May 28, 2016 Pete Steinberg on 7s, 15s, & Pathways to Future

Following the USA Women 7s’ team first two pool matches at the Clermont 7s Tournament (26-7 loss to England & 12-10 loss to Spain), DSR.net spoke with Pete Steinberg who is USA Women’ 7s’ assistant coach & head coach for USA Women 15s.

DSR.net: What are you saying to the team now?

Steinberg: In terms of the actual tournament it probably isn’t going to be a huge difference as long as we come as one of the top third place teams; because, if we had won that game (vs Spain) and beat Kenya, we would play Australia, and now we’ll probably, if we can get the points against Kenya, end up playing New Zealand.
(Note: USA ended up the second best third place team and played England in the quarterfinal. England won 21-12.)
So in terms of the outcome of the tournament not a huge difference for us; however, in terms of our growth as a team with a new coach, there was a lot of learning that happened in that game.

DSR.net: Learning in what respect?

Steinberg: When the team was really able to execute our structures and how we want to play, we play both on offense and defense and play really good rugby.The team is still trying to work on those structures with a new coach. Unlike every other team here that has had years to implement them, we’re still inconsistent. It is just a question of building up the consistency and understanding of what Richie wants from the players.

DSR.net: We seemed to just be getting the ball straight out and passing letting us down?

Steinberg: Yeah, what we would say is that we want to stretch the field, and we want to stretch the field a couple of times to really stretch the defense before we really attack. We are just being a little bit too eager. You see we try to stretch the field once and then we try something else. We need to have a bit more patience, playing with width again, and then looking to go an attack.
The conditions aren’t great and some of the passing is again a different alignment that Richie wants the team to have, and that is new to them, and that causes timing and depth issues.
When we scored our try, especially in the second half, we moved the ball wide, attacked hard, won the ball, moved it wide, – we scored. That was really good.

DSR.net: The speed on the outside? Excluding when Lilly Durbin scored her first try, the outside backs are getting caught?

Steinberg: Yeah, we are o.k. with that. The try came from Vix (Victoria Folayan) taking the outside, running hard, bringing the defenders in, to create space all the way on the other wing when Lilly scored. So we are o.k. with that, but we need to do that a few more times. We just need a little more patience straight through three or four phases to really break down some of the better defenses, a defense like England’s. It takes that sort of time for us to be able to disorganize them.

DSR.net: Can I ask a 15s question?

Steinberg: Sure.

DSR.net: For the Paris World Cup in 2014 there were some issues getting 7s players to play with the USA team. Is that going to be an ongoing problem?

Steinberg: What we always want to do is put the players and their careers first. In the discussions I have had both with Richie and Alex Maglesby, I’ve expressed that having 7s players available will be important for the performance of the 15s’ team, and I think you saw that. In Paris we were basically the top ranked team that didn’t have 7s players available. Both us and Australia struggled to get our 7s players available.
From an organizational perspective there is an understanding that we are now into this cycle. The year after the Olympics is going to be a focus on Women’s 15s going to the World Cup. Then the focus will move back to 7s with the 7s World Cup in San Francisco.
It will be interesting, but it is the players’ call.
If Richie continues, he is a great believer in people need to play rugby. You take someone like Richelle Stephens. She is a great player, but Richelle will make ten tackles here this weekend … total. There are only five tournaments. Someone like her, who is 19/20 or Lilly, they just need to play more rugby.

DSR.net: I saw in 2013 there was this development plan designed so players would be brought along to peak at 27 or 28 years old. Now this squad is all over the place. Lilly is 17, and Carmen Farmer is 35. New Zealand they are all around 27 and Australia is even younger?

Steinberg: The difference we have had is that the USA hasn’t had a defined pathway up until last year. Last year the pathway was unified. There is now a collegiate 7s program. There is now the high school, U-20s, and Collegiate All-Americans all aligned with the Eagles and 7s teams. We can now do that. That is something that has always been in place in traditional rugby nations. That allows us to now identify that future.
Before we had no defined pathway, so we didn’t know who the 17-18-19 year olds were who we should be developing for 2020. Now we do.
We already have a list of players identified for 2020. We didn’t have that in 2013.

DSR.net: Is the vision now toward 2020 more than 2016?

Steinberg: No, No. No! You can’t only work on four year cycles.
From Richie’s perspective he is focused on 2016. This team is focused on 2016.
If you look at like my role because I also do the pathways stuff, we’re the people, like Tam Breckenridge and Alex Maglesby, we are saying, ‘While Richie is focused on 2016, what is the group look like for 2020.’ We are building those structures, and I think we have them pretty much in place.
I think we are going to be in good shape. Richie has only been on the ground for two months and has two more months, so he is only half through.
I think we are in pretty good shape for the culture he wants to develop and the game he wants to play.

DSR.net:Thanks.

Steinberg: No problem. Enjoy France.

May 29, 2016 Clermont 7s Day 2 & Beyond

The USA Women’s 22-19 loss in the plate final of the Clermont 7s to host country France placed the USA in 6th place in the tournament. Unless miracles happen in the next two months, this is the likely place the USA ladies will find themselves on August 9th in Rio. Against any well coached, experienced international side the Eagle women struggled. England eclipsed them 26-7 in pool play and then again 21-12 in the cup quarterfinal. The USA’s 2 victories in the tournament (31-0 vs Kenya, 14-12 vs Fiji) were over sides with considerably less experience in top level international tournament play, and the narrow victory over Fiji was a sad indicator that the USA is losing ground against emerging sides. The nation of Fiji has a population about the same as the city of Jacksonville.

Canada defeated series winning Australia in the cup final. Australia, who had already claimed the first ever tournament series championship for an Australian team with their quarterfinal (35-0) victory over Spain, battered through arch-rival New Zealand 14-5 in the semi-final. Canada had a relatively easy semi-final after a few easy try opportunities in their 31-10 win over England. It is hard to believe that beyond these 4 teams (Australia, New Zealand, Canada, & England/Great Britain) there is another team that will be competitive for medals in Rio. This tournament was also a good reminder that initial seeding and resulting placement in the knock-out round will be crucial to making it to the gold medal match with the right condition and attitude to carry the day.

As mentioned when I started these articles on the London 7s and Clermont 7s, this is the end of DeepSouthRugby.net’s coverage of international 7s. As I look around media centers, I see that not only is the sport for the young, but the reporting on the sport seems to also be for the youngish. Recently as we struggled to convince USA Rugby that we were deserving of press accreditation to events, we were told that media services (like the game itself) is becoming more professional. DSR.net has never accepted advertisement. Fran & I began the website to fill a gap for providing information and record the history of a rugby union that has since been dissolved into the True South Union. Our extension of this mission to cover the USA’s national teams’ achievements in international play will hopefully continue with articles on the USA Women and Men’s 15s and their path to World Cup success while continuing our coverage of rugby in the region once described as the Deep South (Louisiana. Mississippi, Alabama, & the Florida Panhandle).

In my previous article on Day 1 of Clermont 7s, “Horror & Hope”, I took some comments by assistant coach Peter Steinberg out of context and with a bit of tongue-in-cheek tried to make the USA’s poor performance on Day 1 seem like a coach’s sly strategy. Over the next few days I will transcribe the very thoughtful and sincere answers that Peter gave to my questions as I think they give a nice vision of where USA women’s rugby finds itself today and where it hopes to be by 2020. image

May 28, 2016 Clermont 7s Day 1: Horror & Hope

It was a warm and partly cloudy day as New Zealand and Russia kicked-off the Clermont7s. Kayla McAlister announced her return with the first try of the tournament. The New Zealand machine was truly impressive with McAlister, Woodman, Manuel, and Goss all back and in good form.

The Eagles seemed almost desperate in their opening 26-7 loss to an English side which was resting leading try scorer Joanne Watmore. If there was a bright spot for the Eagles it was the play of Leyla Alev Kelter. Her work rate, intensity, and individual effort led to her scoring the USA’s only try. The USA’s passing was dreadful. The English side drove the Eagles off loose ball. Careless mistakes handed over possession in penalties. Coach Walker sent on Jessica Javelet and Katherine Johnson with 3 minutes to go. If the intent was to have fresh legs to make an impact, there was a brief break by Javelet which quickly ended when possession was kicked away. The Eagles’ play (excluding Kelter) was mundane at best and very sloppy at its worst. The Eagles’ single try and final 22 point differential was a definite wake-up call for the tremendous gap that needs to be filled if this side is to be competitive in Rio in a little over 2 months.

The USA lost their second pool match 12-10 to Spain. From the knock-on at the kick-off to Spain’s tying try before their winning conversion, the Eagle performance was fraught with errors and failure to create enough space outside for anyone until 17 year-old Lily Durbin put the Eagles briefly ahead late in the second half. Her taking the pass at pace and cruising easily in for a try is promising of good things to come.

USA assistant 7s coach Peter Steinberg in a post-match interview explained the USA’s strategy as attempting to develop a side that can quickly stretch defenses wide. Excuses were made for the short length of time Coach Walker has had to work with the side. He is two months on the job with two months to go before the Olympics. For most rugby players the strategy and skills involved in getting the ball quickly to the outside is a basic you work on from your first practice.

As far as this tournament goes Coach Steinberg was reasonably comfortable that the USA would qualify for the cup knock-out round by finishing as one of the two best third place sides out of the pool matches. Perhaps this is a strategy the Eagles are working on for the Olympics. They play a deceptively simple game in the early rounds, save key players, and slide into the knock-out round as a third place underdog, and then unleash the hidden talents. Maybe I shouldn’t be writing this and giving it away to the world. Fortunately very few people read my stuff and even fewer get past the first two paragraphs.

In the third pool match the Eagles showed the team they can become. Granted Kenya is playing their first tournament at this level, but they have some speed and skills. The Kenyans threatened early, but were stopped by two try saving tackles by Victoria Folayan. The early stalemate cracked. Eagles passes were sharp even though drizzle made things slippery. Kelly Griffin set up Lily Durbin’s second career try. Alev Kelter continued as an unstoppable force, adding a try and two conversions. Folayan added a try as did Javelet & Johnson as the Eagles cruised to a 31-0 victory.

The USA finished Day 1 as the second best third in the pool round and will face England in a cup quarterfinal tomorrow. The very sly tactic is working. The English will find a big difference from the side they beat 26-7 in pool play.

May 27,2016 – Tomorrow Clermont7s, Today VixFly’s Birthday

My journey as a rugby journalist following the USA Women’s 7s team began a little over three years ago during the inaugural series of the women’s 7s’ tournaments in Houston. The Eagles took second in that tournament. Vix Folayan scored two tries in their semi-final 17-5 victory over Australia which set up the Eagles’ 29-12 loss in the cup final to England. Over the ensuing three years Australia rose to be the dominant side in women’s 7s, and eight of the members of that Eagle squad played their last 7s matches as Eagles. A USA Rugby development plan that envisioned players peaking at 27 was a factor in some players being released. Vix Folayan was 27 in Houston three years ago. Today in Clermont-Ferrand, on the eve of the final tournament in the women’s series before the Olympics, Vix turns 31, and is still a key player for the Eagles.

Many of the early Eagles’ players were cross-over athletes coming from track and/or basketball. Tomorrow Lily Durbin will play in her first international tournament as an Eagle. She is 17 and has been playing rugby for four years in high school. Also, on the squad is Carmen Farmer, a 35 year-old player from the Eagles’ 15s program. One wonders what happened to the development plan if this is the squad that is being fine tuned before the Olympics.

During the last three years there was a period of focused effort to recruit more cross-over athletes. Players like Jessica Javelet (30) and Alev Kelter (25) joined the team and have had significant impact. Does the recent effort to bring up to international competitive levels players like Durbin and 19 year-old Richelle Stephens, a rugby player from the same high school as Durbin, indicate a shift away from cross-over athletes or something else?

After the 7s World Cup in 2013 I wrote that the USA Men’s team had little to no chance of medalling in Rio, and the USA Women’s team had a good outside shot at bronze. Those estimations have reversed. The USA Men brought in an outstanding coach, Mike Friday, and seemed to have developed a squad that hovers around the age of 27. The USA Women went into coaching chaos when Richie Walker replaced Jules McCoy who replaced Rick Suggitt and all within a year of the Olympics. Rumors swirled about a player or players who were more persuasive to Alex Magleby, USA Performance Director, than coaches who disagreed about the player or players’ value, and this led to the coaching changes.

Coach Walker’s eclectic mix of ages and sporting backgrounds seems more an approach to developing a squad for medalling in 2020 than a team that will bring home medals this coming August. Tomorrow they get to prove me wrong. Today … Happy Birthday, VixFly!

May 23,2016 – Eagles Win 3rd at London 7s & Lose Olympic Sweet Spot

If you depended on British newspapers for your sports news, the only happening on British soil over the weekend that USA rugby fans had to cheer about was Chris Wyles’s imagetwo tries in Saracens’ 44-17 Aviva Premiership semi-final victory over Leicester. The USA Eagles’ victory over Fiji in the London 7s’ battle for third place went unmentioned.

The win over Fiji, while being a fantastic result over the current dominant side in world rugby, has to be measured against what was lost in the tournament. In the USA’s semi-final clash with eventual tournament champs Scotland long-time Eagle inspirational player Zach Test went down with what seemed to be a serious injury. And, if my information and calculations are correct, the USA passed England, and thus Team Great Britain, to gain fifth place in the two year world ranking system the Olympics are using to place nations in pools for August in Rio. This moves the Eagles out of the sixth place sweet spot and an all but guaranteed pool win over relative 7s lightweight Brazil. As the Olympics 7s will have a twelve team tournament, the 8 teams to go through to the knock-out round will be the top two teams in each pool plus the two best third place finishers. Point differentials will be important. Having a team like Brazil in your pool could be critical to even making it through to the medalling phase. My calculations put the USA in a pool with South Africa, France, and the repechage winner who will be decided in a 16 team tournament in Monaco in June. My money will be on Samoa to win that final Olympic spot.

On a personal note for those who have read earlier posts in this series of articles about DeepSouthRugby’s coverage of the London 7s and the women’s series final tournament in Clermont-Ferrand, I wrote earier that this would be the end of my coverage of international 7s for DeepSouthRugby.net. Yesterday at Twickenham as the tournament moved into the finals of bowl, plate, shield, and cup play a writer for Rugby World invited me to go to the World Rugby booth to interview Brian O’Driscoll and watch the final matches there. Sitting around a table with BOD, sipping a lovely malbec, and discussing the rumors of his playing pro rugby in the USA and Ireland’s chances to qualify for the Olympics has me questioning my line in the sand decision to end this part of my rugby journalist avocation.

London 7s Day 1 – Mardi Gras in a Bubble

A strong defensive effort in a 14-10 loss to South Africa and the occasional magic of Perry Baker was enough for the USA Eagles to find a way to the Cup Quarterfinals at the London 7s.

The Eagle started Day 1 defeating Paris 7’s champs Samoa 12-5. The Samoan side would prove to be not of the same ilk as the team that defeated Fiji in the Final in Paris a week earlier.
They would go 0-3 on the day. In their second match the Eagles would equal South Africa with two tries apiece. South Africa’s tries would come from perennial stars of the game Cecil Afrika and Seabelo Senatla. The Eagle’s tries came from relative newcomer to the series Nate Augsburger and Ben Leatigaga, playing in his first tournament. Perry Baker made an amazing try saving tackle on Senatla to maintain the narrow point margin. The Eagles’ inability to convert either try gave South Africa their margin of victory. In their third match the Eagles drew 12 all with Canada. Perry Baker got both USA tries and Madison Hughes converted one.

For the Eagles the good was a defense that allowed only 5 tries in their 3 pool matches. The bad was an offense that only scored 6 tries. The ugly was lots of passes that forced Eagle speedster Perry Baker to play shortstop and scoop up the bouncing ball before turning on his jets.

An occasional drizzle did not dampen the party atmosphere at Twickenham and fancy dress (costumes) were everywhere. Drink and good spirits of all varieties flowed well past the 5 pm closing of the stadium bars. It was like Mardi Gras in a gigantic bubble. image

May 21,2016 London 7s, Fancy Dress, Families, & Secrecy

It is Day 1 of the London 7s. England Rugby lifted the ban on costumes (fancy dress) at the eleventh hour with an email to ticket holders last night. Their attempt to change the tournament from a giant party that rivals the Hong Kong 7s to a family friendly event is being met with a little skepticism. The main shift in approach seems to be introducing and promoting an international food experience. I don’t think that would have been something that would have enticed my kids to spend a day at the rugby grounds. Supposedly as a result of last year’s fatality, ticket sales have been limited to 35,000 for each day of the two day tournament. Twickenham holds 79,000. The hours of alcohol sales have been cut, also. It is definitely commendable that the RFU is foregoing considerable revenue for the sake of safety.

The English papers seem to be ignoring the tournament. Yesterday the one article I found about international 7s in the Daily Telegraph was about English scrumhalf Joe Simpson leaving 7s to try for an Olympic place, and he is not even picked for the English side playing in the tournament. Perusal of other papers found less or nothing. All the papers had articles on the semi-final match-ups for the Aviva Premiership semi-finals: Exeter vs Wasps and Saracens vs Leicester.

Yesterday in a leafy green suburb an hour south of London the USA Women Falcons played in a tournament with seven other international teams. With maybe a dozen spectators watching the main prize of the tournament was to impress coaches that you deserved an Olympic spot. The poorly advertised tournament was not easy to find. My source of information on location of the tournament was a brief chat in Spanish with someone on the Spanish women’s team who happened to land at Gatwick airport at the same time. I arrived at the Guildford Rugby Club just outside of Farncombe as teams were having lunch. Taking the opportunity to refresh myself with a pint of hand pulled London Pride, I wandered to the balcony that overlooked the pitch and struck up a conversation with someone on the English/Great Britain data analysis team. Her job was analyzing the data that they received from the GPS chips in the players’ jerseys. She was sworn to secrecy on the data, so I couldn’t pry info on Team Great Britain’s fastest player. I wondered if the order for secrecy had also extended to any information about the location of this tournament.

2016 London 7s – Eagles Well-Placed for Bronzing

This year in rugby will be about who medalled. My English wife hates when I use “medal” as a verb, but I checked dictionary.com, and it backs me up. Who will win the gold? Betting on anyone other than Fiji, New Zealand, or South Africa would be lost money. Samoa might have looked strong in Paris, but Paris wasn’t about winning at all costs for many teams. And Samoa still has to qualify in Monaco on June 25 against 15 other teams including Ireland, Tonga, Russia, Canada, Zimbabwe, and Uruguay.

The bronze is where there is a big question mark. One of the above mentioned three could be eliminated in the knockout round, so who is left to take the bronze? That is where the USA has a shot. The rumor I’ve heard is that pool assignments for the Olympics will be based on world rank position at end of HSBC series. Sixth or seventh are the sweet spots. There is only one team most of the teams would think, “Yeah, we can beat them.” That team is Brazil, bless their zika-infested-samba-dancing hearts. Host team Brazil will end up ranked 12th and will be in the pool with teams ranked 1st, 6th, and 7th. You still have to get to the bronze medal match, but it is one step closer. The USA positioned themselves in one of the sweet spots in Paris and Zach Test laid clam to a place on the Olympic team if he hadn’t earned it long ago. Baker, Hughes, Barrett, and Bender are definites. I’d give them all a rest. I imagine Carln Isles is avoiding injury, but a little playing time before the “Big Show” in August might help with Olympic jitters. I should probably check if the roster has been announced.

The trick now in London is to play to stay at 6th or 7th. If Coach Friday were to follow my selection suggestion and leave all the above mentioned players off the London squad, hFullSizeRender-5ere is the world rank position risk if his London selections don’t win a match. The following teams could pass the USA: Samoa (who hasn’t qualified yet), Kenya, and England – on their holy ground, Twickenham. Just saying the word makes you want to stand and sing, “Sing Low”. My wife loves when I do that.

May, 2016 – Last Chance to Stake Claim on an Olympic Dream

Life is made of changes. Everything around us is changing, and we change to accommodate. Goals help us remain constant to whom we want to be and what we want to achieve. For most of us the goal of being an Olympic athlete has passed through our consciousness at some point in our lives. For the athletes competing in the London 7s and France 7s over the next few weekends this goal is very close to reality.

One of my first USA press passes was to the Womens 7s inaugural series tournament in Houston where the USA lost to England in the final. There were maybe three journalist there. The stadium was mostly empty. After the tournament I was on the pitch with an IRB (now World Rugby) person. She said the tournament was committed to building in Houston. But change happens while a few things remain constant. The England side I saw in Atlanta in March looked very similar to the side that won in Houston 3 years ago. From the USA team who were part of the squad in Houston there are possibly four players still competing for an Olympic spot. One former USA player, Nathalie Marchino, will realize her Olympic dream playing for the birthplace of her mother, Colombia.

The weekend before the women have their final tournament of the season May 28-29th in Clermont-Ferrand, the men will end their 2015-16 season in London. Although this seasons 7s series have been more about developing the right side for Olympic success than winning the series, the final stops will bring plenty of drama as coaches try final changes to the teams they will select to go to Rio. The USA coach, Mike Friday, seems to have picked close to what will be his Olympic squad for the Paris 7s starting May 11th except no Carlin Isles. If the USA men do not end up in the cup final, I would expect a lot of changes for the next weekend in London.

My childhood dreams of being an Olympian have long faded. Soon I will be 64. There have been many changes to a life that since my first match against Pensacola in 1972 has been largely spent as a rugby fan. My retirement from a career in education in 2011 allowed me an opportunity to play sports journalist and follow the sport I love through many incredible events like the 2011 World Cup New Zealand, 2013 7s World Cup Moscow, 2014 Women’s World Cup Paris, 2015 World Cup England, and many World Cup qualifying and HSBC 7s competitions around the USA. Unfortunately getting to the matches is getting harder and writing about something you watched on a bad stream depressing. The final at Clermont-Ferrand will be my last 7s where I play like a sports journalist.
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4/09/16 Atlanta 7s Day 2: Prospecting for Gold

imageEngland showed Australia could be beat on day 1 in Atlanta, but for the rest of the tournament no one else could find a way. The USA fell to the Aussies 22-7 in their cup quarterfinal match. The Aussies then rolled over Canada 26-14 in their semi-final battle.
In the Final New Zealand clawed their way back from a half time deficit of 19-7 to end five points shy of Australia at 24-19 final score. Australia has now won all three of this season’s HSBC Women’s Sevens tournaments.

The USA’s coach, Richie Walker, is looking to make 5 changes to the squad before Canada. He is also looking forward to more time with the team. There is only one week before USA take the pitch in Vancouver (Langford),Canada. The final tournament of the series will be six weeks later in Clermont-Ferrand, France.

Several teams are still trying player combinations. Two Eagles who were not on the roster in Atlanta, Victoria Folayan and Kelly Griffin, should add speed, defensive skills, and experience to the squad. New Zealand left stars Kayla McAlister and Huriana Manuel at home while three Kiwis made their debut in Atlanta. The New Zealand coach, Sean Horan, seems to be holding his cards very close to his vest; although, he is consistent in his message that, “It is all about three days in August.” There are few, if any, who argue this.

Right now the Olympic medal contenders seem to be Australia, New Zealand, England, and Canada. England came storming back in Atlanta from the previous tournament in February in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where they lost matches to the USA, France, and Fiji. In Atlanta they beat Australia in pool play, lost to New Zealand by five points in the semi-final match, and then dominated Canada (26-14) to take third place in the tournament.

The USA is struggling to find the right combination of players with enough speed to beat the top 4. The recent appointment of Richie Walker as coach has not helped. Rumors abound about what happened with the coaching switch from Ric Suggitt to Jules McCoy to Walker over the last seven months. The situation reminds me of a school I worked where the director called an emergency faculty meeting for the end of the school day. At the very brief meeting the director announced, “These rumors have to stop.” That was it. Of course, the first thing that happened when we walked out of the meeting was everybody asked, “What are the rumors?”, and more rumors erupted.

One consistent theme through all rumors is Walker should have taken over directly from Suggitt, and this is not because McCoy was a bad coach. Walker was Suggitt’s assistant and knew the players and systems. McCoy’s surprise appointment less than a year before the Olympics introduced unnecessary complications. Somebody in charge of those decisions (Magleby?) needs to stand up and say, “We made a mistake. Sorry Dr. McCoy. Hope you can forgive us. Now let’s work together for some gold in Rio.”

4/08/16 – Atlanta 7s Day 1

The USA women started the 2016 Atlanta 7s tournament with a convincing 24-0 win over Spain. Three years ago at the Sevens World Cup the USA luckily squeaked by Spain for 3rd place. On a rainy evening in Moscow, as time ran out, Spain missed a conversion in front of the goal posts to send the match into overtime. Vanesha McGee scored the match winning try to give the USA third place. Much has changed in three years.

As the sun went down and a cold breeze chilled the bones of fans at the Atlanta 7s, the USA Eagles eclipsed 2013 World Cup champs New Zealand 12-5 on a fantastic try by Jessica Javelet. This put the Eagles at the top of Pool C. In the final match of the day Japan, who didn’t participate in the 2013 World Cup, defeated Spain 15-7 and sent the Spanish to the bottom of Pool C.

This year’s 7s series is part rugby and part chess match. Coaches have strategies to put their teams in the best position to win a medal in Rio. The victory over New Zealand on the face of it would seem to be a good indication of the USA’s ability to win gold, but to medal you need to be not just good, but also smart. Sean Horan, New Zealand’s coach, said, “We aim to win in August and that means trying new combinations and tactics over the next three tournaments, so that come Rio we’ve given ourselves every chance of winning.”

One tactic is to find the easiest way through the knock-out round. By beating New Zealand the USA will face the current number 1 team in the tournament series, Australia. New Zealand will face the weakest quarterfinal opponent, France. Did New Zealand intentionally lose the match. Probably not, but star player Portia Woodman did not play. Three previously uncapped players featured in the match against the USA.

Former assistant coach and now head USA coach Richie Walker has a daunting task ahead. Tomorrow, April 9th, his side has to show they are medal contenders by beating at least 2 of the best teams in the world on home soil with home crowd support; otherwise, confidence that they can do this in Rio in August will dwindle. There is definitely talent on the USA team, but today’s performance showed weaknesses in handling and whole match intensity. Although they easily defeated Japan 33-12, toward the later stages of the second half a small Japanese team began to dominate. USA Eagles with Coach WalkerTeams like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, England and emerging sides like Fiji, France, and Russia will play the USA much closer, and in Rio the Eagles will pay for mistakes with gold, silver, & bronze.

4/2/16 Atlanta, New Coach, & 125 Days Until Olympics

On April 8th and 9th Atlanta hosts the middle leg of the five leg 2015-16 HSBC Women’s Rugby Sevens Series. The USA is currently in 8th place after the first two legs in Dubai and Brazil. The first two legs were played under the leadership of new coach, Jules McCoy. McCoy was recently released amid a flurry of rumors about conflicts with players. Similar rumors swirled around Ric Suggitt when he was released early from his coaching contract this past September. Richie Walker, an assistant coach under Suggitt, took over as coach a little over two weeks prior to the Atlanta tournament.

This year’s series is overshadowed by rugby’s upcoming inclusion in the Rio Olympics. New Zealand’s coach, Sen Horan, has openly said finishing in the top 3 in this year’s series is fine. This year is all about winning a medal in Rio.

For USA’s Coach Walker a top 3 finish in Atlanta is important. In Dubai (December, 2015) the Eagles finished 11th out of 12 teams losing to Fiji, Ireland, Japan, and Canada. In Brazil (February, 2016) the Eagles did much better finishing 3rd. In their 3rd place effort they beat Russia and England but lost twice to New Zealand and once to Australia. In the three matches they played against New Zealand and Australia the USA scored 1 try. The total points for and against in those 3 matches was 5 for and 97 against. The road to Olympic glory was full of potholes before Walker was handed the reigns of a team that doesn’t seem to be often pulling in the same direction. A top 3 finish on home soil will give a much needed confidence boost.

The Rio Olympic format will be similar to the women’s series with twelve teams competing in three pools. Eight teams will come out of the three pools to compete for medals. The first two teams in each pool plus the 2 best third place teams which will probably be decided by point margins. I recently saw an article on the Olympic seeding but have not been able to find the same information on the Olympic website. The article said that the seeding will be based on this year’s standing in the women’s series. The 1st, 6th, 7th, & 12th seeds in Pool A. The 2nd, 5th, 8th, & 11th seeds in Pool B. The 3rd, 4th, 9th, & 10th seeds in Pool C. Brazil as the host nation has claimed a spot in the tournament and is seeded 12th. If this information is correct, the USA is currently set to be in the same pool with New Zealand, Great Britain, and Ireland. A sixth or seventh place finish in the series would put the USA in Pool A with the relatively weak Brazilian side and a better chance to get into knock-out play for a medal. A strong finish in Atlanta will put the Eagles in a much better position to possibly control their Olympic destiny rather than chasing a form that will give them a long shot chance at even bronze.image

2015 Vegas! 2016 Vancouver? USA 20 – 0 Canada

On a warm February evening in the daZZle of Vegas and for possibly the last time under their current flags, Fiji and New Zealand faced each other in a Rugby Cup Final. It was the USA leg of the HSBC Rugby Sevens Series and Fiji dominated the day winning 35-19. If the wishes of the current Fijian leader and a majority of Kiwi voters desire it, the Union Jack will shrink from once being on 50 national flags to now being on only 2 – Great Britain and Australia.

The four teams and thus their flags will most likely be on display at the Olympics in Rio during the opening parade August 5, 2016 . New Zealand, Fiji, and Australia are currently ranked 2nd, 3rd, and 4th in the HSBC Rugby 7s Series with the top four teams automatically qualifying. South Africa who is 1st in the series lost to Fiji in a semi-final. They finished third in the tournament defeating the USA in the semi-final losers’ match. Great Britain will qualify for the Olympics in many sports, but could get excluded from rugby in 2016 – at least in the men’s division. If neither England, Wales, or Scotland make it to the top four in this HSBC tournament series, then a combined British side would compete in a European regional play-off where they could possibly lose to a French or Portuguese side. And it is always fun to imagine Russian scientists planning a secret super team to enter the scene in 2016.

I thought I read this was the first time the USA made it to a Cup semi-final since Dubai in 2010. I checked Wikipedia and it had the USA losing to Samoa 38-5 in the Cup Quarterfinal in Dubai. I did a story a few years back about the 09-10 series when Caravelli was coach. They had a relatively low series ranking, but I can’t remember if they made it to a semi-final Cup match. Was this a first? This is certainly a side playing with a lot more confidence, thoughtfulness, skill, and speed than I have ever seen. By thoughtfulness I mean looking for the offload and keeping yourself in the play. Their determination is as good as it has ever been. Destroying a good Canadian side by 20 points in the Cup Quarterfinal was a magical moment. I have been an Eagle supporter on the other end of decisive dominance by Canadian sides too many times in the past to not have truly savoured the pleasure of that evening. For the very nice Canadian fans next to us, we appreciate your understanding and know that you are always the second team in our heart.

Their was a scary rumor floating around about the tournament moving from Vegas to Vancouver. Unfortunately I won’t be able to attend. A 2010 DUI while attending my 40th high school reunion ( I definitely should have known better.) prohibits me from going to Canada for 6 more years. Maybe some Canadian who reads this could help me get a weekend pass if you think the tournament should change locations, or – to be fair- at least keep Justin Bieber at home.

If the tournament stays in Vegas, they need to do something about the stadium. There are too many players slipping, and if you are 5 or more rows back, you can’t see large portions of the pitch. It is a small college football stadium that doesn’t have the width for rugby sidelines. A good switch of locations would be Argentina and Florida if it stays this time of year. An article I read said Wellington attendance was shrinking. I would guess if you can see world class rugby down at the clubhouse for free, why pay to go in to town. The Kiwi side in Vegas was missing some key players but still good enough to make it to the Final. The chess moves are starting for Rio. Making sure the stars are healthy while giving your depth experience is a good strategy. The battle for the gold medal is shaping up to be a Kiwi vs either Fiji or Springboks.

Here are the thoughts of Mike “Spacer” Thompson on the Vegas Intl Tournament:

“the passing tales and glories that once was rugby town” vegas, philly, etc.

The new rugby town of las vegas, the tailgating, red rock mountains and big blue sky. My recollections include the super stud from Portugual (my MVP) who was jonesing when he tried to kick the ball into touch to end the game on Sunday, and the ball stayed in play….. The AIC winger was as unstoppable as a rhino….. There were 2 backs from Arkansas who were really good…… the officials and organizers did a fantastic job on the sidelines……

peace out

Vegas 2015: Less Clockwork Orange, More Mature Creativity

On the way to the airport for my flight to 2015 Vegas 7s I stopped at a thrift store to buy a book. I chose the 1986 edition of A Clockwork Orange. In the introduction the author, Anthony Burgess, tells how the edition published in the USA in 1962 had his final 21st chapter chopped by the publisher. For Burgess the final chapter was important because Alex, the protagonist, matures and chooses to turn away from his juvenile life of violence. The film by Kubrick based on the 1962 version forever carved the ultra-violent Beethoven loving Alex as a character who would never reform, but for Burgess the character evolved. In the final chapter Alex realizes that, “human energy is better expended on creation than destruction.”

The USA men’s 7s team performance in Wellington last weekend showed moments of great promise, but the continuing proclivity to run hard and straight into opposition with no appearance of looking for timely off-loads or way to maintain good possession will not move the Eagles to the next level. Coach Friday’s positive influence is overwhelmingly apparent. The Eagles are maturing. Hopefully in Vegas we will evolve into a team that expends much more energy on creative offense and less on intentional destruction of opposition.

It is an almost pointless exercise to extrapolate from one tournie to the next based on previous score differences. That said, here is my extrapolation. The Eagles’ pool in Vegas (South Africa, Japan, and Portugal) is probably the softest in what is becoming an increasingly difficult series to find an easy pool. The USA topped their pool in New Zealand which included South Africa. They lost to the Springboks in pool play (26-14), but South Africa’s surprising loss to France allowed the USA to top the pool based on point differential. The Eagles cruised past Japan 40-5. The last time the USA faced Portugal was in Australia last October. They won 33-0, but Portugal is a definite threat. In Wellington last weekend Portugal defeated Canada 26-0 in the Bowl Quarterfinal. With a boost from home field advantage the Eagles should, for a second consecutive series tournament, emerge from pool play as one of the 8 teams competing for the Cup.

With increasing confidence in their skills and the excellent growth they are showing under the guidance of Coach Friday, hopefully they will eliminate the indiscipline which saw them blow a 15 point lead over Scotland in the final minutes of their Cup Quarterfinal match in Wellington to lose 19-15 and let victory over Fiji slip away 12-10 in the final minutes of the Plate Semifinal. Their current 8th place standing in the series could be their best ever finish if they hold on to or hopefully improve upon this. Cracking the top 4 sides to automatically qualify for the Olympics is very doubtful, but they are looking more comfortably like a side that can defeat Canada in the NACRA Olympic qualifying tournament in North Carolina in June.

USA 7s Sides, June 2014 : No Olympic Checkered Flag on the Horizon

The 2013-14 men and women’s international sevens series final tournaments ended in May with the men beating Japan 36-12 to take 12th place in London and the women defeating Russia 27-12 to finish 5th.  Realistically on any given day that is about where these sides rank in the world, and there are no medals for these places.

Next year qualification for the 12 Olympic spots begins in earnest. Brazil has claimed automatic spots for their men and women’s teams by virtue of being the host nation. The next four spots will be claimed by the top four ranked teams at the end of the IRB/HSBC Sevens World Series tournaments in May a year from now. The chances are very good that the teams that finished in the top 4 spots this year will repeat. That would mean New Zealand, South Africa, Fiji, and England would qualify for the men’s Olympics and New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and England for the women’s. (If England qualifies, they form a Great Britain team which could include Welsh and Scottish players. Ireland could still qualify separately.) Between June and September of 2015 the next 6 spots will be filled by the winners of regional tournaments. The USA is in the North American & Caribbean Rugby Association (NACRA). The most highly ranked team in this association is Canada, and both the men and women have an incredibly hard time beating the Canadians.

Luckily for the USA women the Canadian women will probably qualify for the Olympics by being one of the top 4 teams in the world series tournament next year, so they won’t be at the NACRA Olympic qualifying tournament in 2015. The women Eagles have had little trouble defeating any of the emerging Caribbean sides or Mexico in the past couple of years. At the NACRA 2013 sevens tournament a Canadian side made up of b-team players defeated Mexico in the final 51-0. The USA, to conserve resources, didn’t send a women’s team.

 

Unfortunately for the USA men’s team the Canadians, although improving rapidly, will probably not crack a top 4 spot in the sevens world series tournaments next year. Barring a fluke USA victory over Canada in the 2015 NACRA 7s Tournament, the USA to qualify will have to win the play-off (repechage) tournament that will be in late 2015 or early 2016 . To figure out who will be in this tournament with the U.S. Eagles we need to predict who wins the other regional tournaments. The other continental regions are: Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceania, and South America. If you take the current leading country in the sevens world series tournaments and remove the top 4, the regional winners would be Kenya, Japan, France, Australia, Argentina.

So who would be in the 16 team play-off tournament? By current world standings* and if all the above crystal balling is correct:

3 teams from Africa – Namibia, Zimbabwe, & Morocco

3 teams from Asia – Hong Kong, South Korea, & Philippines

4 teams from Europe – Russia, Portugal, Spain, & Romania

2 teams from North America – USA & Mexico

2 teams from Oceania – Samoa & Tonga

2 teams from South America – Uruguay & Chile

*very loose use of world rankings based on 15 a-side play mixed with some info on nations that are better at 7s.

This would be a one-off tournament with the ultimate trophy being a ticket to the Olympics. Wow!! The only team at the play-off tournament that is currently ranked about the USA in 7s is Samoa, but it is a tournament that will decide if your country will go to the Olympics. To say, “Anything could happen!” seems too much of a cliché to use.

There is a good chance the USA men will not be competing in rugby at the 2016 Olympics. Is there anyone to blame? There are the beginning cries for a new coach. There are the resurging moans about needing NFL level athletes. There are cycling criticisms of how athletes are chosen for the national team. In a country that is very much wealth driven I haven’t heard, “We need more money.” Maybe that is because there are countries like Fiji who are medal contenders on far less than we currently pump into our Olympic training. Many say the difference is that rugby is a part of the cultural fabric of Fiji. In the USA wealth is part of our cultural fabric. To change attitudes in current top level contact sport athletes and thus begin to change our national relationship with rugby there will have to be a bigger payday than the top salaries USA players are making in European leagues (around $170,000). The National Guard is reportedly budgeting to give $32,000,000 to support NASCAR and $12,000,000 to support an Indy race car driver, and they are not really sure if they get any recruits from those ‘investments’.  Imagine if all $48,000,000 went to support 12 men and 12 women athletes. Would our rugby culture change?

Atlanta 7s Day 2 – What a Difference a Day Makes!

The Women Eagles came charging back in the Day 2 knock-out stage at the Atlanta stop on the 2014  IRB Women’s Sevens World Series to finish 5th and win the plate. The only 2 teams that beat the Eagles in the tournament were Canada and Australia who finished 2nd and 3rd respectively.  New Zealand won the tournament with a 36-0 win over Canada in the final.

Prior to the start of Day 2 play DeepSouthRugby talked with former USA 7s star Nathalie Marchino about where the women’s team seemed to be heading. Day 1 saw the women floundering in pool play. Several starting players who had been integral to the Eagles placing 3rd in the 2013 World Cup had been released from the Olympic training program and the 7s player pool.  After a year only three of the original members of the inaugural Olympic training program remained. Nathalie felt confident that the USA women were now faster and with more talent and potential than ever before, and when the Eagle’s took the field against Canada for the 2nd time in the tournament, they were a different team.  Although they lost 26-12, they were emerging as the side Marchino predicted they could be. By the end of the day they had beaten England (19-5) and Spain (22-0).  In last year’s inaugural season of the Women’s Sevens World Series the Eagles played England twice. They lost both times, 29-12 in Houston and 19-0 in China.

A key part of the rebuilding USA side was cross-over athlete Jessica Javelet.  JJ scored 7 tries over the tournament and had probably 3 times that many try saving tackles.  Strong Day 2 performances from veterans Vix Folyan, Kelly Griffin, Devon Owsiany, & Jillion Potter inspired new players to a level of intensity and energy that renewed hope that this team can be Olympic medalists. After the USA’s second place finish in Houston last year, I asked Potter and former player Kimber Rozier if there was anything they wished journalists would ask.  They laughed and joked about being asked their favorite color. After the Atlanta tournament I again asked Jillion this question. She smiled and said, “Ask me why I like this game.”  Her reply was because of the camaraderie and sense of family that the team develops. She added that there is nothing they wouldn’t do for each other on the pitch. Jillion’s confidence and commitment to the team that she now captains is another factor in the rebuilding of a team that in 2 years should have a good shot at an Olympic medal.

In the interview with Nathalie Marchino I asked about the Eagles’ chances of winning gold against teams from New Zealand and Australia that are bringing in explosive teenagers to their squad when the USA’s new players tend to be in their early to mid-20s. Marchino felt this is a challenge for the USA to be seriously competitive against teams from countries where rugby is a national sport and the athletes grow up with lots more competition and have years to develop skills such as ball handling and distribution. She went on to identify the Eagles’ strength as their physicality and to compliment Coach Suggitt on being excellent at focusing on what the USA women are good at.

The Olympic qualification process has been published and it is very doubtful if the US Men will qualify. Nathalie was asked if the Olympic committee should consider dropping the Men’s side and focusing all financial support on the women to increase chances of having a medal. While recognizing the strong possibility that the men won’t be going to Rio, Marchino felt it was important to maintain support for the men and pointed out that this is the USA and when it comes to the Olympics, we have a way of making things happen.

Atlanta Day 1: Eagles Rebuilding or Disintegrating?

The USA ended pool play with a much needed big win over China that gave them the point differential they needed to squeeze into the cup quarterfinals as the 8th place team. It was not an easy pool, but the Eagles 31-0 loss to Canada and 17-0 loss to Australia made one wonder  what happened to the side that finished 3rd in the World Cup a little over 6 months ago.

The women Eagles who last year showed the potential  to medal in the 2016 Olympics now seem to be quickly drifting to the bottom of  the 12 teams that will go to Rio. Unlike the men who will probably not qualify, the women will in all likelihood qualify. The main reason being they won’t have to face Canada in the regional qualifying tournament because Canada will have received an automatic spot by being one of the top 4 teams in the 2014-15 IRB Women’s Sevens World Series.

The realease of players from last season and the recruitment of players from other sports has one wondering where the Eagles are headed.  Former team standouts  and leading  try scorers Vanesha McGee and Nathalie Marchino have been let go. Marchino had some potential problems with eligibility, but one must wonder why these issues weren’t sorted before she became an integral part of the initial group of women selected for the Olympic Training Center program.  Kimber Rozier is also missed.  Christy Ringgenberg  (age 31) who has not had a dynamic  impact in matches and is often struggling to make critical tackles  is still around.  Kelly Griffin and Jillion Potter  are still outstanding in their work rate. The added pressure on Potter of being team captain seems to have had an adverse effect on her ability to be an important part of linking moves. She was on Saturday too  often leading by crashing straight ahead and taking the ball to ground. On the positive side Jessica Javelet is a breath of speed and energy that might fill a void as she makes the transition from field hockey and American football to rugby. Vix Folayan struggled to inject some speed and power outside against Canada and Australia but was successful against a much weaker China.  Without Marchino and McGee to spark closing moves, Vix (with help from new comer Javelet) has to fill a try scoring gap.

Are the Eagles rebuilding or disintegrating? Has the USA’s best shot of a rugby medal in Rio disappeared in the 6 months since 3rd place at Moscow World Cup? Hopefully Day 2 in Atlanta will see a new USA team emerge from the shambles of Day 1.

Atlanta 7s – Pool Picks and Divinations of Quarterfinals

On Saturday, Feb, 15th, 2014, at 2:06 pm EST the USA women’s 7s team will face Canada in their opening match in the 2nd leg of the IRB Women’s Sevens World Series.  The Eagles placed 7th in the first leg of the world series in Dubai, but this is not a good indicator of how they will do in Atlanta. Last year they finished 9th in Dubai and stormed back to place 2nd in Houston, losing to England in the final (29-12).

There was a contest being held to pick the winners of the pools for Atlanta. I tried to play but couldn’t get through the Silverlight  download to enter … but here are my rather boring predictions of the favorites for the most part.

Pool A:  Canada wins the pool and Australia is 2nd. The USA comes third. China is 4th.  This picks Canada to upset Australia, the winner in Dubai. Canada should have almost a homefield advantage in Atlanta.

Pool B: New Zealand wins and England is 2nd. Netherlands is third and Ireland 4th.  This is a very tough pool. New Zealand won the women’s series in 2012-13 and dominated the 7s World Cup in Moscow in July of last year.  Atlanta will see the return of Portia Woodman to New Zealand. Woodman was the top try scorer in last year’s series but missed the Dubai tournie because of injury. She averaged 2 tries per match at the World Cup.  England has a strong side and could come back to face NZ in the final. I flipped a coin between Ireland and Netherlands, and both have the potential to upset England.

Pool C: The order of finish will be Russia, Spain, Brazil, and Japan. This is the easiest pool. Brazil is lucky because they will end up having a good chance at being the best 3rd place team if they play Russia and Spain  very tight and get a lot of points against Japan.

Now for the more daring picks of who will be facing whom in the knockout rounds …

Match 19             Best 1st v 2nd Best 3rd                       Russia v USA                      w = Russia

Match 20             Best 2nd v 2nd Best 2nd                      Spain v England                 w = England

Match 21             2nd Best 1st v Best 3rd                       NZ v Brazil                           w = NZ

Match 22             3rd Best 1st v 3rd Best 2nd                 Canada v Australia           w – Canada

Match 23             3rd Best 3rd v 3rd Best 4th                 Netherlands v China       w=Netherlands

Match 24             Best 4th v 2nd Best 4th                       Ireland v Japan                  w= Ireland

The point differentials in pool matches will determine the order of finish after win/loss records. The picks above are based on potential to run up high score in easy pool matches and a lot of assumptions based on fuzzy reasoning.

It is tough to pick Russia as winner over USA in Atlanta in the Cup Quarterfinal, but the USA will be coming out of one hell of a pool and Russia will be looking forward to their first really hard match.

Now to pack my extra layers for some chilly weather to go  along with the sizzling rugby in Atlanta.

A First Person Perspective of the Las Vegas Sevens Rugby Tournament

By Alison Swallow

“You’ve never seen anything like this, I guarantee it,” Vince grinned, sliding the last few ciders into our cooler and covering them with ice. It was a sunny Saturday morning in January and we were getting ready to head over to Sam Boyd Stadium for the fifth annual Las Vegas Sevens Rugby Tournament.

I raised an eyebrow at my boyfriend and took a sleepy sip of coffee. “It’s a rugby match, Honey. I’ve been to rugby matches before. A bunch of guys in short shorts huddling, cuddling and chasing a ball around.”

He laughed and shook his head, “Just wait and see. You have no idea.”

Since 2010, Las Vegas, Nevada has played host to the largest annual rugby tournament in the United States. We are the fourth of nine stops on the international HSBC Sevens World Series which continues on from here to New Zealand. The Las Vegas Sevens draws upwards of 70,000 fans from all over the world to my glitzy hometown for three days of fierce, fast competition.

The tournament is growing as rapidly in prestige as it is in attendance. Sixteen different countries send teams and the weekend matches are now broadcast live in the US on NBC Sports, with the feed being shown in 142 countries worldwide. The tournament serves as part of the qualification process for the 2016 Rio Olympics where Rugby 7s will be one of the 2 new Olympic sports.

Even the City of Las Vegas seems to be taking more of an interest in the event; although, only an estimated 5% of the crowd is made up of locals like myself. Sixteen area elementary schools were each assigned a team, and the students spent the last several weeks learning about the cultures and countries of the players. The 2,000 children involved in the program were then invited to attend the tournament and root for their team.

That much, I knew. But, as I stepped through the gates of the stadium on that Saturday morning, I quickly realized that Vince was right – all of my facts, figures and lovely anecdotes about school children hadn’t remotely prepared me for the Las Vegas Sevens.

The first thing you notice are the costumes. The crowd swarms around you, looking like a Halloween party mixed with a Mardi Gras parade. I found myself surrounded by more eccentric characters than you could fit into a Dr. Seuss book. There were hula skirts and hard hats, dapper gents sporting monocles, Vikings and vampires, Beatles and bananas, priests and Playboy bunnies, Muppets, unicorns, women in catsuits, men in kilts, a dozen Uncle Sams and at least one Abraham Lincoln.

The costumes didn’t make sense. They didn’t have to.

A bearded Miss Piggy in pink lycra sauntered up to me, wrapped an arm around my waist and asked in a deep baritone, “Are we having fun yet?” There was nothing to do but laugh with the sheer delight of it all. Indeed we are, Pig.

Most of the other fans – those that hadn’t come in fancy dress attire – had outfitted themselves in the colors of their favorite team. The flags of sixteen nations were tied around waists, draped over shoulders and painted on excited faces. As we found seats in the stands, everywhere I looked I could see great swathes of green and gold, black and white, red and blue.

Then, just after noon, the Canadian and Welsh teams took the field and a whole new excitement began. For those of you who are more familiar with the 15-a-side format, as I was, go see a sevens game immediately. With only 7 men a side and 7 minutes a half the matches move from one to the next at breakneck speed, but each is no less ferocious than a standard 15 a side rugby game. The hits are hard, the breakaways are aggressive and the athleticism is incredible. Several times all I could see were walls of color colliding like forces of nature down on the pitch.

The qualifiers flew by. Early wins from Canada, Australia and England had the sections around me on their feet and screaming. Some of the pool games were evenly matched, like the pairing of New Zealand and Fiji (12 to 7), while others (Samoa beat Portugal 35 to 0 – ouch!) were absolute blowouts. Finally, as the winter sun reached its afternoon apex and we all began to strip off our warm outer layers, the last of the pool games began: USA vs. Spain. The stands erupted into madness as the American team took the field and chants of “U-S-AAA!” echoed through the stadium.

The game itself was high-octane entertainment. The US took the advantage during the first half and held it through the rest of the match, ceding only one try to the Spaniards. During the 2 minute halftime, a fan of the Spanish team was escorted onto the pitch and allowed to dance with the Bee mascot. Then, just as he was really getting into his shimmy-shake, the American Bald Eagle mascot came barreling in from the sidelines and surprise tackled the fan. The stands roared with laughter. I was surprised to see even the Spanish supporters chuckling and clapping good-naturedly.

The match finished on a high note for the American fans. My little group decided to take a break before the Bowl games began, so we fought our way through the ocean of people to the parking lot. Vince’s rugby-loving uncles and their friends had beaten us there and already had the tiny tailgate grill smoking and stacked with mouth-watering burgers. A few cold beers were passed around and, much to the delight of my girl friends, the former ruggers began to sing. They rolled from one bawdy rugby song to another, their harmonies floating into the air and mixing with the barbecue smoke. I smiled and shook my head in wonder as I listened and chewed. When the afternoon light began to dim, we put away the grill and the parking lot beers and made our way back into the stadium.

The schedule of matches continued smoothly through the evening. We were into the qualifier games for the bowl and so many of them were terribly one-sided. Kenya demolished Spain 24-0, Scotland wiped the floor with Portugal 31-7, and Fiji beat Uruguay 38-14.

At one point, after I had tired of watching Uruguay’s tiny team charging after the Fijian behemoths, I closed my eyes and leaned my head back to eavesdrop on some of the wonderful conversations going on around me. Dozens of different accents, voices of all tones and timbres, and several languages I’d never even heard reached my ears.

“I just love a good scrum, don’t you? It’s all about the shorts…”

“GO CANADA!!”

“Scotland, get off your pasty arses and RUN!”

“GO CANADA!!”

“Australia’s defense is just too strong this year – we don’t have a chance.”

“Did you see the Jackson 5 over there? Hilarious!”

“GO CANADA!!”

“Canada isn’t even playing right now!”

“Rugby – it’s just a big, crazy community, isn’t it?”

And there it was. I turned my head sharply to see the man who had made that final comment. Wearing a faded All-Blacks jersey, he was small, frail and couldn’t have been a day under 80. But in one sentence, this man who had probably never played a game of rugby in his life had perfectly summed it all up for me.

Because that’s what I realized over the course of last weekend. Only a very small part of the Sevens tournament is what happens on the pitch. Don’t get me wrong, the play on the field down below was thrilling… but there was something even greater happening in the stands, in line for lemonade and in the parking lot. We, the overdressed, the underdressed, the barely dressed and the cross-dressed fans had indeed formed a big, crazy community.

Saturday faded into Sunday, a haze of burgers and songs about lovely ladies with reputations and something called a Rang-a-dang-do and fast, ruthless rugby; I began to notice the community atmosphere more and more. People were rooting for their teams, but they were also cheering for all great acts of rugby, no matter who committed them. When Kenya won their semi-finals bowl match, a pretty South African woman laughingly throw her arms around a grizzled stranger in a Wallabies jersey and they did an impromptu tango. All of us grinned and clapped when the Samoan player passed the ball at the very last second so his teammate could score the try. There was a roar of appreciation for every great breakaway run, every perfectly executed tackle. The entire stadium held its collective breath when the scrappy Canadian team came from behind at in the final moments of the match and ripped the third place trophy from the outstretched hands of the Samoans.

And it makes sense! The only sport I know in which the players tear each other apart on the pitch, then run off to the bar afterward, arms slung around each other’s shoulders – why shouldn’t the fans be the same?

For two days, I chatted with people who had traveled as far as Edinburgh, Capetown, Sydney and Nairobi. I found myself high-fiving Canadians, fist-bumping Brits and hugging Kenyans. The earth felt so small, as though it could easily fit into Sam Boyd Stadium. In a world increasingly divided by politics, religion, economics and so many other hot-point issues; it is a beautiful thing to stand in a crowd of 70,000 people united by mutual respect and the common love of a sport.

The final game finished, and the South African Spring Boks barreled into a solid win against the New Zealand All-Blacks. It was all over – time to go home, back to work, to the real world. I found myself sorry to leave my 70,000-strong family. I looked over at Vince and said, “I don’t want it to end!” He grinned. Then he took my hand and dragged me down the steps of stands, two at a time, fighting the hundreds of people going in the opposite direction. When we reached the bottom, he lowered me over the bars and onto the pitch. I sat down on the matted grass, sinking my fingers into the divots from the players’ cleats. Hundreds of others had the same idea and soon we were surrounded by dancing priests and laughing pandas, skipping unicorns and spinning Uncle Sams. The Muppets started a pick-up game and Abraham Lincoln ran willy-nilly around the pitch, tackling unsuspecting fans. It was a perfect end to a perfect weekend.

“Hey Vince!” I shouted, over the noise of the revelers, “You were right! I’d never seen anything like this!”

And I know for sure that I’ll be going back, year after year. This is my community.

So let’s raise a parking lot beer to the Sevens and to the greatest sport in the world – RUGBY!

Now who knows this one? “I’ve been a wild rover for many a year…”

Vegas 7s Tournament Themes

Good theme possibilities for an article about the 2014 Vegas 7s tournie would depend on your national perspective. If you are the South African Springboks, who  won the tournament and finally wrestled the lead in the 9 tournament series from New Zealand, a decent theme might be “Springboks end the reign of the Kiwi”. For New Zealand who host the next tournament in the series it could be, “We know how biltong (dried and salted springbok meat) tastes in Wellington’.

With a fantastic  tournament including upsets over Kenya and Wales in their pool matches and France (17-14)  in the cup quarter final and Samoa  {22-19] in the 3rd place match, Canada’s theme is, ‘We are a force to be reckoned with.“ New Zealand beat Canada {26-7} in the cup semi-final.

For the USA the theme is one that resonates after many of these tournaments and was best expressed in an anguished cry from a 9 year-old New Zealand boy. His face was a mess of sweat smeared white and black face paint as he valiantly shouted encouragement to the USA in their bowl quarterfinal match with Wales.  In the waning moments with the Eagles trailing 12-7 he could take it no more and had to switch from encouragement to advice. As the poignant message left the boys lips,  another Eagle lowered his head,  ran  into contact, took the ball to ground,  and the words, “TRY PASSING THE BALL”, floated over the pitch.

 There were a lot of positives for the Eagles. The USA has gotten very good at beating Spain having won all 4 of their matches against them this series. The new players on the team are showing a lot of potential and scoring tries. The USA didn’t lose by more than a converted try to any team: Wales (12-7). France (14-12), and  Argentina (19-12).

The theme for the fans? Well it was Vegas, Baby, …. We can’t tell.

I will say it was a lot of fun. My one recommendation ( and perhaps it’s my New Orleans upbringing) is to prepare the players for the tournament opening parade. Give them some beads to throw.

Viva Las Vegas 7s!!

Eagles Coming to Vegas in 14th Place

The USA is not looking real strong coming into Las Vegas on Jan. 24th for the 3rd leg of the 9 tournament HSBC Rugby 7s World Series. They are currently 14th. Their win/loss record is 4 wins/13 losses. The only team with a higher ranking who they have beaten this series is Portugal – which is currently ranked 11th.

The USA ‘s pool in Vegas is relatively weak (Argentina, France, Spain). Argentina is the highest ranked team in the pool. They are in 6th place. France is in 10th place. The Eagles lost a close match (19-14) against France in the shield semi-final in Dubai in November. They have already beaten Spain (ranked 15th) twice this series.

For an article on the USA players on the squad go to: http://rugbymag.com/usa-sevens-men/10247.html

New Zealand once again leads the series, but only by 2 points over South Africa. Both teams have tough pools http://www.irbsevens.com/destination/edition=4/pools.html , but the Springboks probably have a little edge coming into the tournament.  The Springboks have won the cup twice in Vegas and are bringing a team that is arguably stronger than their side that won the cup in South Africa in December. The  All Blacks, who have never won in Vegas, will be missing star player and current total point leader Tomasi Cama due to injury. South Africa, also, has a slightly easier pool facing Kenya (7th), Wales (9th), and Canada (13th) while New Zealand faces Fiji (3rd), Australia (5th), and Scotland (12th). The other pool includes 4th ranked England and 7th ranked Samoa. Both of these sides should have little trouble getting through to the cup play-off round with the much weaker sides of Portugal and Uruguay making up the rest of the pool.

Not long now  until the wonderful world of world class 7s in Vegas begins. Fears of freezing January temperatures are fading as the weather report is looking great!  http://www.weather.com/weather/tenday/Las+Vegas+NV+USNV0049:1:US

My prediction for the Eagles:

They come out second in their pool. They lose their cup quarterfinal match to South Africa which will throw them into a match with either England, Samoa, New Zealand or Fiji for the plate semi-final. Hard to see them winning against any of those teams, but that will give the Eagles 10 points and their best finish so far this season.

July 3,2013 Moscow RWC Day 3 & Beyond

Headlines – US Women Show They Can Win Bronze & US Men Beat New Zealand (19-5) -with only 3 and a half minutes to play

On the final day of play the Eagle Women defeated Ireland in the cup quarterfinal (14-5). The Eagles trailed 5-0  for most of the match.  Nathalie Marchino injected some offensive spark when she came  on in the second half to score a try and set up a movement that saw a hard running  Vix Folayan score under the post.  In the semi-finals New Zealand was in command the whole match scoring a try within 15 seconds of the kick off.  New Zealand player Portia Woodman was too much for the Eagles (and for any other side) to handle. She scored 12 tries in Moscow averaging 2 tries per match. The final score was New Zealand 19 – USA 10. This set-up the bronze medal match with Spain. The Eagles had already beaten Spain (19-7) in pool play. Spain beat Australia (14-10) in quarterfinal play and lost to Canada 10-0 in their semi-final match. In the bronze medal match the US narrowly escaped defeat when Spain missed the winning conversion attempt from in front of the post. A soggy pitch and wet ball possibly contributed to sending the match into overtime where Vanesha McGee  scored the winning try. When asked how she was so often able to come up with the  magic to score the game winning try, Vanesha credited the teamwork which allowed her to do her job as the finisher on the wing. Eagle hooker Kelly Griffin credited teamwork as what enabled her to maintain her incredible work rate through-out the tournament and Eagle prop Jillion Potter, who played with tremendous heart throughout the tournament, concurred that teamwork was what kept her going.

The Women Eagles were certainly lucky in how the draw worked out. Their relatively easy pool put them in a spot where they  did not have to face a combination of New Zealand,  Canada, or England in knock-out stages.  England went out to New Zealand in the quarterfinal (24-7). The sevens World Cup showed with a good draw the Eagles can take the bronze in Rio, but the bad news is some teams are showing they are improving quickly (Russia, Spain)  or emerging quickly (Ireland, Fiji) and will be more and more competitive in the coming years. The Netherlands, Australia, & South Africa are also capable of an exceptional match that could knock-out the Eagles. There is a lot that needs to be done to make the Eagles a confidently dominant side, like the All Blacks, that would ensure a medal in Rio.

The US Men  fizzled in a plate quarterfinal against Argentina (28-5). Zach Test’s effort was once again excellent  and he scored the Eagles only try. The Eagles’ play continued to be largely  drive into contact and dig the ball out, but Argentina controlled most of the possession. Beyond 10 and a half minutes of almost glory against the All Blacks and the first 4 minutes against Georgia the men didn’t show they could be medal contenders. Questions still remain if they will qualify. Once again they lost to Canada (15-14 in pool play) and if Olympic qualification rules allow one team from NACRA (North America Caribbean Rugby Assoc.), it is unlikely it would be the USA.

IRB wisdom in choosing Moscow as the site for the tournament was often questioned. The IRB claimed they were looking to move rugby sevens into emerging rugby territory. The largest crowd probably approached 10,000 on the final day. One reporter who had attended all of the previous 5 Sevens World Cups said attendance was “abysmal” . Fans who had traveled from all parts of the world complained of the costs of visas and the prohibition against beer and alcohol in the stadium. At least half the Russians I  met were gruff, serious, and seemed to be xenophobic. I had heard an NPR program about this shortly before I went to Moscow.  That said,  many Russians were warm and friendly and sincerely wanted us to enjoy our visit.

On June 13th the IRB announced there would be another Sevens World Cup in 2018.  Countries are beginning to prepare their bids. Perhaps the possibility of a full stadium is not an important criterion to use to judge bids, but consideration of the possibility of a visiting spectator having a positive experience should be.

Day 2 – Moscow RWC 2013 – Dreams Lost, Won, & Still Alive

If the referee had only called the USA Men  v New Zealand match 3 and a half minutes early, the USA would have defeated the All Blacks for the first time in history, but as the saying goes, “If my aunt had balls, she would be my uncle.”  The Eagles started the match playing fiercely like they had nothing to lose. Midway through the second half, leading 19-5, the men became indecisive as it dawned on them  they had the match and their moment in history  to lose. A penalty try and 2 other Kiwi tries in the last 3 minutes and the final score was 26-19.

Earlier in the day the Eagles added another loss (15-14) to Canada to extend the losing streak to 4 … I think.

The dream that is still alive is that the Eagles area  relatively young side and were in with a good chance in both their losses in a tough pool.

On Day 3 the men start their quest for the plate  against Argentina.

The US Women, after shaky starts against both Fiji and Spain, ended up easily winning both matches to finish top of their pool. Their cup quarterfinal against Ireland is a relatively easy match, but the women’s form and defense are shaky at times. They  need to reach another level if they are to progress past quarterfinals, and if they don’t bring at least their B game Ireland ‘s hard charging women will squash world champion dreams and send  the Eagles to compete for the plate. The US Women show a strong tendency on defense to not trust the inside player to make the tackle. If they get past Ireland , their semi-final will probably be against New Zealand.  Kiwi star winger (Portia Woodman) makes quick work of teams that give her a little space. To keep the dream alive the women will need to bring a level of play to the knock-out stages  that they didn’t show  in the pool stages. Weirdly after 6 months in the Olympic Training Center conditioning seems to be an issue for some players in the Moscow heat. Eagles Jillion Potter and Kelly Griffin’s work rate is outstanding , though, and Vanesha McGee’s ability to raise the tempo and intensity at just the right moment is inspiring.

Wales kept their dream of back to back world cup championships alive with an exciting hard fought win over Fiji (12-7).

Russians’ dream of a world championship on home soil were kept alive when the Russian women defeated  England in the last match of the day to put the Russians through as the top team in their pool.

Sadly and weirdly my personal dream to have a nice cool Russian beer while watching the US play in the Luzhniki  Olympic stadium is dead . No alcohol is allowed in the stadium or in the Olympic complex grounds.

 

2013 Rugby World Cup Moscow Day 1 … USA Men a Good 4 Minutes

Like a bowl of weak borsch that once you scoop the few bits of cabbage and meat out there is nothing tasty left for the second part of the soup, the USA men went scoreless in the second half while Georgia scored 2 tries (one converted). Fortunately the men led 26-7 at the end of the first half. Matt Hawkins (Eagles’ captain) started the match orchestrating a new style … passing before contact, switching and looping and finding space. Colin Hawley scored the first try under the post 40 seconds into the match. The Eagles’  second try was truly  brilliant. Multiple players handled the ball before Zach Test scored and no Eagle player even came close to being touched.  But then the magic disappeared. It was like the players decided, ‘ OK, we can play like this. Now let’s go back to how we used to do it … run the ball into contact and dig it out. ‘  Refs were very good all day  at calling players for off their feet in rucks, and strong  Eagle advances several times resulted in a penalty to Georgia.  New Zealand dissected Canada 31-12 in the other match between teams in the USA pool. With probably only one team going through to the cup quarterfinals from this pool, the Eagles seem to have little chance against New Zealand and unless they can find the first 4 minute magic against Canada they’ll  be battling for the bowl on Sunday.

Day one saw a few other surprises. In the opening match Zimbabwe lost by only a try and were winning 14-7 at half against  perennial power Samoa.  England defeated Portugal fairly easily 21-7 which was not a surprise. The surprise was how long they took between scoring a try and restarting. After  England’s first try they took so long that I began to time them. Over a minute on each of the 3 next tries. It was like they had no idea that from the 6 pools of 4 teams,  if you don’t win the pool,  only 2 other teams will go through to the cup quarterfinals and those 2 teams will be decided on point differentials. The other power in England’s pool  (Argentina) understands this. They beat Hong Kong 47-7 and after one try they kicked the conversion and would have  restarted  in 15 seconds if the ref hadn’t made the Pumas wait for Hong Kong to get ready.

After Day 1 New Zealand, Fiji, and South Africa look very strong. Kenya , Argentina, Australia,  & Wales  look like they could pull off an upset in the knock-out stages, and  Samoa can never be ignored.

June 23, 2013 One Week to New World Champ

In a week’s time the new Rugby World Cup 7s (RWC 7s) champs will be crowned in Moscow. They will reign as World Champs until the next RWC 7s in 2018. There was the possibility the winner would be the last RWC 7s champ ever, and then on  June 13th the IRB announced that the World Cup 7s would continue and be integrated into the Olympic cycle. The tossing about of the future of this tournament is (of course) because of rugby 7s being included in the Olympics. The international 7s series has also sapped some of the importance of winning the RWC 7s. Every year you now have 9 men’s and 4 women’s international tournaments.  Seldom do the same teams finish in the top 3 positions.

For the nine men’s tournaments in the 2012-13 season the final point standings were New Zealand (173), South Africa (132), & Fiji (121). South Africa finished first in 3 tournaments, and New Zealand and Fiji each won two. Samoa & England each won a tournament. What does that indicate about who would win the gold if this was the Olympic year & RWC 7s was the Olympic games? Very hard to say because the level of motivation will definitely escalate. For small countries like Fiji and Samoa where rugby could be the only sport in which they might medal and there is strong national pride in the rugby team, their level of commitment to the win could be the factor.  New Zealand and South Africa would be high hurdles to get past and too often the matches can hinge on refereeing, but a Fiji vs Samoa final would be a spectacle in Moscow and Rio and serious cause to ponder Olympic Training Centers and development of the game from the South Pacific perspective … which the USA seems to be doing with Serevi Camps.

For the USA this RWC 7s is to show that they deserve a spot in Rio. Unfortunately they are in a tough pool with New Zealand, Canada, & Georgia. The Eagles’ record against NZ & Canada was pretty poor this past HSBC 7s World Series season. The Eagles faced NZ four times and lost everytime. Combined points for 41 against 79. Against Canada the Eagles were one for four with 79 points for and 84 against. Georgia is a bit of an unknown. If their 15 aside play is an indicator they will be big and hard and it can be imagined they will have a partisan crowd in Moscow.

For the US Women they remain our best hope for a medal. The final legs of the Women’s series did little to change what was written about them in March  http://www.deepsouthrugby.net/rugby-sevens-7s-rio-olympics/march-gladness-or-sadness/ . They need to find a team will to win (at least akin to Canada’s) and the ability to perform with precision in crucial games, or they will be shut out of the gold, silver, or bronze in Moscow and in 3 years in Rio. In Moscow the Eagles have an easy pool and should come out to face either Australia, South Africa, or an emerging Irish side in the quarter-final. From there they will face one of their nemeses … Canada, England, or New Zealand and recent European champs Russia in the iconic Luzhnicki (sp?) Stadium with an expected huge home crowd advantage should not be dismissed.

I’ll try to Twitter from Moscow @deepsouthrugby  Wheels up 6 pm EST on June 25th.

March Gladness :-) … or Sadness :-?

As the March 7s tournaments in Hong Kong, Tokyo, & China fade into April training for the wind-up of the 2012-13 men’s & women’s 7s series tournaments,  reflections on what appeared to be successful March efforts  cause some concerns that Eagle sides are not in form to achieve the main goal. In March the NZ women’s coach Sean Horan in an interview only 4 days before the China 7s declared that “… it is all about Rio.” There are very few players, if any, who disagree with Coach Horan. Where are the Eagles in relation to chances for Olympic success?

After a disappointing Hong Kong tournament at which the men’s side managed only one winning effort against Scotland in a bowl quarterfinal match (20-12), they  won 3 and tied 1 of their 6 matches in Tokyo to win the plate. On their way to capturing the plate they beat Wales (24-22), Fiji (21-10), and Scotland (17-0). They are currently precariously tied with Scotland at 12th place in the HSBC Sevens Series standings. The precariousness is because  the Eagles must capture 12th place all to themselves in Glasgow on May 4th, or they’ll fall into the relegation tournament in London the following week. If they don’t finish in the top 3 in the relegation tournament,  the USA will  not be a core team in the 2013-14 HSBC Sevens  tournaments . As the host of the 2014 Vegas 7s  they’ll get to play against the “big boys” there. In the 2014 Hong Kong 7s  they’ll have to  finish as one of the top 4 teams out of the  second tier sides to get to the relegation tourney in London 2014, and then finish in the top 3 to climb back into the core teams for the 2014-15 HSBC Sevens Series. That worst case  relegation scenario is only remotely possible but there is a reasonable chance the men will end up in the relegation tourney  in London in May  this year.

To definitely qualify for Rio, though, the men need to crack being one of the 4 best teams in the HSBC Sevens Series  or be able to consistently beat Canada. Neither of those options seems remotely possible.  They continue to flounder at times and fluctuate in the HSBC standings between 12th and 15th.  The compacting of England, Wales, & Scotland into Great Britain for the Olympics would move the USA up to a current position of  11th . They have only won 1 of their last  5 matches against Canada. USA men’s qualification hopes  will probably depend on how the IRB and Intl Olympic Committee work out  some repechage system for the fringe sides that hover around the 12th-16th places: USA, Spain, Portugal, Japan, Russia, Tonga, Georgia, Zimbabwe. The Eagles performance in Japan was encouraging, but the possibility of not being invited to Rio is still very real.

The USA women finished a very respectable  4th in the China 7s  losing to New Zealand in the semi-final and Canada in the 3rd/4th play-off.  The women remain solidly one of the 4-6 best sides in the world, but they continue to struggle against New Zealand, England, & Canada. For most  of the Women Eagles the ultimate measure of success will be to medal in Rio and there is not a medal for 4th place. Qualification won’t be an issue for the women. Finding the 12 players who have the defensive tenacity and offensive flair to beat Canada, New Zealand, or an English side (infused with emerging Irish stars to make a very strong Great Britain team) will be the challenge.

March brought Eagle success, but also pointed out that there is still a gap between where the teams are and where they need to be to achieve their main goal.

Beer, Loathing, & Rugby in Las Vegas – 2013

This is a work in process as I’m intending to follow the suggestion that I write this article  Hunter S. Thompson style and work in themes from his seminal work. I’m going to attempt that, but first I have to read the book.

Here goes just my own style – possibly to be later revamped into Mr. Thompson’s style.

Friday, Feb. 8th,  was a  chilly  and windy day that required a shot of Jameson’s to face the bright Vegas morning. As the day rolled on it just got colder. By the time the U.S. Eagles lost the final match of the day in a valiant effort against Samoa (12-7) the full bar concessions in the stadium couldn’t keep out the chill that made the leg of the kilted lass next to us look like a turkey neck.

Here comes the loathing part . The US Men  placed 8th which is their  best finish to date in this season’s  series, but they got beat by Canada, and so did the women – badly.

The U.S. Men squeaked  through their pool with a “time has run out”  brilliant conversion kick by Folau Niua. Niua’s  conversion in the 22-7 win over Spain gave the US the edge in a point differential decision that sent the men to battle Fiji in a Cup quarterfinal and then Australia in the battle to grab hold of the Bowl. In the Quarterfinal against Fiji  the Eagles were threatening the go ahead try with no time on the clock when Rocco Mauer reminded us that kicking is usually a bad idea and especially bad when time has run out and you are behind a try. The U.S. lost 19-21 to Fiji and were  sent to the Plate competition versus  the Maple Leafs who had lost to New Zealand 17-0 in their Quarterfinal. In the Plate Semi-Final Canada looked unstoppable when they  took  a lead right from the kick-off. Then  Zach Test and Carlin Isles brought some serious spirit and speed to the contest. The rest of the Eagles quickly embraced the spirit and made a game of it. The US going down by a try 24-19.

The focus of this column is the US team’s qualifying for the Olympics. The mindset of many of the athletes is based on a strong and deep desire to be an Olympic athlete. Last week in Houston the women seemed to show that not only were they definitely going to qualify, they were possible medalist. The Vegas  tournie had little to indicate the Lady Eagles won’t qualify. They are still consistently one of the 6 best teams in the world, and they should only need to be in the top 12 to get to Rio. There were strong indications though that if they do medal, it won’t be the gold – or the silver if Canada ends up standing next to Great Britain in Rio.

If men’s qualification requires one winner from the NACRA tournament, it probably won’t be the U.S. Chats around the pitch with well libated (possibly not a word) and shivering, but warm on the inside, compatriots and rugby fans from all over the world found general consensus  that the IOC & IRB will both agree that for $$ & development it is best if the US men have another route to qualification beyond  beating the Canadians – some sort of repechage play-off with  Tonga or Japan.

US problems range from poor tackling to failure to offload in a timely manner. The USA players, both men and women, need to study and practice how the Fijians fend-off stiff arms and the Fijian offloading ain’t so bad either. I include in the Fijians to watch the 5 who played for the New Zealand side that finished 2nd in the tournament Cup Final 40-21 to a very quick South African team.

The final in the women’s elite division of the match was a Canada A vs Canada B match-up. The USA women split into 2 fairly equal sides – The Stars and The Stripes. Canada split into an A-side and B-side. Canada’s B-side took out the Stars very easily 17-0 (official scores not up at time of article). This Maple Leaf B-side looked generally younger, like a new wave of Canadian rugby playing talent. The Stripes went down to the Canadian A-side that in the Cup Final waited til the last 4 minutes to bring on star players Mandy Marchak and Magali Harvey. They both scored and Canada A beat Canada B. When writing this article Day 2 and 3 scores scores weren’t on the LV Invitational website yet. Here is the link http://www.usasevens.com/las-vegas/womens-elite-7s/ .

One last little thing before I go to the library to check  out a book, I’ve lived in a lot of countries and I can’t think of one where it wasn’t the protocol to stand silently when a national anthem was playing in the stadium. Occasionally DeepSouthRugby.net gets press credentials and only once have I seen a member of the press sitting and chatting with his mate during a national anthem. He was an Argentine during a 2011 World Cup match. To tell you the truth, I’m not really offended,  just a little amazed when someone casually sits or strolls across a pitch when the entire stadium is silent and standing. Maybe I’m wrong on this, but the IRB should inform its match officials this is protocol.

If you have comments, mail to deepsouthrugby@hotmail.com

Feb. 2013 – Houston 7s and the USA Women’s Quest for a Seat at the Olympic Table

The USA Women squeaked through in first place in pool B because their point differential after  pool matches with Canada, South Africa, and Argentina was 44 points and Canada’s was 41. The USA and Canada tied (12 all) in their match and both sides beat South Africa and Argentina. That 3 point difference meant the USA went into Day 2 facing Russia in their opening cup quarterfinal match and Canada had to face the Dubai women’s series champs, New Zealand. New Zealand finished second in Pool A, losing by a conversion to England (7-5). Australia finished first in pool C by defeating the fast, hard hitting Russian side by a try (15-10).

The current Olympic/IRB thinking on who will get to compete in 7s at the Olympics in 2016 will call for the USA to beat Canada in a NACRA  tournament in 2015 or early 2016 to qualify for a trip to Rio. The plan that has been floating between the IRB and IOC is currently specific only  for the men’s qualification. The women’s qualification path could be different, but if the current men’s model is accepted for the women, Day 1 play in Houston indicates that it is still a  coin toss who would win a USA-Canada match and could depend on factors related to where the tournament is played. The faces of the Canadian and USA women as they left the match after their draw tells a bit of the mindset of the sides. The Canadians looked sad and disappointed.  The USA women seemed elated. The USA players feel they are improving and gaining on the Canadians and the Canadians fear they are not improving as quickly as the USA.

The Canada match started out badly for the USA. High, uncommitted, arm tackling led to an early Canadian try. A second Canadian try came from 2 US players being sucked in to cover one  Canadian attacker and knocking each other over. Then two US players (Kelly Griffin and Nathalie Marchino) really stepped up and changed  the momentum to pull the sides even by the time the buzzer sounded the end of the match. Kelly and Nathalie were outstanding all day. Team captain (Vanesha McGee) upped her effect  on play in the USA’s second match against South Africa, scoring 2 tries and leading the side to a 22-19 victory. Deven Owsiany joined the starting line-up in the South Africa match and was, at times, an inspirational force in defense. Who would win the USA’s final pool match against new comer to women’s international 7s (Argentina)  was never in question. The USA ran in 7 tries to Argentina’s 0. The lady pumas were unable to score a try in all 3 of their pool matches.

Day 2 was another glorious day weatherwise and rugbywise in Houston. There were reports of ticket sales approaching 4,000, but a quick visual estimate of attendance indicated the crowd was less than 2000. In conversation with Susan Carty, IRB Women’s Development Manager, she stated attendance was not disappointing as the IRB expected this venue and location would take time to grow.

The scores for Day 2 matches can be found on the IRB women’s 7s series website, so I won’t list them all here, but focus on highlights of USA & Canada matches.

Canada fell in the quarterfinals to New Zealand (12-10) in a match that started with palpable intensity. Canada’s  Jennifer Kish charged down their opening kick-off to the Kiwis, evaded and broke several tackles before offloading to Kayla Moleschi to put Canada up by 5 with less than 30 seconds gone.  New Zealand would score 2 tries and convert one before Canada put together a multi-phase movement that ended in Moleschi going over for another try to pull Canada within 2 points. With 2 minutes left New Zealand almost scored again but a great tackle by Magali Harvey kept Canada’s hopes alive, but Canada’s fight had been draining. With a minute to go a bad choice by Canada to try to break through a line-out rather than pass the ball out led to a knock-on and time ran out on a courageous Canadian effort. The New Zealand effort seemed to dampen Canada’s fire. They lost to Netherlands in the plate semi-final, but came roaring back in the battle for 7th place to leave a South African side severely burned in  33-0 defeat.

It was over 4 minutes into the first half before Russia scored the first try in their quarterfinal match with the USA. Weak tackling allowed the Russian phenomenon Baizat Khamidova to get the first points with Nadezda Yarmotskaya adding the conversion. With less than a minute in the first half, Lauren Doyle  outpaced the Russian defense  to put the score at 7-5 going into half. The second half saw Nathalie Marchino adding 2 tries and the Russians being held scoreless for a final score of 15-7. Nathalie’s final try was an 80 meter break which she touched down between the post.

Victoria Folayan was the USA hero in their semi-final match with Australia, scoring two of the USA’s 3 tries. The third try came from Christy Ringgenberg scoring from an intercepted Aussie pass and her conversion put the match out of reach at 17-5 with time running out.

England had battled through the Netherlands (19-14) and New Zealand (19-12) to earn their place in the the cup final against the USA. England jumped out to a quick 10-0 lead as US tackling and coverage was lacking in commitment. Five minutes into the first half the Kelly Griffin-Nathalie Marchino dynamic duo went to work, Each scored a try and the US was up 12-10 before England scored a try to put them up 15-12 as the buzzer went for half. The USA seemed to come out for the second half a different team. England’s Joanne Watmore scored from the kick-off. The Eagles spent most of the half in what seemed a lethargic defense.  The exertions of the tournament had taken their toll and the effects were clear in the women’s handling, tackling, and coverage. Watmore added another converted try and when the match ended England were the champions (29-12) of the first Houston International Women’s 7s.

In a post match interview with USA players Jillion Potter, Kimber Rozier, & Lauren Doyle they expressed disappointment at the final result,  but happy to have made it to the final and very happy at the improvement since Dubai. The general mood of the USA team seemed to be one of elations that they are moving in the right direction and getting there at a faster pace than the other nations. It is hard to imagine the competitors in Rio in 2016 will be very different. For now the women seem on track to bring home a medal.

 

 

Jan. 2013 – Women in Houston, Men in Vegas, & Canada Between Us and the Olympics

     The current plan for selection of the 12 teams to compete in the 2016 Olympics calls for the top four teams in the 2014-15  Seven’s World Series (SWS)  to have automatic qualification. The USA women are 9th after one stop on the  4 stop 2012-13 women’s SWS. The USA men are 11th after 3 stops on the men’s 2012-13 SWS which has 9 stops.

     If the US teams don’t make the top 4 in the 2014-15 SWS,  they will have to win the North American Caribbean Rugby Association (NACRA) tournament in 2015 or early 2016.  Barring the rapid rise of a Caribbean team or Mexico, the main obstacle for both the men and women will be Canada. Canada is ranked one spot ahead of the USA men in this season’s SWS and Canada’s women are 6th after the first stop on the women’s tour.

The top four teams in the current SWS in January, 2013 are:

Men – New Zealand, France, Fiji, South Africa

Women – New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, Australia

With a little over 2 years to go until the end of the 2014-15 SWS it is highly unlikely that the US teams will be cracking the top 4. The women perhaps got off to a very poor start in Dubai in Dec. 2012 and will return to a much more competitive form when they return to action in Houston on Feb. 1, 2013, but the men are almost hopelessly out of contention for a top 4 spot for the next decade at least. The men have never been ranked higher than 10th in the 13 years the men’s SWS has existed, and if the US don’t qualify for the Olympics then the general public support and sponsorship that would have developed will be delayed at least another 4 years.

How well do US teams do against the Canadians?

In the past 6 months the US men have played the Canadians 4 times and lost 3.

8/26/12                Canada 26           USA 19  (L)     Ottawa

10/12/12              Canada 22           USA 21  (L)      Australia

11/30/12              Canada 26           USA 7    (L)       Dubai

12/8/12                Canada 12           USA 26  (W)    South Africa

The US women haven’t faced the Canadians in the past 6 months. In Dubai at the end of November both sides faced the Australian women. The US side lost 15 to 7 and Canada lost 14 to 10. At the Amsterdam 7s in June, 2012, the Eagles lost 26-19 to the Maple Leafs in the final.  An article by a staff writer for the  Canadian sport channel The Sport Network referred to the USA women as upstarts and listed England as Canada’s main rival.

The following is a link to the match on YouTube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9s-JUqVPqII

If the Olympic qualifying matches were held in the next few months, the Canadians would be the favorites.

On Feb. 1st Houston hosts the second stop of the innaugural 2012-13 women’s SWS and on Feb. 8th Las Vegas hosts the 5th stop on the men’s SWS. The women have the most to prove in this first year of their SWS, Dubai was a dismal start for the country that won the initial women’s World Cup in 1991. The US men’s best finish in the previous 13 years of the SWS was 10th in 2009-10. In the 112 cup finals that have been played since the inception of  the men’s  SWS the USA men have been in one.  On March 21, 2010, the Eagles lost to Samoa in the cup  final in Australia 36-10.

In the upcoming men and women SWS tournaments,  we can certainly hope that both sides will capture the Cup, but the chances of that happening are slim. Realistically it can be hoped that after both men and women have spent a month at the Olympic training center getting ready for this season’s SWS with a longer view to Olympic qualification, they will have a showing that moves them ahead of Canada or at least demonstrates the training plan is clearly developing sides that will easily defeat Canada easily in 2015.

Ottawa Aug. 26, 2012 – NACRA 7s Championship – Size Matters

On Sunday afternoon the much awaited match of the tournament ended with Canada defeating USA 26-19 to claim the championship. Both teams romped through pool and quarterfinal matches. In semifinal matches USA won 33-7 over Mexico and Canada 31-0 over Jamaica. This tournament was the venue for qualification for the 2013 7s World Cup to be held in Moscow. Both USA and Canada qualify as the top 2 teams go through. Mexico defeated Jamaica 17-12 for 3rd place.

Canada women had a try fest through all their matches having little trouble with Trinidad and Tobago in the women’s final. The USA women were not present as they qualified for the 2013 7s World Cup by their performance in the 2009 7s World Cup.

The lesson of the tournament for the USA should be ‘size matters’. I received a premonition that this would be the lesson upon arrival at Ottawa airport. Passed from the initial immigration screening to secondary screening because of a 2010 DUI conviction, I was finally granted a 3 day pass to enter Canada and a warning to not try to return for ten years. The immigration officer was very pleasant but wrestled with bending Canadian law to let me in. At one point he said – and I paraphrase slightly, ‘If you were covering hockey or with ESPN or, even better, ESPN covering hockey this would be a slam dunk.’ (Sorry for mixed metaphor but being unfamiliar with hockey I’m not sure what the equivalent of a slam dunk would be.) The point being if I had been covering a bigger sport in terms of popularity or with a bigger media organization, he would have not had to keep me waiting for 3 hours while he struggled with setting me free on Canadian soil. Likewise the much smaller USA team struggled with gaining and maintaining Canadian soil. They were pushed in scrums like they were an unwieldy scrummage machine and blown off rucks like garden furniture in hurricane force winds.

The Eagles, although well coached, struggled to maintain composure as they faced their only real competition of the tournament. Luke Hume was a standout performer throughout the tournament despite his diminutive stature. Early in the Canadian match he collided with a teammate who was taken off the pitch for stitches after Luke bounced off him to evade a couple of Canadian tacklers and score the match’s first try. The toll of tackling much bigger Canadians eroded the USA’s previous confidence and strong aggressive defense and the Canadians’ physicality in defense was too much to overcome offensively.

During a 2011 Rugby World Cup press conference the Russian coach was asked why he had almost completely replaced the squad that had qualified for the tournament with other players. His answer was ‘because they were too small for World Cup rugby. Players need to be 100 kg or more to be competitive in international rugby.’ This is also rapidly becoming the requirement at the top levels of international sevens.

USA Eagles 7s, NACRA, Ottawa, & Road to Rio 2016

As the 2012 Olympics begin  to fade in memories,  expectations for 2016 Olympics spring to life. In 2016 there will be 2 new Olympic events: golf and rugby 7s. Rugby has several forms of the game and rugby 7s is a form played with seven players on a team.  Rugby 7s is a very fast game. Games are 14 minutes, two seven minute halves.

On August 25-26th the USA will compete in the 2012 NACRA (North American & Caribbean Rugby Association) Tournament to see which 2 teams will play in the 2013 Rugby 7s World Cup. In 2015 this NACRA Tournament will be the one that will decide which team from the region will go to the 2016 Olympics in Rio. NACRA (which will be very much under the control of the International Rugby Board) might decide to have Olympic qualification based on an early summer 2016 NACRA 7s Tournament.

Regardless of if the tournament is in 2015 or 2016 the USA will need a little luck to get in. By the current plan to be one of the 12 nations to compete in rugby 7s in 2016 you will need to be one of the top 4 finishers in the 2014-2015 HSBC  Sevens World Series. This is a competition between 16 countries in 10 tournaments held throughout the world. The USA is one of the teams that competes in this competition and usually finishes around 12th. In 2011-2012  HSBC SWS the USA Eagles placed 11th. The top 4 teams in order were New Zealand, Fiji, England, and Samoa. If England, Scotland, or Wales finish in the top 4 in the 2014-15 season, Great Britain will qualify for the Olympics.

The other way to qualify will be through tournaments held in the 6 International Rugby Board  regions: Asia, Oceania, North America & Caribbean (NACRA), South America, Africa, Europe.

Currently the USA is the highest ranked 7s team in our region, but Canada is ranked very close to us and it can come down to the bounce of a ball in Ottawa in August. This year both Canada and USA should go through to the 7s World Cup … but in 2015 there will only be one team going through to the Olympics.

Other men’s teams competing  include Bermuda, Bahamas, Jamaica, Cayman Islands, Mexico, Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados and St Vincent and The Grenadines.

In the Women’s tournament Canada start as favourites to go through and will face competition from the likes of Guyana, Jamaica, Cayman Islands, Mexico, Barbados, St Vincent and The Grenadines and the current leading Caribbean women’s team, Trinidad & Tobago. The USA Women have already qualified by their finish in the 2009 Rugby 7s World Cup that was held in Dubai.

http://www.nawira.com/events/2012-nacra-sevens-rwc-7s-regional-qualifier/