SINGAPORE – The 2017/2018 World Rugby HSBC Sevens World Series is going to go down as the most competitive one ever. Previous seasons, we had a three horse race for the top spot. This year there is a battle from first to eight. It is not a battle by 8 teams for first, there is not that much parity but there is are battles for the top 4 spots. Fiji and South Africa are battling for first, New Zealand has a tenuous hold on third with Australia breathing down their neck and the Aussies are trying to finish top four but are under stiff competition from the USA, Kenya, Argentina and England. The 8th leg of the series in Singapore had a little bit of everything including close matches, wins by underdogs, heart-stopping finishes, and incredible displays of individual brilliance. The USA performed poorly in pool play but bounced back with a great performance in Challenge Trophy playoffs. Meanwhile Fiji refused to take their foot of the gas as they celebrate a third consecutive series win.
USA Wins the Challenge Trophy:
The @Eagles7s had a great tournament, all things considered. Normally you don’t say that about finishing ninth in a tournament. I don’t even like saying they won unless it is first place, but this tournament was the exception. The Eagles went into Singapore minus their two first choice play-makers (Captain Madison Hughes and Folau Nuia) and their best back-up play-maker (Maka Unufe) so mustering any kind of attack was going to be difficult. However, so it was no surprise to watch the team struggle on day one to try and create space and mismatches. However, on day two it all came together and they found a way to make it work as they went on to win the Challenge Trophy. I will cover this more in my end of year review but I will say that Head Coach Mike Friday may look back on this season as one of the best seasons of his career in terms of coaching performances.
The USA faced France in their first match, a side they drew last leg in Hong Kong. Being more patient in the build and sticking to the fundamentals of creating space and numbers in 7s the USA had a strong first half as they were up 19-0 after the first 7 minutes. In the second half, France came out on fire scoring two tries in one minute to close the gap, but unfortunately for them it served as a wake up call for the USA. The USA responded with two tries of their own of silky off-loads and great support running, highlighted by this run by Carlin Isles, to close out the game and win 33-12. The next match for Mike Friday’s squad was against England. England has struggled for form lately as a result of adding new players and focusing more on the Commonwealth Games then on the circuit. In their match against the Eagles, the English came out hot and before the USA had managed to get a finger on the English and a grip in the game the USA was down 19-0. The Eagles manage score just before the half and it seemed like they had a chance just after the start of the second half for an exciting comeback. However that would not be the case as the offense struggled to click in the second half with passes being a little behind or too forward and the kind of issues lacking a natural play-maker does to a team. The Eagles managed a second try but at a steep price as that meant that reigning player of the year Perry Baker was out the rest of the tournament after scoring that try. After that loss, the USA had to deal with a yellow card to Martin Iosefo and the comeback fell apart as the USA lost, 19-14. Next, the USA took on sixth-ranked Kenya in their last match of pool play. This match was ugly from start to finish. The USA fought with passion but they just seemed to get dominated at the breakdown and Kenya were ruthless in finishing their opportunities as they got out to a 12-0 halftime lead then followed it with an even better second half performance. This was to be expected as Kenya had made back to back cup final appearance and didn’t seem to be slowing down in their defeat of the USA, 33-14.
Day 2 for the Eagles may go down as a turning point in this season and in the progress of the 7s program. The USA drew Argentina who they are battling with to finish fourth in the standings. With the two sides very close together it was stride prise that things were very tight in the first half. Martin Iosefo scored twice for the USA but Argentina responded accordingly for the match to be 12-12 at the half. The USA managed to score the first try of the second half and it looked like it would be another nip and tuck affair but Carlin Isles had a different idea. Isles reeled off three straight tries in a short span to put the game away and hand the Eagles, a 36-12 win. Next up in the Trophy semifinal was the always dangerous Scotland side but the USA finally seemed to hit their stride. Watching this match, all I could think off was a rap song that begins with “allow me to re-introduce myself!” I was thinking that as I watched the USA romp to victory on the back of another hat-trick by Carlin Isles. I said it earlier in the season that it would take him slightly over a year from when he got hurt last season to find his form again and it has been slightly over a year and he is back, the fastest man in rugby is back in a big way. The USA scored first and Scotland scored twice after but from then on, the USA owned the game and walked away with a 33-12 victory. In the Challenge Trophy Final the USA would meet their oldest foe, Canada. For the third time in a row, the USA would hold an opponent to 12 points. This time Canada scored first then the USA responded before Canada scored again. Isles scored to make it 14-12 at the half and everyone expected another big game from Isles. While Canada worried about Isles the men in the engine room, Captain Ben Pinkelman forced a turnover that led to a score and Stephen Tomasin in his second game back from injury forced a turnover and took it in for a score as the USA won the Trophy final, 26-12.
The Incredible Fijians:
The Flying Fijians 7s have made me run out of superlatives that begin with F. The Fijians are just in a rich vein of form and as deep a team and complete a unit as they are, they are a scary proposition to face. The Fijians crushed their opponents in Pool play on the first day and it made a difference on day two. They were able to save their energy for day two after dispatching Spain, Russia and Japan while barely breaking a sweat. On day two, they faced the SANZAR teams and swept all three which is not an easy feat. They started out by taking on the All Black 7s side and though it was a squeaker the Fijians came out ahead. They would then be pushed by South Africa who knew they had to win to keep the series lead but it was not to be as Fiji won a tight 12-10 match. In the final, the Aussies tried to take the game to the Fijians and were almost successful but almost is not good enough and the Fijians walked away with the Series lead and the tournament trophy.
Australia had struggled for form in the past few rounds and maybe now that the Commonwealth games are over they can get back to pushing on and challenging New Zealand for third. They did well to qualify early in pool play and got a hell of a fright in their Cup quarterfinal match against Spain. However they made the final then came up against the buzzsaw that is Fiji. England is also looking to get back on track and they did well after going undefeated in pool play. They then came up short against the Australians but did salvage a bronze medal with the defeat of South Africa
New Zealand bounced back from their tough loss to Fiji to claim 5th place. Which was well deserved as the loss to Fiji was their only loss of the tournament. And that was a loss to be proud off considering the form the Fijians are currently in.
Final standings were
Fifth: New Zealand
Challenge Trophy: USA
The next leg will be in England. Stay tuned to RWU for another preview and review of the tournament.
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And as always, stay low and keep pumping those legs.