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It was after Las Vegas in 2012 that Al Caravelli stepped down from the Head Coach position. Alex Magleby, therefore, marks a year on the job when he walks off the field at Sam Boyd Stadium.
When he took over the Eagles 7s team, Magleby had a lot of work to do. The team was in transition with personnel, and Magleby needed, of course, to put his stamp on the culture of the team.
Now what he has for Wellington and Las Vegas is a team that is getting better, a team that reached the Cup Quarterfinals in their last tournament, a team that former Eagle Alipate Tuilevuka said on Twitter was the most talented he’d seen.
I’d probably concur on that – this lineup has the potential to be the best 7s team since 2009, when Chris Wyles, Paul Emerick and Kevin Swiryn anchored the squad. And the reason I say that is the fact the USA has added a couple of players who address a need, and settled a couple of other questions.
Right after Vegas in 2012 Magleby got some bad news, as Blaine Scully ruptured his Achilles tendon. Scully was poised to jump back into the squad – in fact he had already taken a leadership role in urging players to take more responsibility for their preparation.
But instead of blossoming as a 7s Eagle, Scully was lost for all of 2012. Now he is back in the squad, and just in time as the Eagles try to build on some improved performances to make a good showing on home turf.
The arrival of Scully onto the squad is indeed important enough to single out. He has the pace of a back and the height and strength of a forward. He can play almost anywhere on the 7s field, works hard, and is very smart.
Andrew Durutalo is also back from injury. The thing about Durutalo is that he is still getting into his stride. He didn’t start with the team until last February. He’s an experienced player, very intelligent and with power to spare, but you can’t just drop a player like that into a team and expect it all to work smoothly.
But as outlined in Pat Clifton’s recent article on RUGBYMag.com, Durutalo has done all that teamwork time during his injury. While rehabbing he stayed in camp and worked with the team as best he could. That is key, because if he comes in as a fully-fledged team member, he can be a huge asset.
Time together is important for several other players, as well. Carlin Isles, remember, is still very new to rugby and every day in training is an important step forward in his development. He is very fast, and is working on his distribution skills and ability to read the field. He has also worked on his defense, and all of those components will be better this time around.
Luke Hume is another sparkling offensive talent who just needed time in camp to nail down aspects of the defensive pattern. He does that, and retains his audacious confidence with the ball, he will give the Eagles a boost.
We expect players like Zack Test and Colin Hawley and Matt Hawkins to be comfortable in how the team is playing, but other players will benefit greatly from the latest camp – Maka Unufe, Nick Edwards, Jack Halalilo - all I expect to play better.
And then there’s Shalom Suniula. Suniula was benched during the USA’s last tournament, and found himself struggling to regain favor. With Magleby carrying four halfbacks – Suniula, Hume, Nate Augspurger and Folau Niua – there was a real question whether the captain would make the team this time around. As it was, Magleby changed captains. Matt Hawkins is back as team captain, while Suniula is back as a scrumhalf/flyhalf.
This is an intriguing change, and not a surprising one. It’s possible Magleby felt that Suniula simply would play better if he wasn’t worried about being captain, too. It’s certainly likely that Magleby wanted to change the idea that the captain has to be the same guy every tournament.
The move might well free Suniula to be more dynamic and more confident, Certainly we should see him get more playing time, as the Eagles have left Augspurger at home and will carry only three halfbacks for Wellington and Las Vegas.
I think this is, overall, the right move. I love Shalom Suniula. He is a thoughtful, intelligent man and a good writer (his columns for RUGBYMag.com are not ghostwritten, and need only light editing). But he is still young, and is still finding his way at times. So put the captaincy on someone else, and let Suniula work on his game.
This is now Alex Magleby’s team. And this lineup is his kind of lineup. He believes in a bigger, more physical 7s team, and his two big additions, Scully and Durutalo, bring physicality and athleticism.
He believes in holding players accountable, which is why he has benched some established players. But he also believes in rewarding those players when they respond. Zack Test responded to being kicked in the behind with hard work and, as a result, better play. Shalom Suniula will respond, as well.
And the players all see that. They know now that no one has an automatic place. No one is the automatic captain. Everyone has to perform to be picked.
With Spain, England, and New Zealand in their pool, the USA has a shot to make the Wellington Cup Quarterfinals. Whether they do that or not is often up to factors out of a team’s control. But they can control playing well, and with this team, they have the opportunity to do so.
If the USA can hold onto the rugby ball, if they can support each other well enough to turn one extra promising break a game into a try, and if they can play tough defense late in the game, they can turn around Spain and England. That’s a lot of Ifs, but this team has the ability make those Ifs a reality.