Little rest, big test ahead for Eagles in South Africa

The Men’s Eagles Sevens arrived in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, Monday ahead of this weekend’s Cell C Nelson Mandela Bay Sevens, the third leg of the 2014-15 World Rugby HSBC Sevens World Series.

Eagles Head Coach Mike Friday dismissed injury concerns for Perry Baker, Garrett Bender, and Zack Test, each of whom missed match time at Emirates Dubai Rugby Sevens over the weekend.

No changes have been made to the squad for this weekend’s tournament, meaning there are no longer any “rookies” with the team. Martin Iosefo and Aladdin Schirmer made their Eagles debuts in Dubai, with the former accounting for one of the team’s 13 tries.

“Martin made a very big impact considering he has only had very limited time with us and has shown real potential to become a force on the circuit,” Friday said of the University of Montana man. “He has lots to work on but I am excited by what he can bring if we can help develop him on his conditioning, technical skills, and tactical understanding, as I think his self-belief and mental resilience will blossom.”

Baker’s absence for a few matches opened the door for extended playing time for Carlin Isles, who scored five tries in as many matches. In pool play, Isles came on as a substitute to dot down once each against England and Australia, while a start against Kenya saw the speedster score two tries in a 26-17 victory.

Isles’ career total for tries scored on the Series now stands at 37, though Coach Friday was impressed by more than his No. 1’s scoring prowess in Dubai.

“Carlin took further steps forwards in his attacking game and we saw real positive improvements on his timing of running onto the ball, allowing him to use his pace,” he said. “If we also analyze his game on maintaining possession and contact skills, they again made real steps forwards.

“He continues to work very hard at his game and his appreciation of working for the team is flourishing, which is great to see.”

The Eagles were unable to reach the Cup round for the second consecutive leg of the Series, which ensured they could only gain a maximum eight of a possible 22 points from the event. With this season set to qualify four teams for the Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games, earning as many points as possible in each tournament is paramount.

Though no pool in any leg is considered easy, the Eagles have a case in thinking Pool C may have been one of the tougher pools in Dubai. Without a second-half collapse against Argentina to end its tournament, pool-winner England would have reached the Plate Final. Australia defeated Scotland and Gold Coast Sevens champion Fiji on its way to the Cup Final.

See 2014-15 World Rugby HSBC Sevens World Series standings

At this point last season, the Eagles had won a Shield (Gold Coast) and dropped out in the Shield Semifinal (Dubai), good for four points and a ranking of 14th. With 13 points and an 11th-place ranking, the Eagles have improved, but still have work to do to challenge what Friday calls the “contenders” on the circuit.

“If you look at all three games Day One, we started very well and showed we can play the game with the necessary width and tempo to really stretch [our opponents] and dominated contact areas and possession to then hurt teams,” he said. “If we play like this for an entire game or the majority of it, we will break through and start to qualify for Cups. We also took big steps forward in our defensive shape and our one-on-one tackling was of a high standard.

“The players need to recognize the team plan and not leave that plan and try and complicate it. This will be a huge focus for us this week both in the classroom as well as on the pitch.

“The main issues are playing the ball to the space rather than looking for themselves individually, together with putting pace onto the ball in the outside channels to hold the opposition defense and exploit and preserve space for the team. This will ensure we do not get isolated in contact, as the other area I want to see improvement in is physical intent at the breakdown both as a ball-carrier as well as the first clearer.

“The adjustments are firstly that we as a team stick to the team system. Individual or selfish play will not be acceptable. That message will be delivered at the team review as well as individual one-on-ones.”

As the Series progresses, each team will improve. The sides at the top of the standings will continue to fight for maximum points and the teams at the bottom will assert themselves on the teams positioned around them. Dubai Cup-winner South Africa will be even more poised to make an impression this weekend as host in Pool A with Kenya, Wales, and the Eagles.

Friday and his coaching staff had nearly two months between Gold Coast and Dubai to make changes and additions to the team. With the same squad prepared to go into battle a week following the previous tournament, the Eagles are sure to show more continuity at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.

“It is true to say that the majority of the squad are moving forward, albeit we are experiencing growing pains along the way,” Friday said. “The sevens game is ruthless and we need to continue to learn – and quickly – in order to see progression in the big games.

“Players need to remain humble and their attitude towards hard work and getting better determined if we want to be successful. The boys have to accept constructive criticism if they want to improve just as I as a coach have to accept that they may have to get it wrong to get it right. What I do expect is application and 100-percent effort every time, all the time.”

The Eagles will open their campaign in South Africa against the Blitzbokke Saturday, Dec. 13, at 5:42 a.m. ET. Watch Cell C Nelson Mandela Bay Sevens on Universal Sports and follow live match updates on Twitter with @USARugby.

Men's Eagles Sevens | Cell C Nelson Mandela Bay Sevens
1. Carlin Isles
2. Pat Blair
3. Danny Barrett
4. Garrett Bender
5. Zack Test
6. Andrew Durutalo
7. Folau Niua
8. Maka Unufe
9. Aladdin Schirmer
10. Madison Hughes (C)
11. Perry Baker
12. Martin Iosefo

Men's Eagles Sevens | Cell C Nelson Mandela Bay Sevens
v. South Africa - Saturday, Dec. 13 - 5:42 a.m. ET
v. Wales - Saturday, Dec. 13 - 9:20 a.m. ET
v. Kenya - Saturday, Dec. 13 - 12:36 p.m. ET