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That was close, wasn’t it? The semifinal in Paris wasn’t, so much. Fiji was too menacing in the breakdowns, too potent in attack, and the Eagles missed Folau Niua a little too much. But they came within a couple wins of being named world champions for the first time since the women won the inaugural World Cup in 1991 and the men won Olympic gold in 1920 and 1924.
It’s truly a remarkable feat. Objectively, the second-best 7s team in the world belongs to the United States. The team’s haul at the annual awards banquet is further proof of the magnitude of the season, in case you need that sort of thing.
Stephen Tomasin, Ben Pinkelman and Folau Niua made the season Dream Team. Mike Friday was named the Capgemini Coach of the year. Danny Barrett won the UL Mark of Excellence Award for his rampaging run over New Zealand in Cape Town. Carlin Isles was recognized for leading the world in tries.
The major reward is time off. With a top-four seed to the Tokyo Olympics in hand, The Eagles will let their frontline players rest from now until they kick back up next autumn ahead of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series. All but the USA, Fiji, New Zealand and South Africa now have to turn their attention to regional Olympic qualifiers.
There are two competitions on the schedule before next season, the Pan-Am Games July 27-28 in Lima, Peru and Oktoberfest 7s Sept. 21-22 in Munich, Germany. Head coach Mike Friday is going to pick a developmental squad for Peru. Argentina and Canada won’t, so expectations should be managed. He could go either way with Germany, choosing to get a look at different combinations and new guys or to use it as a warm-up for the World Series.
The World Series itself has Olympic implications. The seeding will be determined by the aggregate Series points from the season that just concluded and the upcoming, so the USA is currently in second behind Fiji.
The two main objectives are going to be dealing with Folau Niua’s injury and reintegrating Maka Unufe into the team. Niua broke his leg in Paris, and he’ll likely be on the shelf until after he turns 35 next January. Kevon Williams is in pole position to step in right now, but he needs competition and that starts with throwing numbers at the position in case Niua doesn’t make a full recovery.
Niua is literally the least dispensable member of the team, and his injury presents a huge threat to the USA’s hopes for gold. The Eagles are at their most dangerous when they’re plucking upwards of half of kickoffs, and as a point guard in attack, he’s second only to Jerry Tuwai.
Unufe’s return is long coming. USA Rugby finally fessed up to the reason for his unavailability all season – he's serving a suspension for using a banned substance. The source was a diet supplement he didn’t realize was illegal. He appealed it at every turn, ultimately losing, and Friday stood by him for a year.
He’ll be cleared to rejoin the squad in time for next season. When he started the suspension, he and Martin Iosefo were amid a position battle. Iosefo has excelled in Unufe’s absence, so the uber-talented veteran has some catching up to do as the competition renews. His speed makes him a viable option on the wing, and both he and Iosefo can play in the forwards, too. His superpower is his vertical, which makes him arguably the best aerialist in the world.
Assuming Niua makes a full recovery and the team is able to avoid anymore serious setbacks, Friday could have the full assault of weapons at his disposal for the first time in years. With Carlin Isles leading the world in tries twice over, he also needs to reconsider getting him and Perry Baker on the field at the same time. At any given point, the Eagles could field four of the most dynamic outside backs in the world in Baker, Isles, Unufe and Iosefo. Keeping them all engaged and deploying them at the right time is no easy feat.
Friday may consider sliding Stephen Tomasin back into a halfback role more consistently. It would add depth to the position in Niua’s absence, and it would potentially create some wiggle room to get a third thoroughbred on the pitch. You’d have to figure Ben Pinkelman and Danny Barrett are well entrenched as starters. Tomasin has been playing lights out, and he needs to be on the field. If that can be at a halfback position next to Hughes, it frees up hooker for Iosefo, Unufe or Baker.
Outside of Niua’s injury, these are good problems to have. And if Folau was going to break his leg before Tokyo, it might as well happen right after qualification with 18 months to recover.
Triage the fullback position, narrow down your options with your thoroughbreds now that Unufe is back in the fold, and continue to upskill the team as fast as possible. That’s what’s on the to-do for Friday and company.