USA Sevens Preview
It’s that most wonderful time of the year for USA rugby fans. From Wednesday’s Ultimate Vegas Sports Pep Rally at the Toshiba Plaza just outside T-Mobile Arena along with the LVI kickoff and Parade of Nations on Thursday, this weekend is easily the premiere rugby weekend in North America even before you get into the international play. But, of course, the marquee of it all is the USA Sevens leg of the HSBC Sevens World Series.
For team USA, a series of injuries has marred would could otherwise be a tremendous season for the Eagles. The injury in the opening match of Dubai to World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year Perry Baker led to a horrendous last-place finish. But that was followed up with a 6th-place result in Cape Town without Baker. Sydney was an even better turn around as the Eagles rose to 4th-place despite accruing a host of injuries. But the injuries proved too much to sustain quarterfinal appearances in Hamilton, as the United States was left to compete for the Challenge Trophy. Making the best of a less than desirable circumstance, the Americans dug deep and throttle the opposition on the final day to claim the trophy and build some momentum heading to the fifteenth annual USA Sevens in Las Vegas.
The United States head to Vegas having reached the semifinals in each of the last three seasons. With four semifinals overall, the Eagles hold the dubious distinction of most semifinal appearances without a cup in the USA Sevens. Compare that to defending USA Sevens Champion South Africa which has claimed the most cup titles at the event and has reached the semifinal every year since 2011. But the Eagles have a favorable pool to get things done this year.
The United States will take on Australia, Samoa, and Spain in pool play. Due to the unusual third seed, the Eagles will take on both Australia and Samoa before closing against Spain. A win against either Australia or Samoa should position team USA for a win-and-in match against Spain, a nation the Americans have beaten twice this year (26–5 & 29–12). The big challenge will be coming out firing against an always difficult Samoa. With strong fan support every year in Vegas, Samoa has a history of playing very well at the USA Sevens, including two cup victories. Further, despite entering the season on a five-match slide against the United States, Samoa has won both contests this season, including a 14–10 victory in Hamilton. Nevertheless, Samoa is a team the United States must and should beat on home soil.
That leaves Australia. Despite playing phenomenally well of late, including winning the cup in Sydney, Australia has struggled mightily against the Eagles in recent years. In Coach Mike Friday’s first season (2014–15), his squad claimed a 3–2 record over Australia, including the cup final in London. The following season, Australia edged out the season record (1–2). But in 2016–17, the United States took 4 of 5 from Australia and have split both matches on the Series this season.
The last time Australia and the United States faced off on US soil was four months ago in the inaugural Silicon Valley Sevens, where Australia mounted a comeback to claim the cup title. Still, as the last match for either team on Friday, the heavily partisan crowd will expect the United States to win and will undoubtedly provide noise and energy to aid in the endeavor.
Aside from the obvious need to get wins to reach the cup round, a win over Australia may also be the difference between facing South Africa in the quarterfinal or facing England. Fans of USA rugby need not be reminded that the Blitzbokke pose a uniquely difficult challenge for the Eagles and would be gladly avoided at this juncture.
The road to a first-ever cup victory on American soil will be tougher than usual given injuries to two of the unsung heroes of team USA: Madison Hughes and Stephen Tomasin. I have little doubt that many will be shocked by me referring to either man as unsung, especially given Hughes’s role as captain when healthy, but the simple fact is that it is easy to overlook the brilliance of either man on the pitch as both are constantly in the right spot at the right time and deceptively important because you don’t have to see them making miraculous tackles because they were in the right spot to prevent the line break in the first place.
But the team does have four otherwise indispensable players in the lineup: Perry Baker, Folau Niua, Danny Barrett, and Ben Pinkelman, who will captain the squad. If you know anything about team USA then you know Baker is the reigning Sevens Player of the Year and a try-scoring machine, having overtaken Zack Test’s career try-scoring record in the last tournament. Danny Barrett is also impossible to overlook as a non-stop bruising force on the pitch. Folau Niua is also easy to overlook if you just watch the big hits and breaks, but he is quite possibly the most valuable player on the squad. Without his consistent restarts, the United States would not lead the Series in winning restarts, which is the sine qua non to the team’s success under Coach Friday. And Ben Pinkelman is a machine in the lineup that has claimed eight tries this season and is a workhorse in every match. There is a reason he was named to the Dream Team in Sydney.
Those longing for a glimpse of Zack Test, will get a chance in Vegas as the man who remains atop the career caps list will be honored and, as RugbyToday’s Pat Clifton reports, is expected to officially announce his retirement.
Also set to see an important role in the lineup will be Martin Iosefo. After some inconsistency in years past, Iosefo has earned himself a consistent spot in the starting lineup. Similarly expect to see Maka Unufe, Matai Leuta, and Kevon Williams each pushing for a spot in the starting lineup in Vegas. It will be interesting to see what combination of the three Coach Friday goes with in the clutch. Leuta, Unufe, and Williams each claimed two starts in the three matches in the Challenge Trophy phase of Hamilton.
Joining them are Joe Schroeder, who saw very little playing time in Hamilton, appearing only at the end of the opening loss to Canada and in blowout time against Papua New Guinea. And that was after a start in the bronze-medal match in Sydney. Schroeder has a lot of potential, it will be interesting to see if he is more frequently on the field in Vegas.
Malon Al-Jiboori also returns to the squad. He was in the lineup for Dubai and Cape Town but out of the mix for Sydney and Hamilton. In the meantime, he has earned a cap with the XVs national team, scoring a try under the post in a route over Chile. Chris Mattina will also make his third-consecutive squad, winning only his third cap in the process.
Making. his debut for team USA is Cody Melphy. Melphy turned heads at the RugbyTown 7s tournament this past summer, captaining the AIG Men’s Collegiate All-Americans Sevens and earning himself an invite to the team USA training facility in the process.
And those who are disappointed to not see the Women’s World Series this year can rest assured that it will get to see the American women in action against the best team in the world: Australia. Teams from the two nations will face-off five times, with two matches in the main stadium. Look for the first match to take place on Friday at 2:30 pacific time to get things started with the kickoff of the men’s competition immediately after. The Australians and Americans will go at it again on Sunday at 2:18 right before the challenge trophy final. Their other three matches will be on Silver Bowl Field 14 at 10am on Friday, 9am, and noon Saturday
Matches will be covered across the ESPN family of networks. The full broadcast schedule is available here.