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The USA Falcons opened their two-tournament tour of South American with a 1-4 showing in Punta del Este, Uruguay. They were swept in pool play by Uruguay, France’s developmental side and Brazil, conceding four or more tries each time out while just scoring four of their own on day one. They then rebounded with a 31-26 win over Canada the following day, but fell flat in the final match, losing 21-5 to Colombia.
Up this weekend is the second leg of the series in Vina del Mar, Chile. The Falcons are paired with France, Uruguay and Colombia, so they’ll have the opportunity to exact some revenge.
The two-tournament series is the South American qualifier for the upcoming Rugby World Cup 7s, so the South American teams have been prepping for some time in an effort to get on the big stage, while the Falcons literally landed in Uruguay Thursday for Saturday’s competition, squeezing in just 90 minutes of training time together.
There are also full-fledged national teams competing from Ireland and Germany, as well as developmental sides from France, South Africa and Canada, so the Falcons are getting some tough looks.
In years past, the Falcons have sent a strong side to South America, but this year’s squad is split pretty distinctively between capped players like Pat Blair, who’s captaining the squad, and also-capped Anthony Welmers and Naima Fualaau. There are a couple of guys who’ve spent some time at the Elite Athlete Training Center in Chula Vista, like Devin Short, Connor Wallace-Sims and Alex Elkins, though they haven’t played much in the way of international 7s. And then there’s a tier of guys who are really getting their first taste of representing the USA on the 7s field in any capacity whatsoever.
That chasm of experience has presented some challenges.
“You couldn’t tell in terms of professionalism, and for the most part from a core skills standpoint, there is a little bit of a divide,” commented head coach JD Stephenson, whose team leaked defensively throughout the first tournament.
“We have tried to keep it much of the same, and I think that’s where you find the divide, because there is that similarity for the handful of guys who have been at the training center. They get it. It makes sense to them, and there’s less of a learning curve. For some of the guys it’s completely new.
“When you get that indecision, especially in playing against quality sides, and at the end of the day these were quality sides we were playing, it does allow for those half breaks and those opportunities, which Brazil and France capitalized on.”
On day two, the Falcons opened with their best half of the weekend, racing out to a 26-0 lead over the Canadians after seven minutes. Then the Maple Leafs stormed back to tie it at the end of regulation, and the Falcons pulled out the win in overtime. The following game was arguably their worst, a loss to Colombia.
“The Colombia match, for us it was just unacceptable in terms of the standard we played at. We thought against Canada we were starting to find some rhythm. We played really well,” said Stephenson. “Physically we haven’t overtaxed these guys. Mentally we’ve kept it fresh, and we’ve tried to make it enjoyable for these guys, but there’s no excuse for that last game.”
It hasn’t helped that the Uruguay tournament was the first back from injury for Elkins and Short, who got better throughout as they adjusted to being back in full contact. And Anthony Salaber was hit with a stomach bug during the flight down. He was sick right up until kickoff. But Stephenson thinks the experience from Uruguay and a little more time together will do the trick heading into Chile.
“We’ve been hurt in different areas, but I think with a good training week, those schoolboy errors that turn into seven points will be mitigated going into Chile,” he said.
“It really is just a jelling thing. When you trust the guy inside you to do his job, you can go about doing your job.”
USA Men's Falcons Point Scorers | 2018 Punta del Este 7s
vs. Uruguay - 27-12 (L)
Tries: Anthony Salaber, Siale Maka
Conversions: Naima Fualaau
vs. France - 29-5 (L)
Tries: Nick Boyer
vs. Brazil - 29-5 (L)
Tries: Ben Broselle
vs. Canada - 31-26 (W)
Tries: Anthony Welmers, Alex Elkins, Sam Walsh (2), Nick Boyer
Conversions: Sam Walsh (3)
vs. Colombia - 21-5 (L)
Tries: Connor Wallace-Sims