PARIS – The final stretch of the 2016-17 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series begins May 13-14 at HSBC Paris Sevens, the penultimate leg of the season.
The 15 core teams on the circuit – and next year’s promoted team, Spain – are in France now with South Africa still well ahead of the pack in the Series standings. Depending on results this weekend, the Blitzboks could seal the Series title for the second time since the competition began in 1999.
The USA Men’s Eagles Sevens are nine points behind fourth-place New Zealand and have been Cup Semifinalists in four consecutive tournaments, beginning with a bronze medal performance at home in Las Vegas. They have been drawn in Pool B with the Kiwis, Argentina, and Wales, with the first matchup slated for Saturday morning at 5:06 a.m. ET.
WHAT YOU MISSED
A brutal, three-day Hong Kong campaign saw Mike Friday’s squad fall just short of their first Cup Final appearance since their first and only win in London at the end of the 2014-15 season. For the third consecutive tournament, the Blitzboks beat the U.S. in a Cup Semifinal matchup. Like in Vancouver a month earlier, the Eagles also lost a Bronze Final, but remained healthy overall prior to traveling to Singapore.
The Eagles scored early and often in their first two games of pool play in the eighth tournament of the season. Perry Baker led the way in the opener against Wales, scoring twice as the team built a 21-5 lead after seven minutes. The lead and two additional tries helped as Wales scored twice at the end of the game in a 35-19 result. Scotland, which forced a valiant defensive effort out of the Eagles in Hong Kong’s pool play, scored first and tied up the Singapore pool game by halftime, but could not keep up with the Eagles’ scoring in the final seven for a 33-26 loss.
New Zealand let slip a Bronze Final to the Eagles in Las Vegas in early March, but took a commanding, 14-0, lead and added a third try against them at Singapore National Stadium to take the No. 1 seed from the pool. Whereas the Kiwis found tough sledding against another team from North America in their Cup Quarterfinal, the U.S. kept Olympic gold medalist and reigning Series champion Fiji from any sustained possession through seven minutes of its first knockout match of the weekend.
It only took a moment, and a turnover, for Fiji to pounce on a try in the first half before Stephen Tomasin and Ben PInkelman, respectively, gave the Eagles breathing space in a 24-19 final. Tomasin, who finished the tournament with as many tries as Baker (eight), scored one of the team’s three first-half tries against Australia in the Semifinal on the way to a 40-7 win.
WHERE THE EAGLES FLY
The team that crushed New Zealand’s hopes of a first Cup Final of the season was Canada, which had rebounded from a crushing defeat to Fiji at the end of Day One to shut down the fourth-ranked team on the circuit and the third, England, to set up the first all-North America Cup Final. It seemed like the Canadian train would not stop as the Eagles’ border rival ran out to a three-try lead through six minutes. Baker and Tomasin combined to score two tries in the span of a minute ahead of the halftime whistle, however, before Baker added a third to level the game within a minute to start the second frame. Tomasin found himself held up with a few minutes remaining on the Eagles’ last scoring chance, and Canada capitalized with the match-winner a minute from time.
While the disappointment of a Cup Final defeat may sting, the silver medal and 19 standings points are healthy rewards for a team upsetting the pecking order on the circuit. Prior to the Eagles’ run of top-four results, they were ranked eighth. In four tournaments they gained 66 of their 101 points for a fifth-place standing and seven-point edge on sixth-place Australia. As Friday noted when the Paris/London squad was announced, the goal of the final doubleheader weekends is to break into the top four.
Captain Madison Hughes led the Series in scoring last season as the Eagles matched their best finish on the Series (sixth), and currently sits 16 points behind England’s Tom Mitchell in the same category with a possible 12 games remaining. Danny Barrett’s 22 tries are third-best on the team behind Baker and Tomasin – all three were selected to the Singapore Dream Team – but was unavailable for selection for Paris and London due to an injury.
Barrett’s replacement, Alex Schwarz, will have some shoes to fill, but the Eagles are also strengthened by the return of Don Pati from an injury sustained in Sydney. Apart from Mike Te’o, the remaining nine players in the squad have been selected to each of the past four tournaments.
In Singapore, Argentina produced its worst campaign on the circuit since a tournament was held in Japan in 2015. Two wins following a Challenge Trophy Quarterfinal defeat meant the difference between three points and two or one in the standings, but coach Santiago Gomez Cora is less worried about his team’s place in the standings than he is about the squad’s future ahead of Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 in San Francisco and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games.
The four most recent legs of the Series have not treated Wales well, as the 10th-ranked team on the circuit’s form has more than dipped from a top-eight first half of the season. The hard-fought loss against the Eagles in Sydney preceded its last Cup Quarterfinal berth, though Wales has captured two Challenge Trophy titles in its past three outings with unbeaten knockout performances in Canada and Singapore.
New Zealand will be smarting from the early exit in Singapore, but the emergence of Joe Ravouvou, leading try-scorer in Singapore, will benefit the squad in the long run. He is one of several key players ruled out of Paris through injury, however, including Scott Curry, 15th all-time in points scored for New Zealand. The Eagles do hold an HSBC USA Sevens bronze medal over Kiwi heads, and will look to even the season series at 2-2 when the two meet in pool play Saturday.
For viewers in the United States, HSBC Paris Sevens can be streamed live via World Rugby’s website. The ninth leg of the 10-tournament Series begins at 4 a.m. ET Saturday, with the Eagles kicking off against Argentina at 5:06 a.m. ET. For live match updates, follow USA Rugby on Twitter (@USARugby).
Men’s Eagles Sevens | HSBC Paris Sevens
1. Alex Schwarz
2. Ben Pinkelman
3. Don Pati
4. Matai Leuta
5. Mike Te’o
6. Andrew Durutalo
7. Folau Niua
8. Maka Unufe
9. Stephen Tomasin
10. Madison Hughes (C)
11. Perry Baker
12. Martin Iosefo
13. Naima Fualaau