Thursday, March 27, 2014

Eagles Mens 7s Tokyo Recap and Hong Kong 7s Preview

This is American Rugby did a great recap/preview of the Eagles performance at Tokyo 7s and what they need to accomplish to make the Cup Round again at Hong Kong 7s. Given the performance last weekend, especially with Samoa uncharacteristically tanking (paraphrased from my tweets from Tokyo 7s: "I don't like Samoa's body language going into the Shield Final. They look listless and disinterested". They not only lost that game, they were shut out.

Thus, the Eagles have a great chance at a repeat in the top 8. With the Hong Kong format similar to Las Vegas's three day festivities, the Eagles build in difficulty as the tournament progresses. The US kicks off against Samoa at 6:24 EST Friday morning. Second is Scotland at 8:34pm EST -a team we need to beat to establish our 7s consistency with this young squad as they sit above us in the standings. Scotland is a beatable program and will be a fantastic test to see how this team has grown.

The Eagles get to save New Zealand for last at 6:10am EST Saturday and this will be an NZ7s team out for redemption after losing to both Fiji and England to close out Tokyo 7s. This is my team to win it all this weekend. Also watch out for Ambrose Curtis.... at some point I tweeted "Curtis has legs and knows how to use them". (I'm not responsible for the content of my late night rugby tweets.)

Last weekend I was extremely impressed with the re-emergence of Zach Test, named to the tournament Dream Team, as a finisher and leader. Brett Thompson complimented him well as another try-scoring force. Danny Barret emerged as a big beast on the pitch, muscling tries and wrapping some big hits. Alex Goff called him a Grouchmonger.... not even sure what that means but he defined it with his play.

Captain Nick Edwards had a solid weekend on defense with one try-saving chase down (I believe against Australia, could be wrong as it was a long weekend of late nights). Garrett Bender was reliable and workmanlike on the field; I can recall a fantastic try saving tackle from behind against Canada in the Plate Semi. Mike Te'o and Mike Palefau were huge impact subs with Palefau scoring seconds after his entrance into the Canada match. Madison Hughes was fantastic kicking and also had an amazing try in the Canada game. Almost any time our team needed a score to counter our oppositions' points we did and rarely let momentum swing out of control.

Staying up late to watch/tweet the games also allowed for some good chats regarding tactics and play as well as post-game breakdowns with noted 7s coaches around the US, some good interactions with the French, Fijian and South African twitter accounts as well as rugby 7s fans in New Zealand, Canada and beyond, and conversations as well with the USA players via facebook. I may not be able to repeat as well with Hong Kong and its 3 day schedule but shall try my best!

Other notes:

I really enjoyed watching Japan play. They're a fun side with solid skills and have some speed in Jamie Henry (Who may have had the try of the tournament. See for yourself here) and Lomano Lemeki.

New Zealand vs Fiji in the Cup Semifinals was the most enjoyable, thrilling, rugby 7s spectacle I've ever seen. I could watch it again and again and never get bored. So much skill and improvisation and teams playing exciting rugby!

Wales vs Scotland in the Bowl Final was another thrilling matchup for very different reasons. The game was "slower" but more technically sound with less turnovers and more solid rugby tactics. Scotland is high-passing team and can wear a side down with the constant keep-away. But Wales never dies, and also did some stomping along the way - and the game provides a thrilling ending.

France is a team that rarely had the ball but any time they did get it, they scored. France is dangerous and if they can figure out how to create more turnovers, their efficiency on attack is deadly. The USA learned that in their pool play loss but thank goodness we had that lesson as it shored up our defense for Day 2.

Canada should have beaten England in their Cup Quarterfinal. They deserved that game and England were not playing well. But good teams find a way and not only did England win in the final seconds, they took that momentum later into Day 2 and beat New Zealand in the 3rd/4th place game. England was physical, brawling at times, and seemed to get into teams' heads. I was impressed with Tom Mitchell's play.

Fiji. Fiji. Fiji. This tournament was all about their team and it's blend of style, finesse, it's age with Setefano Cakau and the youth with Waisea Nacuqu scoring the final try.Viriviri was my favorite player with his deadly speed. And I had tears running down my face watching their tears and pride as the national anthem played.

Not to take away from South Africa at all who also made the final. RSA earned their spot and they are another team that's deadly with ball in hand - most notably when they have space to run. They committed a lot of errors against the USA but still came out with the win. In the moments our defense wasn't "set" - on the quick tap penalties, kickoffs, and when they had some off/unexpected passes that allowed for more open field space, RSA scored. Senatla is a huge threat with ball in hand and Brown was all brawn. Their team singing the national anthem - actually singing - instigated my waterworks before the final.

And one final note - nearly every team scores off of penalites and scrums. It seemed that these sevens sides were putting tries in at a 2:1 rate off ref's whistles as compared to rugby play that involved multiple passes/phases. In looking at stats last week as well as after each game, it seems the real key to 7s is to not commit penalties. Play smart and patient and don't give away the easy try!

Here's more from This is American Rugby:

Hong Kong 7s Preview: Eagles Look To Ride Momentum

The Eagles will certainly be proud of making the Plate final last week in Tokyo but they won't feel satisfied unless they couple that with a strong run in Hong Kong this week. Several things are going in the team's favor as they head into the tournament. First, they have traditionally played better on the second week of a two week swing. More time together and more hit outs against different teams other than themselves tends to help them shake off the cobwebs. Second, they are in a difficult pool but one in which they can advance. Lastly, the team has confidence from getting their first positive result of the season.

All told, it could be another strong tournament. However, Tokyo was just one of six tournaments so far and the Eagles still have questions to answer. They beat Samoa last week but there is no guarantee of doing the same thing this week. New Zealand are New Zealand while the U.S. hasn't exactly beaten Scotland this year. Hong Kong will be a crucial turning point in the season and after this weekend we will know if Tokyo was an aberration or if it was a positive sign of things to come.

Take the jump to read more.
The Squad

Head coach Matt Hawkins hasn't made any changes to his roster from Tokyo. That's not unexpected and only an injury would have forced a change. One of the most interesting things from Tokyo was that Hawkins elected to start the same players in all six matches--Nick Edwards, Danny Barrett, Garrett Bender, Zack Test, Brett Thompson, Pono Haitsuka, and Madison Hughes. What worked well as each player stuck to their role and didn't try to do too much but were also willing to step up to the challenge when needed. It is also a very balanced side combining good size in the forwards, shiftiness at halfback, and the right amount of pace on the wings. Teams, especially Samoa, will have had a new look at this group and will have made adjustments. That means the Eagles will have to be ready to adapt themselves.

Outside of the starting group only Mike Palefau, Andrew Durutalo, and Mike Te'o played significant minutes. They also filled the roles well with Durutalo being especially effective off the bench. It will be interesting to see if Marcus Satavu and Ryan Matyas see more time this tournament as fatigue could become an issue.

Squad: Mike Palefau, Nick Edwards, Danny Barrett, Garrett Bender, Zack Test, Brett Thompson, Marcus Satavu, Andrew Durutalo, Pono Haitsuak, Mike Te'o, Madison Hughes, Ryan Matyas

The Opponents

Samoa (6:24 a.m. et/3:24 a.m. pt, Friday): The U.S. were down against Samoa 19-0 at one point last week and then stormed back in a very strong second half to earn the win. They did it by being more proactive than Samoa and controlling the ball by winning restarts. They also took advantage of the number of new players on the Samoan squad. They will have to do that again this week but given how Samoa looked last week you have to think the U.S. stands a good chance of winning.

Scotland (8:34 p.m. et/5:34 p.m. pt, Friday): As typical Scotland beat some of the minnows on the circuit while losing to top teams on their way to the Bowl final. The U.S. has played Scotland twice this season losing 19-10 in the Gold Coast and then drawing 19-19 in Wellington. Like the U.S., Scotland has only made the Cup quarterfinals once this season. They have the tools to do well but are very beatable. If the U.S. want to move up in the rankings they have to be beating Scotland consistently.

New Zealand (6:10 a.m. et/3:10 p.m. pt, Saturday): The All Blacks looked as beatable as they have all season in Tokyo but still came in fourth place. A first ever win over New Zealand would be huge for the Eagles but isn't likely to happen. That said, the U.S. needs to watch the scoreline. If they draw another side it could come down to point differential.

Keys to the Tournament

Possession: The Eagles was outstanding at this last week. They protected the ball when they had it by not giving away a poor pass or a silly penalty. They were also very strong in the air, something they have lacked all season. 7s is a simple game. If you have the ball you are going to score and if you don't you won't. The U.S. must find a way to keep possession once again.

Conversions: For the first time in ages the Eagles made more conversions than they missed. Much of that credit goes to Hughes and Teo but that is just glossing over the issue. Conversions increased because the U.S. were getting tries in better positions. They weren't being pushed to the outside as they had all year.

Limit Conversions: On the flip side, the Eagles did not give up many conversions as a result of chasing opponents down and forcing them to score in the corner. Forcing difficult conversions could be the difference between making the Cup quarterfinals and missing out.

Stay Confident: As mentioned, there are lots of reasons for the U.S. to be confident. They played well. They need to keep that confidence. If they go down against Samoa early than they need to do like they did last week and not lose focus.

Beat Samoa: The U.S. can't go into the Scotland match needing to beat both Scotland and New Zealand to make the Cup quarterfinals. The odds of that happening are slim. The U.S. must beat Samoa first, just like last week, to set up a do or die match with Scotland. That is a much easier route than going against the All Blacks.

Strive for More: Last week was a good performance but there were still plenty of things the team needs to fix. They can't get complacent and need to feel like they most continually improve.

The Takeaway

The Eagles showed their potential last week and now we get to see if it is starting to permanently break through. Veterans like Zack Test, Brett Thompson, and Andrew Durutalo stepped up big time last week while the team also got solid performances from Danny Barrett and Madison Hughes. All of those performances are bright signs. However, without another solid showing this week questions will continue to be asked. A win over Scotland is a must while a win over Samoa is a "should." In the end we think the Eagles are coming into the tournament with the right attitude and will beat both Samoa and Scotland to make the Cup quarterfinals.

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