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The Men’s National 7s Team made the two time-zone, 14-hour trek from Dubai to Port Elizabeth Monday. On tap Wednesday are two training sessions, while Tuesday was used largely for review of the Eagles’ 2-3 performance in Dubai, which saw them slip from 9th to 11th in the standings.
Day One in the United Arab Emirates was competitive. The Eagles were close to knocking off England in the tournament opener, and a couple of plays away from beating Australia. They did beat Kenya, but the wheels fell off the second day, when they narrowly escaped an upset by Japan and fell in the Bowl Semifinals to France.
“I was very, very disappointed with Day Two. We managed to get ourselves in a position being twelve-nil down against Japan, when we really shouldn’t be in those positions, and then the French game we didn’t execute how we should do as a team, and as a result lost that game,” said head coach Mike Friday.
“That’s kind of the reality of where we are at the moment. We probably could have so easily been competing in the Cup, when you look in the first two games, where we started fantastically well in both of them and controlled the game, but we slightly go off piste and make some individual errors. That cost us.”
Also costly were some unfortunate calls by referees, especially at the breakdowns against England and Australia. Several penalties hurt the United States in both of those games, including some that could have gone either way.
“We’re not after the opposition’s 50/50 calls. We’re after the ones we’re due,” said Friday. “They were game changers, and that’s not excuses. The reality is, at the moment, where we are in our development, we’re not good enough to win games against the top nations if we don’t get our 50/50s. That’s the nature of the beast. That’s where we’re at.”
Friday has been on both sides of the coin. He coached England, a world power, and he’s coached Kenya and the United States, two second tier 7s countries. The way he sees it, the heavyweights tend to get the better of the whistle on the 7s World Series.
“I have to be honest. I had this experience with Kenya, and I talked to [referee officials] about unconscious bias. The referees say we don’t go in there with a premeditated thinking, but the unconscious bias indicates to me, from when I was with Kenya, that they do,” said Friday.
“It’s almost like with any 50/50s with Tier One nations is – well they wouldn’t cheat, they wouldn’t get it wrong. Therefore, they favor them over Tier Two nations, because of course they always get it wrong because they’re a developing nation. I think there’s an unconscious bias that the referees need to be aware of, and they need to work on the mental part of their game to ensure that they approach every game in that manner, that they are not going to be prejudiced or have an unconscious bias against a Tier Two nation.
“When you ask them that, they go, ‘We just see a team in one color and a team in another,’ but the proof in the pudding to me isn’t there. I was on the wrong end of too many things with Kenya, and I’ve been on the wrong end of a few with the United States already.”
Injuries crippled the Eagles, too. Perry Baker suffered a stinger against England, and Garrett Bender aggravated a sore neck in that same game. Test hurt his ankle against Kenya. While they all suited up the second day, and Baker and Bender continued to play, they were hampered, and the void left by Test, the USA’s all-time tries leader, was noticeable. No injury replacements have been made for Port Elizabeth. Bender and Baker will be fine, and Test is a little more questionable, but the coaching staff expects him to be ready to go by the weekend.
A positive takeaway from the weekend was the play of debutant Martin Iosefo, who stepped in when Bender went down, and that of Maka Unufe, who filled in largely for Test. Both had impressive moments.
Unufe is now a veteran, and American fans have been waiting for his breakout moment for some time. He is one of the most talented athletes in the player pool, and he showed flashes of what could be in Dubai.
“I think we saw Maka take some real step forwards this last Dubai weekend. The issue with Maka is making sure his confidence and his self-belief in his own ability is there, because sometimes he allows that to hinder him,” said Friday.
“So, we know he’s a wonderful athlete, we know he’s got great feet, we know he’s got great acceleration, we know he’s got all these things, but it’s pointless you knowing it and me knowing it. We need Maka to believe it. Giving Maka that safety and that environment to go out there and try things is important.”
Iosefo made his debut in Dubai. He’s been in the age-grade system for a short while, and he went to Australia with Tiger, but his only Eagle camp was the one held in the days leading up to selections for this stretch of the Series.
“I’m massively impressed with Martin…For a guy that’s really only spent seven-to-10 days with me, he’s had no conditioning exposure with Chris [Brown], he made a wonderful impact, considering,” said Friday.
“Don’t get me wrong, he was far from perfect, and he’s got some frailties and weaknesses we need to work on in terms of his defensive alignment, his understanding, and working with his mindset and his mental resolve to stay on task in the defensive system, but we saw glimpses. He’s got great feet. He’s got a fantastic fend. He’s got real power and drive, and I think he’s got massive potential for USA, and we’ve uncovered another one that will potentially be a little start on the circuit.”