Men’s Eagles Sevens: Dubai 2015 Breakdown

CAPE TOWN, South Africa - The Men's Eagles Sevens followed on their Cup win in London at the tail end of last season with a third-place finish at Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens last weekend to sit in third in the 2015-16 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series standings.

In the 10 most recent matches on the circuit, the Eagles are 8-2 with a 6-2 record against Tier One opposition (in this case: Australia, England, France, New Zealand, and South Africa). Until that first-ever Cup Final victory in London in May, which launched the Eagles to sixth in the Series standings, the U.S. had never been ranked higher than seventh, and that was after the third leg of the 2000-01 season.

Eagles Head Coach Mike Friday said the team is now no longer a participant amongst the 15 core teams early in the pre-Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games Series.

"There are many valuable lessons to be learned [from Dubai], but the boys' work ethic, their confidence, their belief to stick in there and take on the so-called 'Super Rugby' nations - and certainly come out and show the world we are competitors now - is clear to see," he said. "I think the challenge for the boys is to back it up now."

Dubai Breakdown

The Pool C-opening defeat of Portugal was the U.S.'s seventh consecutive victory on the Series dating back to the 2014-15 London tournament, a record for the team. The Eagles also scored seven tries in the win, though Friday was focused more on the two converted tries conceded. It would have been three had Zack Test not made a try-saving tackle outside the corner of the in-goal area in the final seconds of the first half.

That tackle, combined with Portugal's efforts to get on the scoreboard against France down, 35-0, meant the Eagles - 1-1 going into the final match of pool play - had the same point differential as France ahead of the New Zealand matchup. In 28 matches, the U.S. had never beaten the 12-time Series champion.

"We put ourselves in that predicament by not playing accurately and with concentration for 14 minutes against France," Friday said of needing a win to advance from pool play. "But credit to the boys; they fronted up and gutted it out against New Zealand in what was testing tactics by the New Zealanders, who were again getting some very interesting calls at the breakdown when we weren't given a break at all."

The Eagles conceded one of two tries with Perry Baker in the sin bin and stuck to the game plan to decide the match after the expiration of the 14th minute.

"The boys stayed positive," Friday said. "Their spirit, their character was where it needed to be, and the resilience to stay on task and stay in the moment - and wait for their moment - was fantastic. And that was after creating a fantastic first-phase strike in the opening minutes to shock New Zealand. It was great to see the patience of the lads to ensure they hung in there and got their rewards."

Friday highlighted the goal kicking of Madison Hughes, as well as Nate Augspurger, over the course of the tournament as a product of the players' work in the offseason. In six matches, the two combined to successfully convert 17 of 21 tries (Folau Niua missed his only attempt in the second defeat of New Zealand). While the Eagles bookended the tournament with multi-try margins of defeat, the other four matches were each decided by five points or fewer, proving "how tight and how small the margins are between success and failure," according to Friday.

The U.S. entered its third consecutive Cup Semifinal coming off of come-from-behind, patient victories against New Zealand and South Africa. Against England, however, lapses in concentration allowed two quick tries to be conceded prior to the end of the first half. Despite Maka Unufe's try early in the second half to give the Eagles a 19-12 lead, more penalties conceded and an extended possession beyond the 14th minute saw England cross over for the win.

Read more from Mike Friday on the intricacies of the sevens breakdown

Four changes were made to the starting seven for the Third-Place Match against New Zealand, which went one way for the majority of the contest.

"We needed to give the players an element of resting but we also needed to give players opportunity to see whether they can step up to the plate and, wow, didn't they do that," Friday said.

Kevin Swiryn had several attacking runs that accounted for positive meters and scores, while Will Holder made his first appearance on the Series since the final rounds of the 2013-14 season and made it count with two tries against New Zealand.

Hear Mike Friday discuss the Eagles' play vs. New Zealand:

To outside viewers, Danny Barrett and Andrew Durutalo were irreplaceable forces in the forwards for the Eagles last season. With Barrett injured and Durutalo plying his trade elsewhere to begin the season, Garrett Bender and Matai Leuta took the forward reins alongside Test in Dubai.

"I think Bender's contribution in the breakdown and his work ethic around the pitch was first class and was picked up by the commentators because we are without the traditional boys of Danny and 'Dru,'" Friday said. "But I thought Bender certainly fulfilled a lot of those roles, got through a lot of work in the middle of the pitch competing and slowing down ball as well as winning ball, making crucial tackles, and that's credit to him and where he's been working so, so hard to be selfless for the team this preseason."

Cape Town Catch Up

While the squad is dealing with the inevitable bumps and bruises from six international sevens matches over the course of two days, it is also working on cleaning up some of the inconsistencies in its play that cost two wins and a place in the Cup Final against Fiji.

Fiji, Dubai Champion and holder of the 2014-15 Series Championship, excelled in Dubai unlike many teams on record. According to Ben Ryan, the team's head coach, however, Fiji went from an average of .8 rucks per try to maybe "double digits" in the Final against England. The Fijians' style of play, an offload-heavy attack with several support lines, does not afford many opponents consistent opportunities to bring ball carriers to the ground. England was able to stifle the quick-moving Fiji attack for portions of the Final, though still came out of the match with an 'L.'

While Friday concedes most teams have a certain style of play, his team does not, and is able to react to opponents with its own strengths on both sides of the ball.

"We've got kind of a balance of styles," Friday said. "We can play with attacking width and pace, we can play with physicality in the power games by using the breakdown, and we've also got players with x-factor and guile that can step their way up the middle. We look to play a balanced style of sevens, really; we can use many attacking weapons and play in many different ways.

"We're not restricted to one particular style of play and, if we were, we'd become predictable and soon would be able to be worked out. We just need to be better than we are at the moment - be more consistent, more efficient in everything we do with ball in hand and defense - if we want to continue to compete in this fiercely-competitive World Series."

The Eagles were drawn into Pool C for HSBC Cape Town Sevens with Australia - loser in the Dubai Plate Final - Portugal, and Wales. A winnable pool combined with the overall-positive performance in Dubai should give the Eagles the good kind of confidence Friday wants from his side as it prepares for the Olympics, not eight months on the horizon.

Check back to Friday, Dec. 11, for a U.S. preview of HSBC Cape Town Sevens and any roster changes.