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The USA comes out of the first three tournaments in the Sevens World Series in 11th place. They are in 11th, and not 12th, perhaps in part because Canada doesn’t get to participate in all the events. Canada missed the opener in Australia, and since then have matched the USA with 12 points.
Just a few points ahead of the Eagles are Argentina, and Scotland.
During their first three tournaments they finished 6-10, beating Japan, Papua New Guinea, Canada, and Zimbabwe twice. They lost to Australia, New Zealand, England, Samoa, Canada, Portugal, Scotland twice, and South Africa twice.
Of those losses, four were close – three within a try and one that could have been won by the USA in the late minutes. Three others the USA was in position to win, but didn’t because of mistakes, a little bad luck, or great play by the opposition.
Overall, then, the performance really mirrors the results – not horrible, but not great; close to great at times, but also close to really bad.
The recent Nelson Mandela Bay 7s is a case in point. The Eagles were in a prime position to beat Samoa, and had a shot at winning against England. They did very well to beat Argentina, and had they pulled off one other win, could have made the Cup Quarterfinals (points different wasn’t their friend in that case, but still).
Yet a day later, they lost to Canada, a team they had beaten easily the week before, and had to be content with only five points.
So which team is it? The one that should have beaten Samoa and did beat Argentina, or the one that looked a little at sea against Canada? Are they the team that scared South Africa at Gold Coast? Or the team that lost to Portugal and got thumped by Scotland in Dubai?
Clearly both. And hopefully, soon, neither.
The team that we see on the field in Wellington, Las Vegas and beyond will need to be different. It will need to have better awareness of odd-man situations – how many times did a USA player get caught by three or even four opposing players, go to ground quickly, and give up the ball with a holding-on penalty or a turnover? (The answer is, too many.) We see other teams, other players, pull out of that situation and realize, if three guys are here, then we’ve got a 6-on-4 somewhere else.
Or, we see players take that contact and keep their feet, pushing forward until help arrives. Or we see players go to ground and fling the ball backward to support.
All of those are options. Giving up a penalty isn’t an option.
How many times did we see a USA player on defense miss a tackle because he went in too high? And we’re not talking just about the young guys – Matt Hawkins, Mark Bokhoven, Zack Test, Nick Edwards were all guilty of letting in tries because they went in to a tackle too high.
The USA, in any form of rugby, has always been great when they hit hard and low and decisively. The Eagles may have made a large percentage of their tackles, and they may have had improved communication on the defensive side of the ball, but they still lack confidence in defense, and still, from Guadalajara to Gold Coast to Dubai to Nelson Mandela Bay, are tackling too high.
The team we saw at the Pan-Am Games wasn’t perfect, but it was fast, exciting, and had tons of potential. Coach Al Caravelli was forced, with injuries and players’ personal issues, to pick a squad that was not as fast at the top end, but also didn’t quite deliver on physicality or experience. Players who should have known better made errors, bought dummies, and made poor tackles.
Going forward, then, we have to hope the injured players come back and those with availability issues solve them. And Caravelli needs to latch onto that correct combination of athleticism and intelligence.
And not just anybody. American rugby isn’t deep enough to just throw anybody a 7s contract and produce an international player. What the Eagles really need is to get Paul Emerick and Blaine Scully back healthy. Emerick enormously versatile as a 7s rugby player, but his best attribute is his determination. He is not afraid to miss tackles, and as a result is more likely to launch into them. He does not capitulate when wrapped up by an opponent. And he does not give up. Ever.
Scully, like Emerick, is fast enough to be a back and big and strong enough to play as a forward in 7s. Scully’s skills were evident at the Pan-Am Games, and he is needed again.
In the backs, the Eagles have been fortunate that Mike Palefau has stepped in as a center, but the USA could still use Mile Pullu and Roland Suniula, both injured. In fact Pulu is a huge missing piece of the puzzle, and he won’t be ready soon. Out wide, Nick Edwards must have read what Caravelli said about his ability to surge through contact, because that’s all he ever did. He didn’t play open-field 7s the way other players can and do.
The hope is that Maka Unufe will be able to play more 7s for the Eagles (he is running into similar challenges that Pulu had – trying to get started at a club and with work and family while pursuing his rugby dream). Rocco Mauer, also, we’d like to see more of.
Caravelli knows all this, and he’s not unaware that he has to make some changes in his lineup. And it’s highly likely that whatever group he brings into the residency program at the Olympic Training Center will be better simply by virtue of being together more.
But little of that will matter if players tackle high all day. And little of that will matter if players allow themselves to be taken to ground when there’s no support. And little will matter if the Eagles keep turning the ball over.
If they do make those small improvements, over and above fixing their restarts, they can make big strides quickly. Remember, the Eagles lost to South Africa by five, Samoa by two, and Portugal by two. Fix one dumb error and you have those games won.
They lost other games to England, Australia, Canada and Scotland where they made a series of the same errors to lose momentum.
Yes, the USA is good enough to turn seven of their ten losses into wins, but we’ll settle for not losing one or two due to soft tries and silly penalties.