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It has been 131 days since New Zealand came away as the surprising Melrose Cup champion in San Francisco. With all nations having had time to rest and recoup, the HSBC World Rugby Sevens World Series kicks off its 20th season on November 30th in Dubai. For team USA, the Eagles will be looking to start the 2018-19 season on a much better foot than last season.
Like it has every season since 2002, the 2017-18 season began in Dubai. There, a first-match concussion to the now two-time reigning World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year, Perry Baker, sent the team into a spiral that culminated in a winless showing and a last-place finish. Of course, the rest of the season was a monumental improvement, with the Eagles again reaching three semifinals—a mark met every season under Coach Mike Friday—and claiming only a second-ever cup victory on the Series, the first on home soil at the 2018 USA Sevens in Las Vegas. At season’s end, the United States stood 6th in the overall standings, just six ranking points shy of fourth-place Australia.
Team USA last took the pitch in San Francisco, finding itself on the wrong end of a 33–7 shellacking by Argentina in the fifth-place final. Despite the painful finish, the Americans were but a stone’s throw away from reaching the semifinal, being knocked off in the quarterfinal by England with the help of added extra time. The finish, though suboptimal, marked the best for the USA men and showed that the team was a legitimate contender in any competition.
As this season gets underway, the team will look to build on last year. In order to find more stability in results the team will have to avoid the injury bug that plagued the team last year. On this trip, however, the side is at least carrying an extra body just in case. Coach Friday has selected an extended touring squad of fourteen. All but two of which are extremely familiar faces. Heading up the lineup are Captain Madison Hughes, Perry Baker, Carlin Isles, Folau Niua, Danny Barrett, Ben Pinkelman, Steven Tomasin, Martin Iosefo, Matai Leuta, Kevon Williams, and Cody Melphy.
Although each saw substantial time last season, only four were available for every tournament. Only Pinkelman, Ilses, Barrett, and Iosefo made all ten stops. Niua, Leuta, and Williams each missed only one tournament. Other stalwarts of the program were not as lucky. Stephen Tomasin missed three tournaments. Perry Baker missed three full tournaments and basically all of Dubai. And Madison Hughes was held out of the lineup due to injury in a full half the stops.
Some took the newfound opportunities and capitalized in unprecedented ways. Isles’ increased workload yielded 49 tries and paced all competitors by a full five scores. Even with just one conversion to his name, his try haul was sufficient to finish fourth on the overall points table for the season.
While it is difficult to call Isles a breakout star, given his storied history with the team, there were three players who really elevated their game to the next level. Perhaps foremost was Iosefo. An always talented player, he had not yet hit peak performance. That changed last season as he consistently shined throughout the season to become a crucial playmaker. Another recognized roll-player turned star was Pinkelman. Stepping in as captain in the absence of Hughes, Pinkelman began the season at the Silicon Valley Sevens with great poise and leadership, carrying that throughout the entire year to help keep an injury-plagued team afloat.
But the biggest surprise player of last season has to be Kevon Williams. Not in the lineup until Baker went out injured in Dubai, Williams was far from a recognized name at that level. Nevertheless, his play consistently opened doors for him, ultimately leading to fourteen tries, which was good enough for fifth on a team with try-scoring machines like Isles (49), Baker (37), and Iosefo (22).
The traveling lineup also presents the possibility of two debutants in Maceo Brown and Marcus Tupuola. Brown is not in line for a possible cap in Dubai, but could see action next weekend if there’s need for injury cover. Both Brown and Tupuola have earned spots in the traveling squad with stellar showings playing for the developmental side.
Barring a catastrophic meltdown, team USA should be a lock to advance to the cup round in Dubai. In Pool C, the Americans draw Spain, Wales, and New Zealand. Both Spain and Wales have shown spurts of talent but should be outmatched in both contests. Last season, the United States dominated Spain in all four contests with the most recent result coming in Paris (28–7). And the Americans have had Wales’ number for several years. Since 2014, 11–2 against Wales in Series play. In the last contest on the Series, the Eagles ran away 47–5. When the two sides met in the World Cup round of sixteen, it was a 35–0 romp for the United States.
The real test in the pool should be New Zealand. There is no bluer blood in sport than New Zealand in sevens rugby. Although the All Blacks Sevens have proven vulnerable in recent years, they are still a side capable of domination. Few would have expected New Zealand to defend the World Cup, but with a path that went through Fiji and a red-hot England, no one can claim New Zealand made it easy.
The expectation is that team USA will already have secured a quarterfinal birth by the time they trot out for the pool decider against New Zealand, so the match probably will not decide whether the Eagles are still in the hunt on Day 2. But the outcome can be monumental in deciding what happens on Day 2. Coming out of Pool C, the Eagles will face either the top or second team out of Pool B. Smart money is on Fiji to come out on top of Pool B. Whenever you can avoid Fiji, you’re going to have a better path. The second team out of Pool B is much tougher to call with Scotland, France, and Kenya each in the mix. The Kenyans can be great or awful depending on the weekend and the same can be said of Scotland. France is also not to be slept on, having posted the biggest surprise in the World Cup by knocking out Australia in the round of sixteen.