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Have a look at the games:

Australia 19 USA 12. Game tied 12-12 with two minutes left.
France 17 USA 14. USA led 7-5 after ten minutes
Canada 26 USA 7. USA kind of fell apart
USA 14 Spain 12.
South Africa 22 USA 14. Score 15-14 with a minute to go.

Port Elizabeth
Portugal 26 USA 12.
USA 26 Canada 12.
USA 21 Zimbabwe 17.
South Africa 17 USA 7. Score only 12-7 after 11 minutes.
Wales 26 USA 19. USA with ball and numbers to win game, but lost on interception.

So out of those seven losses, there are five “yeah but” moments. The USA were right there to win the game in those matches. I put that thought to USA Coach Alex Magleby, and he kind of shot it down.

“We were there in a position to win the games, but we didn’t,” Magleby said. “It’s binary. You either win or you don’t. There are no bonus points for close losses in 7s. We went there, went into every game, to win, and we didn’t.”

Harsh words, but I think Magleby is trying to lay the groundwork for higher expectations for the players and for the program. Yes the American players are playing with more confidence, and played better. They secured some World Series points, and with a tiny bit more patience might have secured more.

And a little better play …

“The biggest thing for us is not executing,” said Magleby. “I think the guys had a good approach to the last tournament. They don’t feel like they’ve arrived. They know they have to improve. We just have to keep improving.”

Two key player messages were sent by Magleby’s actions last week. The first was that he brought in Luke Hume to replace Mike Te’o. The Eagles have plans for Te’o, but remember, he started 2012 in high school rugby, and Magleby wanted a more veteran spark.

He got it from Hume, who is a dynamic runner, but will freely acknowledge there are some other aspects of his play that need work. Even with this change, Magleby didn’t start Hume, in part because be believes in his system and his preparation. If you want your players to train hard and care in camp, then you can’t just parachute some dude in and start him. Hume was brought on in the second half in the first game, and played well enough to keep that spot.

Magleby also benched captain Shalom Suniula. It was clearly not something Suniula wanted to happen, but Magleby did what he did with Zack Test in Gold Coast – took minutes away from a veteran starter and in doing so lit a fire under that player and showed everyone that any player will be replaced if the coach thinks he should be.

It wasn’t just theater, but it was a message, and it will be interesting to see how Suniula responds (we think with renewed dedication) and how the team as a whole responds.

15s or 7s?
Should Hume have been brought in earlier? Should Zach Pangelinan or Peter Dahl have been brought in also, rather than being left out in part because they were with the USA 15s team in Europe?

After Dubai you might have thought so. Canada made the Plate Final in that tournament after a short turnaround for their 15s players. But in Port Elizabeth, Canada broke down, in part because their 15s players had been used too much. Hume, rested after playing against Romania, was fresher and played well.

It’s an ongoing debate whether the 7s team should use 15s players. What is clear is that the physicality of the 7s World Series is such that you really can’t depend on it to develop players. You should develop players for international rugby, and then see where they fit.

Contract Time
In January, players will find out who will be in the Olympic Program in Chula Vista. We hesitate to say “contracted players” even though a contract is involved. You get the feeling these players are full-time pros, and they are paid, true, and training all the time, true, but the money they get is minimal. Because the USA program is so young, and because USA Rugby is not augmenting player pay at this point, there’s been a lot of doubt and flux within the Olympic program.

What would help is a more secure list of players in the program, so then they could make long-range living plans, and maybe lower their rents and get some better furniture. That means the USA team has to take a bit of a leap on players, and these days, that’s not an easy leap to take.

The money paid players remains low. Magleby calls it a stipend rather than a salary, and while they are paid more than the average Olympic athlete, the players certainly could stand to augment their income one way or another. But even that depends on whether a player thinks he will be in the area for more than a few weeks.

The current USA squad should change over time. Carlin Isles, if he continues to impress and if he improves his defense and his ability to make a long break, recover, and make another, will get more playing time. Suniula looks to get back in the mix, while others players – one or two who wouldn’t like to look at their turnover or missed tackle numbers – might not be back.

Meanwhile, Andrew Durutalo, Tai Enosa, and Blaine Scully all will be back from injury eventually. Of all those, Scully, with the size and strength of a forward and the speed of a fullback, could be the game-changer.

Preston Bryan may make a try for the USA U20 team, but he remains a prospect, as do several others. No one has been cast aside, but it’s interesting to see the USA team, and the overall pool of players, get younger by the minute.

The new academy system should be able to sort through some of these.

So now the USA 7s team takes a break over Christmas, and USA Rugby ponders who to invest money in, and who to invest time in through their developing academy partnerships. Will this produce victory in Wellington and Las Vegas in February? No, none of that will. Right now, the USA has to keep working on its plan of attack (and defense), and has to find ways to score that one key try, or close out that game, in the final three minutes.

Seven losses in the last two tournaments, of which five could have been won with the elimination of one or two mistakes, or the addition of one or two better decisions. That’s all. Malgeby may say “we lost so we’re not as good as the other guys.”

We won’t say that. The USA are as good as the other guys, and can be as good as the other guys. But now is the time to prove it.