USA Sevens Preview
Once again, the HSBC Sevens World Series descends up one of the most famous cities in the world: Las Vegas, Nevada. The 2017 USA Sevens is already an historic event. For the first time, both the men’s and women’s USA competitions will be competed this weekend. After tremendous success in Australia, both the men and women of the USA Eagles are looking to prove that Australia was the turning point of their respective seasons, and not merely an aberration. In Australia, a depleted USA men’s squad bounced back from a season worst finish one week prior, to reach 6th in Sydney. For the women, it was a record-tying runner-up finish that thrust a program that looked wayward into the conversation of contenders to win the crown in Vegas.
Although no tournament is easy on either series, both Eagles squads have favorable draws and will look to impress in front of their home crowd fans.
For the men, the pool draw is as follows:
The second bid out of Pool A is absolutely up for grabs. Through four tournaments, France has twice broken into the top eight, the other two times finishing in the challenge trophy final. Wales, after struggling the past couple years, has thrice reached the top eight, with a fourth-place finish highlighting the season. Nevertheless, the one time Wales failed to make the top eight, the Welsh finished eleventh. Then there is Canada. The Canadians started the season with consecutive thirteenth-place finishes before jumping up to fourth in Wellignton before falling back to thirteenth in Sydney. The Canadians have the talent to beat France and Wales–Canada beat Wales in Wellington (28–5)–and have historically played extremely competitive rugby in competitions on their home continent, but only time will tell.
With back-to-back titles in Wellington and Sydney, the South African Blitzbokke have claimed three of the first four tournament titles to begin the season, and have opened up a wide lead over second-place England. South Africa enters Vegas as a strong favorite but will have to compete without the 2016 World Rugby Sevens Player of the year and try-record holder Seabelo Senatla, who has placed his sevens career on pause to pursue XVs in the hope of becoming a start for the two-time World Cup winning Springboks. Even without Senatla, South Africa should be expected to cruise through Pool A.
Pool C is similarly interesting. New Zealand has not been in its historic form for the past three years, opening the door for consecutive Fijian series titles in the process. Of course, out of form for New Zealand still meant four tournament titles and consecutive third-place series finishes. This season, however, has yet to produce a tournament title. And, in despite two bronze-medal finishes, New Zealand has also finished seventh and sixth. Granted, that’s a far cry from anyone else in Pool C, but it is well below the lofty expectations of the All Blacks Sevens.
In the history of the Series, now in its eighteenth year, New Zealand has never failed to reach the top eight and Vegas will not likely be the tournament that breaks that streak. Nevertheless, the are two teams in Pool C that pose a threat should New Zealand fail to bring its A game. After a slow start to the season, Argentina finished fifth in New Zealand and registered a top-eight finish in Sydney. Argentina is returning to form at the right time as the USA Sevens has long been favorable to the Argentines. Argentina has won only two tournament titles–each at the USA Sevens.
Another team that can be world beaters at times is Kenya. No matter where the tournament is held, there is always a raucous crowd in full support of the Kenyans. In recent years, Kenya has been a head scratcher. Kenya finished seventh in Vegas last year then the next weekend finished dead last in Vancouver. Just over a month later, the Kenyans hoisted a first ever cup title in Singapore. This season, Kenya has finished eleventh, sixth, ninth, and fourteenth.
Although Kenya and Argentina will likely be competing for the second seed behind New Zealand, there is a third squad that might push to crack the top eight. In Sydney, Russia pulled the upset over an injury-depleted team USA, then tore through Kenya (22–0), beat Samoa (17–12), and shutout France (26–0) to win the challenge trophy. Often dismissed as a second-tier prize, the challenge trophy is a meaningful accomplishment. Only two teams finish knockout play unbeaten: the cup champion and the challenge trophy winner. Russia looked in good form in those wins and could be set to make some noise in a pool amongst erratic competition.
Pool D is likely the most difficult pool draw, due in large part to Scotland’s poor performance in Sydney. Atop the pool draw is Australia, following a fourth-place finish in Sydney. The full body of Australia’s work shows that Sydney may well have been an aberration. After a fifth-place result in Dubai, Australia finished eleventh in Cape Town and tenth in Wellington. The second-seed, Fiji, will be the strong favorite to top the pool and joins South Africa as a favorite to win the USA Sevens, as they have done the last two seasons. This season Fiji has reached the final twice, only to lose to South Africa. The other two tournaments, Fiji tripped up in the quarterfinal and settled for fifth.
What makes Pool D remarkable is Scotland at the four seed. Last season, Scotland struggled to crack the top eight, doing so only twice. The second time, however, was at the London Sevens, at which the Scots claimed their first-ever cup victory. This season started well: sixth in Dubai, fourth in Cape Town, and the bronze in Wellington. Then Sydney happened. Scotland went from third to dead last in the span of a week. This weekend is hugely important in determining the trajectory of Scotland’s season.
The third seed in Pool D is also interesting. Two seasons ago, Japan crashed out of core team status. Last season, as a regular non-core invitee, Japan finished sixth in Vegas. The result helped to spring board Japan to victory in the qualifying tournament in Hong Kong and to a remarkable birth in the medal round at the Olympics. This year has been less kind, but Japan is looking to build on an eleventh-place finish in Sydney, having finished last in the prior three tournaments. Japan will not likely compete to advance out of Pool D, but may help trip up some of the teams ahead of them.
All eyes of the home crowd will be on Pool B. After an up and down season, team USA managed to overcome injuries to finish sixth in Sydney. The pool draw is quite favorable to a return to the quarterfinals. Samoa, once the class of the series, has failed to build on a cup title in Paris last season, having failed to reach the top eight since. The Eagles have beaten Samoa in both encounters this season.
Team USA will also be heavy favorites over Chile. The last two times the nations have met in a capped match, team USA won. The first was at the 2011 Pan Am games, where a fairly inexperienced American squad struggled for a 14–7 win. At the 2015 Pan Am games, team USA throttled Chile 52–0. Still, Chile has some momentum on its side. This Chilean squad carries consecutive wins over the USA Falcons, the developmental squad for the Eagles. Chile won (19–14) at the Punta Del Este Sevens to claim third, and again in the quarter final at the Vina Del Mar Sevens (26–10), back in January. Still, this Eagles squad should make short work of Chile to close Day 1.
The Eagles will be expecting wins over Samoa and Chile, while targeting a win over England to top the pool. The English have been on an amazing run this season. After a humiliating last-place finish in Vegas last year, England combined to form team Great Britain to claim silver in Rio, and has carried that momentum into this season. A bronze medal in Dubai, gold in Cape Town, and silver in Sydney, along with a quarterfinal appearance in Wellington, has England in second place overall. It will be a tough match to start Day 2, but the United States has named a strong squad capable of beating almost any team if it plays its game.
As usual, Madison Hughes captains the squad and is joined by Folau Niua, Danny Barrett, Andrew Durutalo, Stephen Tomasin, Matai Leuta, and Martin Iosefo. Bouncing back from an injury scare in Sydney is Perry Baker. Unfortunately, fellow speedster, Carlin Isles, who picked up in Baker’s absence to score five tries in Sydney, is done for the season with knee surgery. Returning to the squad are both Ben Pinkelman and Maka Unufe. Both are veterans of the series and are happy additions to the squad. Also returning is Pat Blair. Blair returns to the squad for the first time since Singapore last year.
Coach Mike Friday has named one debutant in his twelve-man squad: Walt Elder. Elder, who has played most recently for the Kansas City Blues, registered a strong performance at the Club 7s National Championships and managed to impress in camp back in September as one of a great many new faces. There is a second debutant listed as the thirteenth man: Malon Al-Jiboori. Twenty-year old Al-Jiboori, is an up and comer with Lindenwood. The Tulsa native, has competed in Vegas before as part of the High School All Americans in 2015. He also competed for the USA U20s at the World Rugby U20 Trophy, including a try in the fifth-place match victory over Uruguay. At 6’3″, 240lbs, Al-Jiboori brings an interesting mix of power and speed. Although designated as an injury-replacement, the fact that he has been named over other domestic players is a positive sign toward his standing with the current coaching staff.
As excited as American fans are to see the team USA men, they may be more excited to see the women. After a poor start to the season, the USA women shocked the world in reaching the cup final in Sydney. The tremendous finish has slotted the Eagles into a favorable pool in Vegas. The Americans will contest with Fiji, Ireland, and Spain. The Americans beat both Ireland (17–5) and Spain (20–5) in Sydney. The Americans split with Fiji in their last two meetings, each at the Olympics. A win over any two squads would secure a quarterfinal birth for team USA. From there, it’ll all be about match ups.
The squad that impressed at Sydney remains largely in tact. Leading the group is Alev Kelter, who captained the squad in Sydney, and notched thirty-six points. Also returning from Sydney are former captain Kelly Griffin, Naya Tapper (who paced all players with nine tries for forty-five points in Sydney and was named player of the final), Cheta Emba, Kate Zackary, Nicole Heavirland, Ryan Carlyle, Joanne Fa’avesi, and Kristen Thomas. Kelter, Emba, Zackary, Heavirland, Carlyle, Tapper, and Fa’avesi have remained together in every tournament this season, forming a core that seems to be gelling together. Griffin who made her season debut in Sydney is an experienced veteran as is Kristen Thomas, who competed in Sydney, but was sidelined due to injury concerns during the competition. Returning from Dubai but a late injury scratch for Sydney is Bulou Mataitoga. She was replaced on short notice by Hope Rogers who does not return for Vegas.
Also out are Kayla Canett, who won her first two caps in Dubai and Sydney, and Sarah Buonopane, who made her series debut in Sydney. In their place step two debutants looking to win their first caps: Kelsi Stockert and Nicole Snyder. Stockert joined Emba and Zackary, the latter having captained the squad, as part of the USA Falcons at the Okinawa Sevens Invitational Tournament. The Falcons won the competition. Snyder slides into an Eagles jersey after building an impressive resume on the collegiate level with Bloomsburg University.
Both the men and women get started on Friday (3/3). The women’s competition wraps up on Saturday (3/4), while the men finish things off Sunday (3/5). Check back throughout the competition for updates on the American teams.