Wellington 7s Preview
After a brief hiatus, the HSBC Sevens World Series enters 2017 with a handful of squads looking to stop recent skids and several more looking to prove that recent success is not fleeting. For the men of the United States Eagles, the task, as it has been ever since hoisting the cup in London to close the 2015 season, is to prove that long-term success can be sustained and that team USA can be a legitimate threat to win every tournament.
For both of those aims, it is safe to say that the team has fallen below its own expectations through two legs of the tournament. But, as compared to where the squad was when Coach Mike Friday took the reigns in 2014–a team that had just finished 13th overall and never higher than 10th–a disappointing three-way tie at 7th still shows a bright future. A seventh-place finish in Cape Town has led to a tough draw for team USA in Pool C.
Although the Americans must feel hard done by drawing the New Zealand All Blacks Sevens on home soil along with the consistently inconsistent France and Samoa, which recently turned head coaching duties to the most accomplished coach in sevens history, Sir Gordon Tietjens, the side that should feel most unfortunate but the rub of the draw is South Africa. The Pool B draw is one of the toughest in recent memory. It bears reminder that the afterthought of Pool B, Japan, is a side that finished fourth in Rio just four months ago. Nevertheless, Japan should not be expected to contest for a top eight finish trying to come through Pool B.
The meat of Pool B is in the southern hemisphere juggernauts that are seeded first through third. In Dubai, South Africa won the cup, Fiji was runner-up, and Australia finished fifth. Currently, South Africa tops the series standings and Fiji is the two-time defending series champion and Olympic gold medalist. Although Australia poses a series threat to shaking up the standings if the Aussies can break through for a top-eight birth, the Fijians and the Blitzboks are strong favorites to top the pool. However, both Fiji and South Africa will be looking to do so with some new faces. Fiji has added five players from its developmental side that just won the Sudamerica Rugby Sevens Series. South Africa has made two injury substitutions for Kyle Brown and Cecil Afrika. Expect the Blitzboks to be fired up as talismanic Seabelo Senatla is set to play his final two legs of the series before stepping into a 15s role in Super Rugby. Senatla stands a mere seven tries shy of the career try-scoring record for South Africa and will be anxious to eclipse Fabian Juries mark of 179.
Pool A is considerably weaker. Non-core invitee Papua New Guinea will struggle to find much traction in the pool headed by a resurgent English squad that sits second in the series and was champion in Cape Town. The battle for second in Pool A should come down to the winner of Kenya vs. Argentina. The Argentines are just months removed from a stellar 2015–16 season that saw them finish fifth overall, including three semifinal appearances and one runner-up finish. This season, Argentina’s best finish has been tenth, leaving them in eleventh overall. Kenya, like Argentina, had a memorable season last year. Kenya finished seventh overall that was marked by erratic performances. A mere two tournaments stood between a last-place finish in Vancouver and a first-ever cup victory in Singapore. This season, Kenya has the slight edge on performance, finishing sixth in Cape Town, but sit a mere one spot ahead of Argentina in the standings. This match will almost certainly come down to which side brings its A-game on Saturday.
Pool D is an interesting pool. Heading into the final stop of last season, these four squads were ranked eleventh through fourteenth in almost the exact same order they are drawn in Pool D–Canada and Russia were swapped. Since then, Scotland won the 2016 London Sevens, Wales won the bowl, the sides contributed to a silver-medal winning team Great Britain at the Olympics, and each has reached a semifinal this season, while not finishing lower than seventh. A developing team Russia and a team Canada that has been in free fall ever since reaching the final of the 2014 Scotland Sevens do not look positioned to shake things up in Wellington.
Pool C will be an important litmus test for team USA. New Zealand has proven near invincible on home soil, having won nine of the seventeen Wellington Sevens, five of the last six, and three in a row. This is certainly not the All Blacks Sevens of old. The side has unperformed the last several seasons and registered such a disastrous showing at the Olympics that Coach Tietjens is now with Samoa. It is a realistic and important target for the Eagles to try and win Pool C. Mind you, the United States had never defeated New Zealand prior to last season, but went 4–3 against this weekend’s host just last year. France proved more difficult, with the French holding the season edge at 3–2, including carrying a two-match win streak. Finally, Samoa is the absolute wildcard. Like Kenya, Samoa registered a fairly poor season last year, and for the past several seasons, but still managed to win the 2016 Paris Sevens. Last year, team USA went 2–1 against Samoa and has already added a comprehensive victory over Samoa this year, besting Samoa (28–14) to win the Challenge Trophy in Dubai.
The Eagles have assembled their strongest squad since the Olympic games. Captain Madison Hughes returns after missing Cape Town for a brief respite. Also returning to the squad are Brett Thompson and speedster Carlin Isles, both coming off of injury. Isles, who was hampered much of last season with injuries, brings an important dynamic back to the squad. The self-proclaimed chuckle brothers of Isles and Perry Baker are a dual threat with roadrunner speed that have been used to great effect by Coach Friday in replacing each other, keeping fresh legs on the field against weary defenders. In Isles’ absence, Baker has become a standalone star on the series, claiming a spot on the Dream Team at season’s end. Nevertheless, these two electric players work best in tandem.
A somewhat surprising return to the squad is Andrew Durutalo, who will, to the great fortune of the Eagles, not be returning to Super Rugby at this time. The combination of Durutalo and Danny Barrett was one of the primary springboards to the great success in 2014–15. Less surprising inclusions are Eagles regulars Folau Niua, Matai Leuta, and Martin Iosefo. Both Stephen Tomasin and Don Pati return after seeing their first time on the series in the Mike Friday era in the prior leg of the series.
Notable omissions are Maka Unufe, Zack Test, and Garrett Bender. Unufe is unavailable due to injury, while Test and Bender remain on well-earned respite following several seasons of constant commitment. A futher omission, despite initially being tabbed for the squad is Kevon Williams, who was injured in training and replaced by Connor Wallace-Sims of Old Blue of New York.
A couple interesting notes from the official squad roster listed on World Rugby’s website merit mention. Peculiarly, Chris Brown is listed as coach. Brown filled in for Friday at Cape Town due to commitments for Friday on the Eagles XVs team. By all appearances, it looks like Friday is set to coach the side in Wellington with Friday tweeting Thursday morning from Wellington. With the fifteens team set to compete in the Americas Rugby Championship starting next weekend it is conceivable that Friday might need to turn control to Brown again.
Perhaps more noteworthy is the inclusion of Pagopagohokma Haini, who appears to go by Pago for short, in the official squad. Haini appears to be a well-regarded player for the Marist St. Pats Rugby Club in Wellington. With recent news of the bankruptcy of kit sponsor BLK resulting in a need to tighten the belt for the sevens squad, the team was unable to bring injury subs on the traveling squad. What appears to have happened is that the squad has invoked uncommon, but certainly not unheard of, practice of tabbing a local player as a potential injury sub. I can recall a depleted Wales turning to American Jason Pye for injury cover at the 2010 USA Sevens. Haini, as the thirteenth man, is not on the official twelve-man roster and will not be available without injuries.
The action gets underway on Saturday (1/28) and concludes on Sunday (1/29). Check back for a breakdown of