| Complete Recap of the 2015 USA7s
Heading into the Las Vegas leg of the HSBC Sevens World Series it was clear that the quality of play and the pool draws aligned to set the stage for an incredible tournament. Even with elevated expectations in mind, the 2015 USA Sevens was breathtaking. Team USA entered seeking to avenge a tough loss last weekend in Wellington. Other nations, like New Zealand, South Africa, and Fiji looked to continue to build on great seasons. Still others, like Canada were trying to right the ship after a disappointing season. The 2015 USA Sevens lived up to all expectations and more.
Unlike seven of the nine tournaments in the Series, the USA Sevens spans three days of international play. Fitting this extended schedule, each side played two pool matches on Day 1, with the final pool match paired with the quarterfinal matches on Day 2. In order to accommodate the domestic media market, the day started with Pool C that included the host side. The first match of the day pitted series leader South Africa against a Portuguese side that has struggled to make noise on the series this season. Despite the horrendous mismatch on paper, Portugal remembered that matches are won on grass and not in ink. South Africa ultimately claimed the win 19-0, it was not as handedly as the margin suggests. The Blitzbokke lead only 5-0 until a Portugal yellow card gave the favored side the numerical advantage to score a converted try to take a 12-0 halftime lead. The match remained close with Portugal threatening to score before conceding a penalty in the final seconds to surrender possession and ultimately another converted try to South Africa. The points would prove to be important for South Africa.
The second match in Pool C provided the home crowd a first look of Head Coach Mike Friday’s side on American soil. The opponent, Japan, is a side that the USA Eagles have dominated of late. This day was no different. Despite Captain Madison Hughes being sent to the sin bin for two minutes with a yellow card, the USA led 26-0 at the half with scores from Zack Test, Andrew Durutalo, and Carlin Isles (2). Bolstered by four points from the boot of Hughes and two from Folau Niua, the Americans led 26-0 at halftime.
In the second half, it was more of the same for the home team. Hughes added a try to his points total after fancy footwork. Danny Barrett also joined the scorers column with a conversion from Niua to put the USA in front 40-0. An additional try from Garett Bender with the conversion by Andrew Durutalo extended the lead to 47. Japan managed two consolation tries, but the final score was by American hands when Maka Unufe touched down a try to set the final line at 52-12. The only meaningful knock on the second half performance was a second unnecessary yellow card for the Americans when Martin Iosefo was sent off with for tackling a player in the air. Ultimately the indiscipline did not cost the USA the match, but may have been a factor in conceding points to Japan.
The next pool up on Day 1 was Pool A. Based upon sevens pedigree Pool A was certainly the most heavily stocked in the tournament. In the first match, New Zealand, a side playing without star DJ Forbes due to injury, managed to continue its undefeated streak in pool play this season after hammering Wales 40-7. Wales began the year with consecutive cup quarterfinal births but has failed to make the cut since Dubai. The second match set Fiji against Samoa in a rematch of the season’s initial cup final on the Gold Coast in Australia. On that day in October, it was Fiji who came out the 31-24 victor. The result remained the same, but the margin emphasizes the struggles of the former powerhouse Samoa. Fiji dominated the match en route to a 36-point shutout.
The pool that I tabbed as the toughest of the tournament was Pool B and my how it lived up to the billing. In the first two matches in the pool, England–runner-up a week ago–edged Argentina for a 19-17 victory. The second match found last week’s surprise cup quarterfinalist Kenya looking to continue Canada’s struggles this season after a stellar 2013-14 campaign. Despite Kenya entering the match as the favorite, it was Canada who possessed the lead when the final hooter sounded. Were it a game of basketball, Canada would have been the winner, but that’s not how sevens works. Instead, Kenya maintained possession and scored a try on full time to claim the thrilling 22-21 victory. In just two matches, Pool B’s victors and losers were separated by a scant three combined points.
The last pool up on Day 1 was Pool D. Australia entered the tournament as the prohibitive favorite to gain the top seed in the pool and proved that even though Brazil is the only nation to have punched a ticket for the 2016 Olympics–by virtue of being the host nation–the South Americans would not stand in the way of the men from down under. Australia put Brazil to the sword and took the match 45-0. In a more anticipated match, Scotland faced France in the other Pool D pairing. Scotland broke through to a fourth place finish in Wellington after overcoming a 15-point deficit in the final two minutes to defeat team USA in the cup quarterfinal. France, on the other hand, had yet to get into the top 8 this season. Nevertheless, it was the French side who would claim this one 19-7.
A match in hand for each team, Pool C action returned to the pitch. South Africa got things started by seeing off struggling Japan 42-5. Next up was USA-Portugal in a match that the Americans fully expected to win. Team USA entered with a three-match win streak over Portugal in which the Americans have outscored the Portuguese 109-17. Despite the history of dominance, Portugal refused to go down easily. Danny Barrett got the USA off on the right foot with the first try of the match. Portugal responded with a try and conversion to take the slim 7-5 lead. The USA took the lead into the half thanks to a try by Perry Baker set up by a great run from Maka Unufe. With the Madison Hughes conversion, the score at the break favored the Americans 12-7.
In the second half, the USA held strong in defense. After a magical exchange between Folau Niua and Andrew Durutalo that was passed inside to Zack Test for a try and Madison Hughes conversion, the USA stretched the lead to twelve. Continuing the yellow card problem from the Japan match, Barrett was sent off with twelve seconds remaining, but it did nothing to alter the result. Team USA pulled off the tougher-than-expected win and clinched a cup round birth and a chance to top the pool again for the second time in as many weeks with a win over South Africa.
Rounding out the day, New Zealand continued their winning ways besting Samoa in a hard fought match 15-5. In the other Pool A math, Fiji jumped to a commanding 28-0 lead only to see Wales storm back with twenty-four unanswered points. Ultimately, the Welsh miracle was not to be and Fiji held on to win 28-24. The victory confined Wales and Samoa to the bowl quarterfinals and set up date between the All Black Sevens and Fiji to determine the champion of the pool.
The biggest upset of Day 1 came in Pool B Canada, before a large contingency of Canadian fans pulled the upset of England 15-12. The victory meant that if, as I had predicted, Argentina would beat Kenya, then the top two seeds from Pool B would come from the victors of Day 2. Argentina held up that prediction and devastated the Kenyan fans–many of whom were in attendance and formed a large arrow pointing toward the pitch: Argentina 19, Kenya 14. The final two matches of the day went as expected: Scotland bested Brazil 38-14 and Australia defeated France 31-14.
The second day began with matches that were anticipated to be consolation matches for the sides seeded third and fourth in each pool entering the tournament. For Portugal and Japan who started the day, expectations held true as Portugal came away with the slight edge, 21-19, securing third place in the pool. The second match of the day was between two sides that had hoped for much better showings in the tournament and the series as a whole. Samoan fans remained vocal and loyal to their side and the team repaid their enthusiasm with a 26-19 defeat of Wales. The third and fourth matches of the morning saw cup quarterfinal births on the line. In the dreaded Pool B, Argentina faced Canada. The Argentines failed to make the cup round for the first time all season in Wellington. A win in Vegas would prevent the bowl round from becoming a streak. Canada, who finished sixth in the series last year, had yet to crack the cup round. With a quarterfinal birth on the line, it was Canada who raised a hand for glory and claimed the vital 24-7 win.
The fourth match of the day saw France playing Brazil. Unlike Canada-Argentina, only one side could earn a cup round birth. As long as France got the win and Scotland fell to Australia later in the day, the French would reach their first cup quarterfinal of the year. The prohibitive favorite did not cruise to any easy win. Approaching the half, it was the South Americans who led 7-0 and gained a man advantage when the official handed out a yellow card to France. After some back and forth efforts by both sides, Brazil took the bizarre step of booting the ball to touch with a man advantage and inside the French side of the field to end the half up 7-0. In the second half, Brazil maintained a 7-5 lead into the tenth minute before France finished by rattling off 21 points to cap a 26-7 win and a date with the winner of New Zealand-Fiji.
The second half of the third round pool matches began with the USA and South Africa to decide the champion of Pool C. In Wellington, the USA benefitted from a tiebreaker, despite a head-to-head loss to South Africa, that pushed the Americans to the top of a pool for the first time since the same tournament in 2001. In Vegas, team USA would need a win to top the pool; even a draw would see the Blitzbokke gain the top seed through a superior (56 vs 52) points differential.
The match began on the wrong foot when the USA kick to did not travel ten meters. But it was team USA that would connect for the first score of the match two minutes in when Maka Unufe crossed for the score. Folau Niua capped off the try with a tough conversion to put his team ahead 7-0. South Africa responded with a try of their own after a quick tap from an Eagles penalty. The Blitzbokke added a second try just before the half to take the 14-7 lead into the second half.
In the second half, team USA cut the lead to two after a try from Andrew Durutalo. The Americans struck again after Danny Barrett overhand threw the ball from touch to Zack Test. From there, the ball worked back inside to Maka Unufe for the try and a straight away conversion by Madison Hughes. The score put the USA ahead 19-14 with 3 minutes remaining. The restart went directly into touch and the USA soon conceded a try at 22 meter line. South Africa capitalized with a try. With the score level at 19, the South African goal kicker failed to secure the conversion. After some back and forth, it was South Africa with the best chance to break the tie, but the crucial final pass was knocked on to end the match.
The draw left the pool title to the South Africans, but showed improvement from the last time the two sides met (1 week before). The USA was slotted to play the winner of the unpredictable Pool B.
After the excitement of USA-South Africa, New Zealand and Fiji faced off. Fijj after claiming the first title of the season had failed to reach the finals since. New Zealand entered the tournament fresh off a win at home in Wellington and without having lost in pool play all season. There was nothing between the two rugby superpowers at the half (7-7). In the second half, Fiji broke the tie with a converted try in the tenth minute. Grasping to a 14-7 lead, the Fijian defense finally gave way on full time when New Zealand crossed for the try. Peculiarly, the Kiwi runner made little effort to fight to get the ball in for a closer shot at goal on the conversion. The difficult conversion kick left the flags down and saw Fiji through to the quarterfinal as the 14-12 slayer of New Zealand. If New Zealand had slotted through the kick, the All Blacks Sevens would have taken the top seed by virtue of a one-point differential.
The next match pitted England and Kenya for a place in the quarterfinal along side Canada. If England won, Canada would take the top seed by way of the head-to-head victory. If Kenya claimed the day, Canada would settle for the second seed due to the Day 1 loss. With everything to play for, England rose to the occasion. The 21-14 defeat resigned Kenya to the bowl round for the fourth time this season. The English win also meant that North American rivals Canada and the USA would meet in the cup quarterfinals. The final tilt of pool play elevated France into the quarterfinal with a cracking win by Australia 40-14 over Scotland. The loss left last week’s fourth-place team facing rival Wales for the right to compete for in the bowl semifinal.
After a brief break in international play for a few finals from the Las Vegas Invitational and a heart-stopping performance by men and women from Cirque du Soleil, the quarterfinals got under way. First up was Samoa who struggled early with Brazil and limped to a 5-0 lead at the break. In the second half, Samoa pulled away to a 26-0 lead when the hooter sounded. Bizarrely and, arguably, in a show of poor sportsmanship, Samoa forewent a chance to boot the all into touch and claim a 26-0 victory. Instead, Samoa took a quick tap after a penalty and tried to score. Karma struck the Samoans and the ball ended up in Brazilian hands heading for the other end of the pitch for a converted consolation try: Samoa 26, Brazil 7. The other bowl quarterfinals saw Kenya drop Portugal 17-7, Scotland edge Wales 19-14, and Argentina overcome Japan with a rare drop goal (3 points) after Japan surrendered a penalty with no time remaining to win 15-12.
The cup round got off with a bang as fireworks echoed to welcome Fiji and France to the field. The only thing explosive on the pitch, however, was the Fijian side that rattled off a quick try en route to a resounding victory over France in front of a sea of Fijian flags held aloft by a boisterous fan base that showed in great numbers: Fiji 31, France 12. In the second quarterfinal, South Africa overcame a 14-7 England lead early in the second half to take the semifinal birth 21-14. The third quarterfinal matched rivals New Zealand and Australia with the All Blacks Sevens taking the win, 28-7.
With the rest of Day 2 in the books, team USA and team Canada charged onto the pitch before a crowd that had once seemed vocally in support of Canada but now was as partisan for the host nation as could be imagined. Despite Canada commanding the season series between the two sides last year (3-1), it was team USA who entered with a lead in this season’s series (1-0). The match started extremely well for the Eagles as they took a 15-0 lead into the half with tries from Danny Barrett,Folau Niua, and Zack Test.
The 15-point margin hung ominously for USA fans who witnessed the Scottish comeback in Wellington, overcoming the same margin in the final two minutes. This day was different, there would be no second-half letdown. Team USA cemented the victory with a try halfway through the second half when Carlin Isles added his third try of the tournament to set the final score at 20-0 after the USA secured a penalty on full time to end the match with a kick to touch.
With Day 2 in the books, the USA could reflect and build on an historic day. The semifinal birth is only the fourth in the history of the Eagles program and first at the USA sevens since the tournament moved from San Diego to Las Vegas after the 2008-09 season.
Team USA captain, Madison Hughes, summarized the expectations of the program:
We want to win the cup. We don’t settle for anything less, nothing else will satisfy us. We know we need to improve.
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Cup quarters is our minimum benchmark that we set. . . . So I don’t think we’ve accomplished anything so far. Cup quarters isn’t enough to satisfy us, we are really aiming much higher than that. While it’s a good first step, it’s a necessary goal, we’re aiming much higher.
Those goals were still very much in the reach of the Eagles but a tough match with New Zealand awaited on Day 3.
The third day in the desert was the put up or shut up day. Unlike most final days for teams on the series, a second match was not assured outside of the top four teams. Win or go home. The first match of the day saw Portugal dash Brazilian aspirations with a late try to secure a 26-19 victory and send Brazil packing. The second match, Wales-Japan, was a high scoring affair the went the way of the British side 47-33 to set up a Wales vs Portugal shield final. In the final, Portugal jumped to a 19-0 lead and had to hold on as Wales scored twelve unanswered. In the end, Portugal claimed the bowl title and their best finish of the season.
The bowl semifinals included four teams accustomed to playing in the cup round. Kenya ended the Samoan winning streak at 2 matches–the Samoan’s longest since claiming the bowl in Dubai: Kenya 19, Samoa 5. The second match was the second for Argentina to be decided after the expiration of time. Down five points, the Argentines managed a try by the post. The easy by position, but certainly not easy in practice when the pressure is factored in, conversion saw Argentina the 21-19 victor. In the bowl final, Kenya sought to build on a strong showing in Wellington, while Argentina looked to cap an otherwise disappointing couple of weeks with hardware. Although the two sides were level at the half (7-7), the Kenyans stormed to a 24-7 lead midway through the second half. Argentina added some window dressing to close the final margin, but the bowl went to Kenya, 24-21.
In the first plate semifinal France sought to trip up a solid England side on the French team’s first trip into the plate competition for the season. England built upon a 12-5 halftime lead with two converted tries to win 26-5. Australia booked a place against England in the plate finals after seeing off Canada 17-0. In the plate final, Australia took a 21-0 lead in the first half. Shortly before the break, England grabbed 7 to close the gap. In the second half, it was England with the early try to make things interesting. The match remained in doubt until Australia won their own lineout and kicked into touch with no time left on the clock to seal the 21-14 win.
The top of the bracket started with a buzz in the stadium as Fiji and South Africa took the pitch. The Fijian contingent remained vocal and enthused all match long, belting out tremendous roars each time their team touched the ball. Their side stormed to a 24-0 lead, but South Africa came storming back to bring the match within striking distance at 24-19 but could not overcome the early deficit.
The second semifinal pitted last week’s host nation, New Zealand, against this week’s host, team USA. Coming into the match, the Americans had never secured a victory over the All Blacks Sevens. Captain Madison Hughes got the USA out in front when he scored his side’s first try of the match and slotted over the conversion for a 7-0 lead less than two minutes into the match. New Zealand soon answered back with a converted try and added another two minutes before the half. The All Blacks Sevens managed a third try on halftime after scooping a loose ball from an American ruck to set the line at 21-7 to lead the Americans to start the second half.
In the second half, the USA had only limited opportunities to score and were not crisp enough on most to substantially diminish the New Zealand lead. The only second half score for the USA came from a second try by Hughes with just under three minutes remaining in the match. With New Zealand also adding a five-pointer in the second half, the match finished in New Zealand’s favor 26-12. The loss for team USA meant a rematch with South Africa in the third-place match.
The match against South Africa was the third between the two teams in just over a week. Despite promising showings in the first two tilts, which could have broken in favor of the Americans with a different bounce here or there, the third-place match was dominated by one team. Unfortunately, that one team was South Africa. The Blitzbokke lead 19-0 to start the second half and never looked back from there. Despite a fierce effort from the Americans, the gas seemed out of their tanks and the crispness that is required to beat a side of the class of South Africa was lacking. South Africa closed the match 31-0 to end a solid two weeks for the still developing team USA.
After the match, Coach Mike Friday reflected on his team’s accomplishments and the future:
I’m immensely proud of everyone of my guys. I think they’ve emptied the tanks for their country these last three days. . . . Let’s not forget where we were. We were relegation teams last year and no we’re fierce competitors and we’re feared by everybody. But I think what we can take is the learning from this. I think what South Africa just showed us there is the level we need to get to on mental resilience and resolve if we want to be successful and consistent on the series. They had to deal with disappointment in the semifinal, they came out and they applied themselves. We were found a little wanting there. But, that’s not criticism, that’s just where we are. We’re young, we’re growing, we’re learning the maturity of being resilient when adversity comes our way and that was just another little bump along the way.
In discussing how far the team has come, he added:
It’s a good thing we’re all sitting here saying its a setback that we finished fourth. That to me is a true change in our mindset as a USA sevens rugby team, but also as a fan and as reporters and as a USA rugby public.
The strong showing moves the USA above Scotland in the series standings to 7th and only three points behind Argentina. Though the gap to a top four series finish is still daunting, it is no longer out of reach. In the last two tournaments, the USA was a two minute meltdown away from finishing in the top four twice. The road to Rio might not be paved through a top four series finish, but it certainly seems insight and is not out of the question.
The final match of the day trotted out two of the best nations in the history of rugby sevens: Fiji and New Zealand. There was a buzz in the air for Fiji starting with the win over New Zealand in pool play on Day 2. It was reminiscent of Samoa’s run to the title in 2010. The Fijian support was strong and the team was executing on all cylinders. The confidence gained from the Day 2 win and backed by the roars of the crowd spurred the Fijians to a 21-0 lead at the break. Fiji reached 28 points before New Zealand crossed for a score. A bit like the French match, Fiji’s big lead was trimmed toward the end, but never surrendered the lead: Fiji 35, New Zealand 19.
The series takes a break before heading to Hong Kong next month.