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In 2009, the 7s team had to leave without several established players – Chris Wyles, Kevin Swyrin, Justin Boyd, Nese Malifa, Roland Suniula. Some were injured, but most were required to be in the 15s team camp in preparation for facing Ireland May 31.
So Al Caravelli took a squad of mostly college kids: Marco Barnard, Cory Blair, Mark Bokhoven, Tai Enosa, James Gillenwater, PJ Komongnan, Thretton Palamo, Mike Palefau, Zach Pangelinan, Alex Ross, Steve St. Pierre, Zack Test.
Of this group, Bokhoven, Gillenwater (who was the captain), Komongnan, Palamo and Palefau could be called experienced. Test and Pangelinan were entering their third IRB tournament, while Barnard, Blair, Enosa, Ross and St. Pierre – fully 40% of the squad – were making their international 7s debut.
Not surprisingly, the Eagles went 3-9, losing in the Shield Final in London (to Canada) before getting revenge on the Canadians in Edinburgh to take the Shield. Head Coach spoke after that tournament about the event being an attempt to build to the future, and certainly players in that group continued to contribute.
A year later, the Eagles took a similar team to London and Edinburgh: Marco Barnard, Mark Bokhoven, Paul Emerick, Tai Enosa, Colin Hawley, Alex Ross, Ryan Roundy, Tommy Saunders, Blaine Scully, Shalom Suniula, Kevin Swiryn, Zack Test.
They were, of course, somewhat more experienced, but many of the players
hadn’t played 7s for the USA in a year, if ever. This was Scully’s and
Roundy’s first IRB Series event. Swiryn captained the team, and had to sit
out most of Scotland due to a broken wrist. The team lost in the semifinal
of the Bowl both times, finishing with a 3-7 record.
This year the squad is markedly different. Only one player is making his HSBC Sevens World Series debut. Six players stand to finish the season having played in all eight tournaments, up from one (Shalom Suniula) last season. You look at the number of major 7s tournaments these players have played (including World Series, World Games or World Cup-related events):
S. Suniula 23
R. Suniula 10
It’s just a different profile entirely. Dolan, therefore, won’t be expected to jump in and sink or swim. He will be given the opportunity to earn his minutes and use his power and ability in the air in short bursts – a late-game replacement who can surprise opponents. That’s a great position for a young talent to be in.
Palefau is of course a wild card because, while he has played in 23 international 7s tournaments for the USA, in the the last three years he has appeared in two. However, he had an excellent camp. He was among the fastest players and among the fittest, and clearly has been working hard to get back on the international rugby scene. Palefau’s re-emergence is a tough one to predict, but most would expect him to contribute. He has the pure athleticism, and he has actually benefitted from the time away from the national team – time to think about his game.
Zack Test and Colin Hawley are very different players now than they were a year ago. Both are playing smarter, more aggressively, and have become physically stronger too.
The halfbacks are all very versatile – even with the injured Marco Barnard not in the group. Nese Malifa, Shalom Suniula and Tai Enosa can all play both flyhalf and scrumhalf, giving Al Caravelli more options.
Caravelli has been shifting his players forward. Paul Emerick, Miles Craigwell and Colin Hawley were all, early on, put mostly in the backs. But over time they have migrated more to the forwards and will all be expected to log significant time as forwards.
What this means is, despite the fact the coach said his team isn’t quite as fast as it was earlier, they are actually quicker in several areas. They might be a little slower at flyhalf, and they might be without Mark Bokhoven, perhaps the fastest forward among the pool of players, but overall, every player can run, and especially in the forwards, there are no slowpokes.
So it’s the most experienced squad the USA has sent to the UK in 7s. It’s a team that perhaps thinks it should have played better this season. And it’s a team with players who feel they have something to prove.
And I like their chances this trip. In London they face England, Argentina and France, all teams they are capable of beating. In Scotland it’s somewhat tougher, with Samoa, Fiji and Scotland in Pool D. But it’s a good team, the best we’ve sent to Great Britain, and one that is capable of raising the USA’s level of play.