Men’s Eagles Sevens: Sydney 2016 Preview

SYDNEY, Australia - The HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series heads to New South Wales for the first time in the 14-year history of Australia's hosting of a circuit leg, with HSBC Sydney Sevens set to host the fourth round of the 2015-16 season Feb. 6-7.

The Men's Eagles Sevens finished runners-up in 2010 when the tournament was held in Adelaide and, most recently, took home the Shield from the 2013 tournament in Gold Coast. Mike Friday's squad will finish their trip to the south Pacific with England, Japan, and Wales in Pool D, before returning to the United States for the home leg in Las Vegas in March.

What you missed

The Eagles nearly fumbled a chance at their fifth consecutive Cup Quarterfinal appearance on the circuit in their opening match of HSBC Wellington Sevens last weekend, trailing Samoa, 20-19, in the final minute of play. A last-ditch drive down the pitch was finished off by a tremendous Matai Leuta step and a dot-down from Carlin Isles for the victory.

Break down Wellington Sevens with Mike Friday

The team took a step backwards against England, but returned to winning ways in an impressive defeat of France - ranked sixth heading into the weekend - to finish runner-up in the pool.

Despite holding Fiji to seven points in the Cup Quarterfinal's first half, the reigning Series champion should not have even scored a try before the halftime whistle, according to Friday.

"Had Kevin Swiryn been awarded the high tackle that he was due on the Fijian line, we probably would've been going in 12-nil up at halftime," the head coach recalled.

Unfortunately for the Eagles, not only did the result slip away from them, but Swiryn was also lost to a knee injury in the second half. Australia then ended the U.S.'s tournament early in the Plate Semifinal, which saw collegiate star Ben Pinkelman make his first starting seven on the Series.

"I think [Pinkelman's] contribution was where it needed to be, and I think he's the type of athlete and rugby player who will grow the more he's involved," Friday said. "You can never expect too much from a man on debut - the important thing is that Pinkelman looked at home out there. The more confident he becomes the more decisive he'll be in attack and defense, which is one of his biggest strengths."

Where the Eagles fly

Maka Unufe was unable to travel with the team to the Oceania region and was replaced in the 13-man travel squad by Brett Thompson, who subsequently went down to his own knee injury in the build-up week to Wellington. The loss of a play-making midfield player was noticeable not only in the team's overall try-scoring output, but in the play of perennial try-line crossers Perry Baker and Carlin Isles.

To help bring some flair and power to the midfield in Sydney, as well as provide Friday with a fifth Eagle on the bench, Martin Iosefo was recalled to the squad. The University of Montana man was injured throughout the preseason and unavailable for selection to the Dubai and Cape Town rounds, and was finishing his rehabilitation at the pre-Wellington/Sydney High Performance Camp at the Olympic Training Center. Friday kept Iosefo out of selection consideration as a precaution, but is confident of the young player's status to bring him into an "underperforming" group.

"We're pleased to be able to pick Martin to come in even though it is for unfortunate circumstances," the head coach said. "Martin will bring real balance to the midfield and real support for Thretton [Palamo], as well, and will be a real attacking weapon for us as well as hugely physical in the defensive department. He will certainly complement the attacking weapons that we have in the wings as well as inside."

The Australia leg of the Series has predominantly been the first round in years past, but the second weekend of back-to-back tournaments will offer a challenge for the Eagles to build off of their Wellington performance.

Flight plan

Like their match against Samoa in Wellington, the Eagles stumbled out of the gates at HSBC Cape Town Sevens last December. The opponent, Wales, capitalized on multiple self-inflicted errors by the U.S. to take an early, 12-0 lead, before the Eagles regained composure to level the score before the break and eventually win the match. Wales has bowed out of two Shield Semifinals so far this season, and sits in 13th in the Series standings.

Japan has not played the Eagles since a 38-7 drubbing in Glasgow last season, and was not invited to Cape Town being that it is not a core team on the circuit. Other than a near-defeat of Fiji on day one in Dubai, Japan has not impressed, only winning three of its 11 matches for a 14th-place standing heading into the fourth leg.

Following the first two rounds, the U.S. held its highest-ever standing of third behind Fiji and South Africa. England, which had finished second in Dubai after keeping the Eagles out of the Cup Final, fell down the rankings in Cape Town, missing the Cup round altogether. With two wins on the trot against the U.S., the final match of Pool D in Sydney could decide the all-important seeding for the Quarterfinals.

"We'll enter this tournament full of confidence knowing there's some things we need to work on and some clear technical things we need to be better at this weekend, and some clear decision-making depending on what we see in front of us that we need to sharpen," Friday said. "As long as we come out with real attitude, real belief, and a real hunger to play every game in the same way, and we show the attitude we did in the Fiji game and not the attitude we saw in the first half against England, then we can be a real handful this weekend.

"That's what I'm expecting. That's what I'm hoping for the boys. And they should expect and hope the same from each other."

Screaming Eagles

The match days in Sydney are Saturday, Feb. 6, and Sunday, Feb. 7, though the Eagles' tournament will begin Friday, Feb. 5, in the United States, beginning with the pool opener against Wales at 8:50 p.m. ET. Match updates for day one will be provided by USA Rugby's Twitter account, while the live stream on World Rugby's website will be available for viewers in the U.S.

Men's Eagles Sevens | HSBC Sydney Sevens

1. Carlin Isles

2. Matai Leuta

3. Danny Barrett

4. Ben Pinkelman

5. Zack Test

6. Martin Iosefo

7. Folau Niua

8. Thretton Palamo

9. Nate Augspurger

10. Madison Hughes

11. Perry Baker

12. Will Holder

Men's Eagles Sevens | HSBC Sydney Sevens

v. Wales - Friday, Feb. 5 @ 8:50 p.m. ET

v. Japan - Saturday, Feb. 6 @ 12:48 a.m. ET

v. England - Saturday, Feb. 6 @ 4:19 a.m. ET