MADRID, SPAIN – I can only imagine what it felt like for the USA 7s players to take the field this past weekend in Madrid, the first competitive matches for the men’s and women’s sides in over a year. I began to thaw out just watching the livestream.
But the good vibes generated by a return to the pitch and mostly strong play from both squads, resulting in 3rd place finishes all around, were harshed by the devastating leg injury men’s star Perry Baker suffered on the last day of competition.
2:06 minutes into the 2nd half of their loss to Kenya (7-38) in pool play, Baker broke through the line with a beautiful kick and chase. In the ensuing race to the tryline a tackler from Kenya slid down his back and landed on his lower leg, causing what appeared to be a serious injury. Though there is no official word on the specifics, if it is indeed as serious as it looked it will put Baker’s availability for the Olympics in Tokyo very much in doubt.
There is reason to hope, though, as USA Rugby noted in a statement afterwards that Baker has proven his resiliency time and again and that there was an entire community dedicated to the recovery effort. Head coach Mike Friday said that, “As a pack, we will come together to do all we can to support Perry and bring him back on the pitch.”
The outpouring of support afterwards, shows not only the impact the two-time World 7s Player of the Year has had on his team but also the sport as a whole.
The men’s squad did rally to beat Spain (24-17) later that day in the 3rd place match, with uncapped speedster Jake Lachina acting as the team’s finisher and scoring thrice. They also had dominant wins over Portugal (38-17) and Spain (35-5) on Day One, where they looked strong and showed some real promise.
While Lachina and some of the other young players had strong debuts on the men’s side, the most impressive debut was made by Nia Tolliver on the women’s side. Tolliver used a lethal blend of power and speed to dot it down at least once in every game save the team’s day-two loss to France (26-7).
France gave the Women Eagles the most trouble on the weekend, stifling them on offense and seeming to always have that one extra runner on the outside to receive the offload and take it in for the score. Their only other loss, to Russia (19-21), was due almost entirely to the incredible pace possessed by Elena Zdrokova. The US has speed, but Zdrokova has Speed 2: Cruise Control. On BluRay. And she showed it off in that match, scoring 3 times, including the heart breaking go-ahead try in the final minute, on what was an otherwise dominant US defense.
It was the women’s defense that impressed me the most on the weekend. Their line speed was incredible and they were absolutely dominant in their open field tackling. I found myself saying “Oh my God” out loud after several particularly strong tackles, especially a couple hits by Ilhona Maher. The strong defense often flustered their opponents and led to plenty of turnovers and quick tries the other way.
Both Coach Friday and women’s Head Coach Chris Brown were quick to point out that they were unhappy with the losses and hoped to use the disappointing finish as a learning experience going forward. While a 3rd place finish is good, both sides quite rightly believe they can compete with the best in the world.
So on a weekend where both sides were two parts dominant, one part ineffective, with a dash of rust thrown in for flavor, the main takeaway for me is that… rugby is good; that there is joy in a pass and a catch, in an open field tackle, a full-out sprint in the open field. And I’m glad that I finally get to watch it again.
The second round of action in Madrid will take place this weekend, streaming on FloRugby and on Youtube.