USA Ranked #1 In the World
A historic two weeks has seen team USA reach unprecedented heights. After just the fifth and sixth ever finals appearances for the United States, the consecutive silver-medal finishes have propelled the Eagles to the top of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Standings. Before this season, team USA had never been higher than third in the standings. Now, in consecutive weeks, the United States has set a new bar for excellence. And it could not have come at a better time, with this season being an Olympic qualifying season in which the top four teams at season’s end automatically qualify for the 2020 games in Tokyo.
The two finals losses are disappointing ends to otherwise phenomenal outings by the Americans, who are now 9–3 on the season. A notable statistic in that 9–3 record is that there is no team that the United States has faced this season that the Americans have not defeated at least once. By comparison, there were three nations team. USA failed to post a victory over last season: South Africa (0–1), Kenya (0–2–2), and Ireland (0–1). Across those twelve matches, team USA has victories over Argentina, Australia, England, Fiji, Japan, New Zealand, Spain (2x), and Wales. The three defeats came against New Zealand (2x) and Fiji. That means wins over each of the other three top-four teams (New Zealand, Fiji & England) along with victories over top-ten opponents in Australia (5th), Argentina (8th), and Spain (9th).
Let’s look at how it happened. Starting pool play, the Eagles took on Japan as the heavy favorite. The Americans proved the lofty expectations well-earned against the Japanese. Martin Iosefo got team USA on the board with a run covering half the pitch from the offload by Madison Hughes. Stephen Tomasin’s conversion made it 7–0 with just over a minute gone. Hughes soon found the try line for a self-converted seven try of his own. The scoreboard continue to tick after the restart with a quick score by Perry Baer and try by Tomasin, making it 21–0 midway through the half. A minute later, it was Tomasin for the full-pitch score and conversion, pushing the advantage to 28–0. Tomasin struck again to close the half with a try under the post to make it 35–0, putting any doubt in the result to an end before the intermission.
In the second half, it was Brett Thompson fending off a tackle for a breakaway score, converted by Tomasin. Matai Leuta’s score two minutes later along with Tomasin’s conversion made it 49–0. But the scoring was not quite done. There was still time for last season’s Series try-scoring champion, Carlin Isles, to get in the scorer’s column for his third of the season. That score set the final margin: USA 54, Japan 0.
With the dominant victory over Japan in the books, team USA turned to Spain, a team the Americans had little difficulty with the week before. But Spain looked to be improved in form this week, with an impressive win over Argentina (35–12) to start the day. Kevon Williams found an angle off a penalty lineout throw to get the first points of the match in the second minute. Tomasin’s conversion made it 7–0 and it looked like team USA was poised to roll over Spain as the Americans had against Japan.
Spain did not let things go so easily for team USA. An interception a minute later leveled the contest. And Spain made it 12–7 with a quick try right off the restart. The Eagles righted the ship after that, even managing to retake the lead before halftime. The score for the lead came from Tomasin who capped off a remarkable run by Baker. Tomasin converted his own score to make it 14–12, which is where the score stood on halftime.
In what would become a recurring theme in the tournament, a close contest in the first half turned into a runaway for the Americans in the second half. But that was not before Spain put a real fear in team USA with an unconverted try to start the second half, taking a 17–14 lead into the ninth minute.
Facing a stunning defeat, the Eagles finally took control of the match with four unmatched scores to close the contest. The first came from Danny Barrett mixing pace and power for the score under the post. Hughes added the conversion to make it 21–17. Then it was Tomasin making it a brace with hi second score capping off a fifty-meter run. Up 26–17, the next points were added by Isles who stepped through a tackle on against the touchline to make it 31–17 with seconds remaining. Madison Hughes pushed it to 33–17 right before the hooter sounded. There was just enough time left for one more score and that time yielded the final score for team USA, this time coming by way of Marceo Terrel Brown, marking his first career score as a full Eagle. On full time: USA 38, Spain 17.
With a dominant points differential, the Eagles needed to just avoid a huge margin of defeat to Argentina and the top seed from the pool was theirs. Kevon Williams capitalized on turnover ball to give the Eagles the first lead at the start of the third minute. Hughes made the conversion to complete the seven-point score. Shockingly, those would be the only points for team USA in the half. In the fourth minute, a turnover gave Argentina the leveler. Following a yellow card to Danny Barrett, Argentina made it seven more for a 14–7 lead at the break.
The second half was, like it had been against Spain, a tale of two halves. Madison Hughes leveled the match with a short-hand try to burn the Barrett yellow card and pull to within two points of the South Americans. A steal of the restart paid off when Folau Niua kicked ahead for chasing Martin Iosefo and the go-ahead score. Hughes’s conversion made it 19–14 with four minutes to go. Perry Baker’s interception a minute later led to a third try of the half for team USA, this one by Matai Leuta in the corner, making it a ten-point lead for the United States. A yellow card for a deliberate knock on dashed Argentina’s hopes of two quick scores to salvage the contest. Left short-handed for the remainder of the match, Argentina was unable to cut into the American lead, instead surrendering seven more points, by way of Perry Baker and converted by Hughes, to end the match: USA 31, Argentina 14.
The tremendous day 1 booked the United States a date with England in the quarterfinal. It was the first time the teams met since the tremendous quarterfinal contest in the World Cup that saw England advance in added extra time over the United States. The Americans entered the match desperate to avenge that defeat and to continue a great run in Cape Town.
It was England with the first points a mere 19 seconds in following a great kickoff and steal. The Eagles responded with another excellent kick through by Folau Niua and scooped by Martin Iosefo, then offloaded for the score and conversion by Madison Hughes to tie it up. England missed out on the go-ahead score with 2:30 to go in the half, as the American defense held the ball up in goal. England again missed out as the ensuing scrum looked to set England up for a score but a knock on at the wing and penalty gave the Eagles a lineout at their own twenty-two. It proved only a temporary delay as a knock on passing down the chain, gave England an attacking scrum ten meters out of the USA line. It took some work, but Dan Bibby was game for the work to put England up 12–7 on the stroke of halftime.
Just as they had against Argentina and Spain, team USA went to the huddle with a lot to work on. But, proving the masters of the second-half, the Eagles put together a major second-half effort to get things done. It took a sizeable chunk of the final seven minutes for the Eagles to get the score that would tie things up. With 3:15 to go, Danny Barrett threw a stiff arm and dove into the right corner to make it 12–12. Hughes’s go-ahead conversion attempt was well-struck, but was off the mark.
A penalty on the restart, gave the Eagles a lineout inside the England twenty-two with 72 seconds to go. Following the lineout, a loose ball bounced the way of Iosefo for a burst up to the England five-meter line. An offload to Danny Barrett under the post, sent Barrett in for his second try of the half and Hughes for the conversion to take the full-score lead with just enough time for a restart. England was unable to overcome the deficit as the United States held on for the 17–12 birth into the semifinal.
In the semifinal, it was New Zealand awaiting team USA. After two losses to the All Blacks Sevens in Dubai meant settling for silver, team USA was keen to not make it three from three to start the season. Things could scarecely have started better. Barrett stole the kickoff and, after several phases, it was Stephen Tomasin in for the opening score just 29 seconds gone. Up 5–0, the Eagles knew that more points would be needed to secure their first back-to-back finals appearances. Barrett again stole the restart to put the United States on attack. Niua tried to kick through the defense, as he had with success throughout the tournament. This one did not end like the others, but still resulted in an attacking USA scrum inside New Zealand’s twenty-two. A penalty at the scrum kept New Zealand under pressure. New Zealand managed to catch Danny Barrett over the try line and push him back. But a penalty prevented New Zealand from releasing the pressure, ultimately paying off for the Eagles with a pick and go from Iosefo to put the Americans up 10–0. Hughes made the conversion for the 12–0 lead four minutes in.
New Zealand finally managed to get some possession on the restart. Despite getting inside the USA twenty-two, a penalty forced by a red-hot Barrett ended the All Blacks Sevens’ attack. As the crowd showed its partisan stripes strongly in favor of the Eagles, Niua kicked for touch to begin the Americans’ attack to close the half. That attack paid off with a perfect example of a Danny Barrett try. Taking an offload from Ben Pinkelman at midfield and then throwing two shoulder charges against two New Zealand defenders, he lept into the right corner for the score. Inspired by Barrett’s brilliance, Hughes struck the tough conversion for the 19–0 halftime lead.
The second half continued with American dominance. Madison Hughes found space into the New Zealand twenty-two and soon it was the ball out on the wing to Baker for the try in the left corner for a try in the first minute of the half to make it 24–0. New Zealand finally answered back, capitalizing on an American error when Baker set the ball back but no one was there. The seven-point reversal came as the Eagles were hammering New Zealand on attack. Down 24–7 with 2:38 to go, New Zealand needed every break to get back into the match. Instead, the next score went to the United States coming from Carlin Isles with his signature speed blistering through the defense. Tomasin added the conversion to make it 31–7 with just enough time for the restart. New Zealand managed a consolation score, but far too little, far too late: USA 31, New Zealand 12.
Into the final to face Fiji, team USA had a lot of confidence. The Americans have matched up well with Fiji the last three seasons. Coming into Cape Town, the two teams had split their last six matches, including a USA victory (24–14) in the Dubai quarterfinal. Unfortunately for the United States, this was not to be a repeat of the week before.
Team USA started with possession and made the first two attacking threats. The Fijians, however, managed to bottle up Perry Baker, who almost certainly would’ve scored the opening try in the first minute coming off the wing against most every team on the Series. Instead, it was three Fijians swarming Baker to end the attack. Moments later, it was Baker again trying to test the right wing, but he was dragged to touch. From the lineout, Fiji’s Kalione Nasoko put on a clinic as he outran the American defense and threw a perfectly timed dummy to pull Iosefo off his feet on the chase and end any threat of being caught from behind.
With just over two minutes to go in the half, Baker again looked like he would catch the edge and scamper away. Instead, he was once more brought down. The Americans continued to threaten until a pass went directly from Niua to Vilimoni Botitu for an interception and nothing but grass in front of the Fijian for a try under the post and a twelve-point lead. Down but not yet out, team USA looked to get one last crack at points before the half. But, again, it was Fiji, not the Eagles claiming points. A third try coming by an American error as Baker’s one-handed carry resulted in a dropped pass and open path for Fiji’s 17–0 halftime lead.
Needing to finally get on the board, the Americans could not afford to let Fiji score another unanswered try. Unfortuantely for team USA’s hopes of a third cup victory, it was Fiji scoring next. Again, it came thanks to a USA error. Having stolen a lineout inside their own twenty-two, the Americans had a chance to cut into Fiji’s lead, but, instead, a pass from Iosefo out to Baker went forward and into touch, keeping Fiji inside the USA twenty-two with the ball. That possession yielded the next points of the half when Botitu broke free for his second try of the match.
The hopes of an American victory quickly dwindling, the Eagles’ did not pull up. Fiji’s error on the restart gave team USA centerfield free kick. Niue took the tap and hit Pinkelman on the right wing who broke through multiple tackles for a try in the right corner to make it 22–5. With three minutes to go, team USA had a prayer but could not afford to give up any more points.
The United States stole the restart and won a penalty. Still, it was Fiji that stood sufficiently strong in defense and broke team USA’s back when Nasoko again cut through the defense to score yet another try. In the process, Niua was shown a yellow card for a high tackle. Down 29–5 with 90 seconds left, the result was certain. A second try by Pinkelman to cap off great runs by Brett Thompson and Matai Leuta, along with a try on full time by Carlin Isles, flattered the score line but did nothing to reverse the result. Although team USA outscored Fiji in the second half, in the end, it was not to be. The gold and cup, this day, was Fiji’s: Fiji 29, USA 15.
For their tremendous efforts, Madison Hughes and Danny Barrett were selected to the tournaments Dream Team, after the Americans were snubbed in Dubai. Barrett also received the UL Mark of Excellence Award for his performance, especially his game-winning score against England and his cracking score on New Zealand.
The United States has now reached six cup finals all time. Three of those have come in the span of just eight tournaments, dating back to the 2018 USA Sevens. The six appearances is good for eighth most of any nation, moving the United States one ahead of Kenya (5). Argentina sits at seventh most with 13. The two cup titles for the Americans is a three-way log jam with Argentina and Scotland for seventh most and five behind Australia at sixth. New Zealand leads all nations with 57 cup victories, followed by Fiji (37), South Africa (29), England (19), and Samoa (10).
If the United States is going to contest for a first-ever Series championship, the Eagles will have to find more success in finals. Through two tournaments, team USA has settled for two silver medals. To date, no team has won the Series title with fewer than two cup wins. South Africa managed to do just that last season, even overcoming Fiji’s five cup victories in the process. New Zealand also won the overall championship despite only two cup victories an astonishing three times: 2002–03, 2003–04 & 2012–13. The most common number of cup wins for a series champion is 4, which is a shade more than the average number of cups for a champion (3.89). While the United States may not need the 7 tournament crowns that New Zealand hoisted in 2001–02 or even South Africa’s 5 in 2016–17, there is little doubt that team USA will need to grow the trophy cabinet if the Eagles are to land atop the standings at season’s end.
The Series will return on January 26, 2019 in Hamilton, New Zealand with team USA entering for the first time as the number 1 ranked team in the world.