DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – The 2016-17 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series begins Friday, Dec. 2, at Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens, where the Men’s Eagles Sevens have been drawn in Pool B with Scotland, South Africa, and Uganda.
Mike Friday’s squad arrived in the United Arab Emirates over the weekend for the first tournament since Rugby Sevens’ Olympic debut at the Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games. Team USA won two of its five games at Deodoro Stadium to place ninth in the 12-team competition, taking eventual gold medalist Fiji to the wire in pool play.
WHAT YOU MISSED
One of the headline stories out of Team USA’s campaign was that of Nate Ebner, who was given time away from his National Football League employer to pursue his Olympic dream, doing so successfully. The New England Patriot trained with the full-time Residents at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., to earn a spot on the 12-man team, and started three matches in Brazil.
Ebner returned to the gridiron at the end of the summer, but there are more Olympians and Series veterans unavailable to Friday and Co. for the start of the 2016-17 season. Ben Pinkelman was a youthful revelation for the Eagles last year and is currently recovering from shoulder surgery, while “Fastest Man in Rugby” Carlin Isles also has some time to spend on the mend.
Brett Thompson had an injury setback recently after nearing a full recovery from an unfortunate mid-season injury ahead of the Olympics. Garrett Bender and Zack Test are nursing injuries of their own away from the Residency program in southern California, which has been on the lighter side in terms of numbers since August.
WHERE THE EAGLES FLY
One reason for the smaller training group throughout the past few months is the emphasis on the XVs national team heading into a Rugby World Cup-qualifying year. Madison Hughes, Martion Iosefo, and Matai Leuta all made their international test debuts for the Eagles in November, with Dubai selections Danny Barrett, Andrew Durutalo, Folau Niua, and Stephen Tomasin also included in the November Tour roster.
Friday referenced the opportunity for younger players to help continue the growth of the program in their first Series action, a point Assistant Coach Chris Brown was quick to encourage with a new sevens cycle beginning.
“We are in the first block of development for qualification for Tokyo 2020,” Brown said. “It’s key we identify and bring in players who have the potential to compete in one to three years’ time to develop understanding and their physicality.”
Recent college graduates Alec Gletzer (University of California, Berkeley) and Anthony Welmers (Davenport University) have spent development time with the sevens program previously and join a domestic veteran in Don Pati in the squad. Kevon Williams has been a revelation for New Mexico Highlands University and Denver Barbarians in recent years, and will get the chance to stretch his legs in Dubai.
There are plenty of factors at play at the first tournament of the Series that can keep even the most consistent of teams from reaching the Cup Final in Dubai. The lack of true international competition in the offseason could mean teams are not as prepared as they would otherwise be in the middle of the season, and the more inexperienced athletes selected could cost teams any continuity carried over from the previous circuit.
On that note, a poor result in Dubai is not a death knell, either. For example, the Eagles dropped out of the 2014 competition in the Bowl Semifinal round, yet finished the year with their best standing ever in sixth place. The U.S. had its best outing in the United Arab Emirates a year ago, beating New Zealand for the first time on the Series in pool play before recreating the magic in the Third-Place Match.
Apart from Fiji – the Olympic gold medalist – the team that could claim momentum heading into Dubai is Scotland. Only two Scots were part of Team GB’s silver medalist side, but there are eight players in this weekend’s squad of 12 that won the nation its first Cup title in London this past May. In terms of head-to-head momentum, Scotland beat the Eagles in knockout games in each of the final three tournaments of the 2015-16 season.
Uganda is the invited team to this year’s Series opener (as well as the second leg in Cape Town Dec. 10-11), and is coming off of an Africa Cup Sevens Championship victory in September, where it beat Series regular Kenya in addition to Namibia. Uganda has only ever competed in one tournament per year in six seasons, the most recent being the 2007-08 Series in South Africa. In 30 matches, the Cranes have come away victors just six times.
Of the five tournament winners from the past eight seasons in Dubai, South Africa is one of three nations to have claimed the Cup twice. Last year’s Plate win at The Sevens Stadium was followed by a Cup victory in Cape Town the next weekend as well as the eventual bronze-medal campaign at the Olympics. World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year Seabelo Senatla scored more points than everyone on the Series last season apart from Hughes, and crossed the try line 18 more times than second-leading try-scorer Perry Baker.
It has been a few months since the world’s top international sides have played the Olympic sport of Rugby Sevens together, with domestic tournaments in the United States and abroad not drawing the same kind of attention the 16-team Series does. Twelve women’s teams are also in Dubai this weekend for the start of the new Women’s Sevens Series season, where the Women’s Eagles Sevens began play with a win and two losses in the early hours of Thursday, Dec. 1.
The Men’s Eagles Sevens start out against Scotland at 12:44 a.m. ET Friday, Dec. 2, taking on Uganda at 3:44 a.m. ET before a break in the action for the women’s tournament. Friday’s squad finishes pool play against South Africa at 10:06 a.m. ET, and will have its knockout-round pathway for Saturday charted depending on results.
NBC Universal has made World Rugby’s stream of Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens available to viewers in the United States. To watch the first tournament of the 2016-17 season, visit World Rugby’s Sevens Series website leading into midnight between Thursday and Friday. Live updates from Eagles matches will be provided via USA Rugby’s Twitter account (@USARugby).
Men’s Eagles Sevens | Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens
1. Kevon Williams
2. Matai Leuta
3. Danny Barrett
4. Alec Gletzer
5. Don Pati
6. Andrew Durutalo
7. Folau Niua
8. Maka Unufe
9. Stephen Tomasin
10. Madison Hughes
11. Perry Baker
12. Martin Iosefo
13. Anthony Welmers
Men’s Eagles Sevens | Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens
v. Scotland – Friday, Dec. 2 @ 12:44 a.m. ET
v. Uganda – Friday, Dec. 2 @ 3:44 a.m. ET
v. South Africa – Friday, Dec. 2 @ 10:06 a.m. ET