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The Men’s 7s Eagles took a massive step forward in Port Elizabeth over the weekend, reaching the Cup rounds for the first time on the season. They mowed down Kenya, Wales, Scotland and Fiji – all teams that finished higher than the United States in last season’s final standings, and which usually finish ahead of the USA – en route to the Plate title.
Not only did the Eagles put together those big wins, they put in really competitive halves against New Zealand and South Africa. They trailed by just one score at halftime against both, and they did it without playing perfectly. Things fell apart in the second halves of those losses, but the team can hang its hat on knowing that it finished 4-2 and played 10 good halves, and if it had been better for 14 more minutes, something really special might have happened.
Like in the quality halves against the Blitzbokke and All Blacks, the Eagles didn’t play perfectly against Fiji in the Plate Final, but they still pulled out the win. That’s an important notation. The USA has beaten Fiji before, and they famously beat them twice in the 2012/2013 season, but those wins have usually been close to error-free efforts. If the Eagles can start not just beating teams like Fiji, but doing so with a margin of error, it will signal a real closure in the gap between them and the top tier.
The Fiji win secured the USA its best finish since Glasgow 2013, a tournament in which the Eagles also toppled Fiji for the Plate. The USA claimed the Plate twice that season and reached the Plate Final three more times. That stretch marked maybe the USA’s best ever in international 7s competition.
Alex Magleby left his post as head coach after that season, and the program’s been trying to find its way back ever since. With Mike Friday in as head coach, and Magleby serving in a directorial role, it appears the Eagles have returned to that form.
They do so just in time. This season is all about the Olympics, and United States Olympic Committee funding was being played for in these first three tournaments. Friday and his charges have acquitted themselves well, and the USOC should treat them favorably for doing so when finalizing the 2015 budget.
The weekend was also huge for the USA’s confidence. The players now know they can compete with the best, and beat the best – keep in mind Fiji was leading the Series standings coming into Port Elizabeth. And for Friday, the results have to corroborate his message.
The Eagles faltered in Dubai, and one of the major reasons was decision making – specifically, failing to put the ball in the outside channels and trust the likes of Carlin Isles and Perry Baker. Friday made no bones about his displeasure with that aspect of play.
It wasn’t a perfect weekend for either Isles or Baker in Port Elizabeth, but Isles scored six tries on the weekend, touching down in every game except for the South Africa shutout. And Baker scored the game-winner against Fiji.
The team defense was also fantastic, and if the Eagles can remain committed to their team shape, Maka Unufe can continue to find his confidence, Martin Iosefo can come on with more coaching from the National Team, Test and Niua can be content letting the game come to them, and Isles and Baker continue delivering when called upon, the 2015 portion of this season could get really interesting.