
The series returns for the final two tournaments in May with the France Sevens in Paris.