The Men’s Eagles Sevens wrapped up three days of competition from Hong Kong on Sunday as part of two HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series stops in the city this year.
With a few core players on injured reserve, four prospective players had the opportunity to make their USA debut and immerse themselves in the cadence and demands of the world circuit. Going 2-1 in pool play and eventually finishing sixth, Hong Kong highlights included a heart-pumping win over Spain and promising defensive effort over Ireland in the knockout stages. The USA showed good defensive systems this weekend, winning in contact while Cody Melphy had a great tournament in the playmaker role and creating opportunities. Ultimately a steppingstone for this squad and its collection of World Series rookies, the USA can leave Hong Kong happy with the effort and in the mix early for this Olympic qualifying year.
Head Coach Mike Friday’s comments post tournament: “For such an inexperienced squad, I think they have represented themselves and the USA community fantastically. I am super proud of the collective attitude, work ethic and commitment to play the “We” over “Me” and seek to execute the team plan on both sides of the ball. Perry did a fantastic job guiding the young group and giving them confidence to express themselves.
Day one was a bright light for the USA on a few accounts, going 2-1 with impressive wins over an improved Spain side and Japan. Cody Melphy and Perry Baker provided plenty of highlight reel content over the first two games, playing as a brilliant one-two punch for points. Against Spain, Melphy went to the boot on the right flank, giving space to Baker and then eventually regaining the ball to dish out a slick behind the back pass for Perry to stomp into the try zone.
Later against Japan, we had the same fireworks from Melphy on the assist to Baker, this time for Perry’s 230th try, tying Santiago Gomez Cora and Seabelo Senatla for fourth all time on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series list, a position he would later surpass. Defense was the story against Spain, holding them to only two tries and not allowing the attack to pierce through. Spain was also strong on the counter ruck, stealing a few USA possessions, but Malacchi Esdale would earn the decider in the 14’ minute for a one-point Eagles win. Outside of a last minute try from Japan they would have liked to keep off the board, the USA did well to game manage their second match, giving way to five tries from five different players. Almost all of which on the breakaway in space.
The pool play finale was flipped table with a 24-0 shut out at the hands of Fiji, however with the quarterfinals already secured, Friday plugged all four of the series rookies into the starting seven for that match as they took in one of the more educational experiences on the weekend. Fiji is most lethal in space and will add points to the board off the quickest mistakes. For the new players and younger returning guys, those lessons are best learned in real time.
“There were some harsh lessons in the Fiji and Argentina games for the debutants, whom I threw in at the deep end to experience and appreciate the brutality of the World Sevens Series. We expected mistakes and the boys will be better in the long term as they absorb the importance of executing the basics in the heat of battle. I was pleased with how they approached the challenges and stayed in the fight, even when those moments closed in on them. In my mind, the score line was secondary to the invaluable learnings for those boys.”
The young squad showed a strong marker against the World Champions however, piecing together a long series of phases into opposing territory, also forcing more than 10 penalties to keep possession. They couldn’t quite capitalize with a try, but the progression was good for confidence at the end of day one.
Moving into the quarterfinal, the USA had a touch going against France. France held onto the ball for nearly the whole first half, keeping the Eagles from an opportunity to move down field. Baker would keep the game within reach however, with a pair of tries. The first of two officially securing 4th on the all-time tries list with 231, and a heads-up steal in the passing lane. Down 14-0 with the first half closing, Baker knew a play had to be made and was able to disrupt the French momentum. It would be too much by final whistle however as the USA were also in the tail end of a few touch calls and unable to balance possession. France moves on to the semis, 28-14.
Friday added after the quarterfinal, “The match against France was a tough one to swallow as I felt we were harshly treated in the breakdown on a number of occasions, which hurt our momentum and possession.”
Moving on to the 5th place semifinal, was a pairing with Ireland, who lost in an expired time thriller against Australia during the quarterfinals. The USA were imposing on defense throughout this game, particularly Aaron Cummings who was getting into the ruck and disrupting the breakdown. A low-scoring game by the final whistle had the Eagles on top, 14-7 thanks to two crucial defensive turnovers while backed up against their own line.
Friday added, “I was happy with our defensive development over the tournament, which is credit to the boys and the work they have put in together with the guidance Ben Pinkelman and Phil Greening have also provided as we evolve our system. Offensively, we are working on varying our attacking threats. This is an area I feel we’re still not firing as we are capable of and need to strive to get the fundamentals consistent. That will be the heartbeat to our effective attack, we showed moments but will need to improve for Dubai if we are to take advantage of those moments.”
Captain Perry Baker on the debutants after beating Ireland: “It’s just about character, we knew it was going to be a hard-fought game. We wanted to get up from the last match [against France], identify who we are and where we’re trying to take this program. I couldn’t be more proud of the boys all weekend.
“It’s all mental at this point, do we believe. Everyone is saying we have a young group and didn’t expect us to do what we’re doing, but that’s the thing about young guys that come in; they’re driven, they’re hungry and itching to get out here. All we have to do is get them to buy in, these boys are buying in and we’re happy to see it.”
Up against Argentina for the 5th place final, Friday again ran his rookies out as starters to set a marker against one of the fastest teams on the series. The USA were challenged in every phase as Argentina ran out to an early lead and never let up in speed. Ball movement, pace and recycles from Argentina were notably fast and proved to be a challenge for the inexperienced USA side. Running out to an early lead and never letting up, Argentina win 36-0.
Looking ahead to just under a month where the USA Men’s Sevens will jet back across the Pacific for Dubai Sevens, the squad can look forward to hopeful added presence as injury recovery with the veteran players continue. Captain Kevon Williams, Stephen Tomasin, Joe Schroeder and other veterans are hopeful for the traveling squad during the first week of December.
Friday concluded, “We will have a few days off to recover and then we are back at it with a number of the absent players now available and in contention for Dubai, making the pack stronger, more competition and a little bit more fierce.”
Dubai Sevens starts the night of Friday, Dec 3 2022, streaming LIVE on Peacock.
USA MEN’S SEVENS ROSTER | CATHAY PACIFIC HONG KONG SEVENS
|1. Aaron Cummings||Forward||4|
|2. Ben Broselle||Forward/Wing||12|
|3. David Still||Forward/Wing||9|
|4. Nolan Tuamoheloa||Utility||1|
|5. Gavan D'Amore||Forward||10|
|6. Noah Brown||Forward||1|
|7. Will Chevalier||Halfback||1|
|8. Malacchi Esdale||Center/Wing||8|
|9. Adam Channel||Forward/Center||6|
|10. Sam Walsh||Halfback||1|
|11. Perry Baker||Wing/Center||57|
|12. Marcus Tupuola||Center/Wing||15|
|13. Cody Melphy||Halfback||9|