Men’s Eagles Sevens: Wellington 2016 Breakdown

SYDNEY, Australia - The Men's Eagles Sevens began their trip to Oceania sitting in third place in the 2015-16 HSBC World Rugby Sevens standings, having beaten New Zealand in three consecutive opportunities and signaling to the circuit last year's Cup win in London was just the beginning.

Head Coach Mike Friday had been without two stalwart forwards in Dubai and Cape Town that solidified themselves as hungry ball-winners in Danny Barrett and Andrew Durutalo. Garrett Bender and Kevin Swiryn had more than picked up the slack, with the latter's return from retirement a story all its own.

Barrett returned to the 13-man travel squad ahead of HSBC Wellington Sevens and HSBC Sydney Sevens, while Bender remained in Chula Vista, Calif., to nurse a minor injury. In the span of less than a week, however, Friday lost two more forwards in Swiryn, who went down injured in the Wellington Cup Quarterfinal, and Brett Thompson, who had originally been called into the travel squad as cover for Maka Unufe.

"Both are returning back to San Diego for medical attention and we'll know in the next seven to 10 days what the recovery times are looking like," Friday said following the third leg of the Series. "As of now, both injuries will keep the players out for a period of time, but we expect them to be back fit and able to compete for Olympic contention."

Wellington Breakdown

With Thompson injured in the lead-up week, the Eagles' 13-man travel squad returned to its match-day size of 12. All 12 athletes, including debutant Ben Pinkelman, saw plenty of match time in the team's five matches at Westpac Stadium.

"The reality is that we've got real strength in depth in our 12 and we're more than confident to use anybody from the bench depending on how the game is going," Friday said.

The tournament nearly got off on the wrong foot for the Eagles, who, despite taking a 12-0 lead before conceding the first try to Samoa in the sixth minute of the opening match, never had a stranglehold on the verdict. Within a minute of the second-half kickoff, Samoa had narrowed the U.S. lead to 12-10, and eventually took a 20-19 lead with a penalty goal in the final minute of play.

"That Samoa team are quite an impressive outfit," Friday said.

Not that the Eagles took their opponent - or any opponent, for that matter - for granted, knowing they could beat any team on any day, but the victory, achieved via a team try finished off by Carlin Isles, was not a guarantee until the final try.

"We just lacked a bit of accuracy," the head coach reflected. "More attack than in defense; we weren't doing what we normally do when hitting hard in the outside channels to engage the Samoan defense, allowing them to recover.

"I'd put it down to a little bit of lack of application and accuracy that we expect in one another, and what we've grown to accept as the norm. You have to prepare and play and deal with every situation as it comes through, and not just think things will happen - you have to earn the right, you have to make them happen."

There was not much that worked for the Eagles in their matchup with England, which had kept the U.S. from the Dubai Cup Final not two months prior to kickoff in New Zealand. Pinkelman took to the circuit pitch for the first time in his career, using go-forward ball and positional awareness on defense to pose a serious threat to England's line. Only captain Madison Hughes was able to cross the try line, but the match - considered an "embarrassment" of a performance, relayed from Friday via Zack Test to broadcast cameras - set a precedent for what the Eagles were not going to accept for the remainder of the tournament.

France had also beaten the Eagles in Dubai, but suffered the loss of captain Terry Bouhraoua mid-match, a 29-21 win for Friday's side. The match was a fairly back-and-forth affair despite the Eagles holding onto their lead from 10-7 on, but each France try was met with a reply.

Isles was able to show his out-and-out pace for the first time on the day (his earlier try against Samoa came from a less-than-10-meter run), and Test crossed the end line for his only try of the weekend. It was a big win for the team, which needed a victory to advance to the Cup Quarterfinals, their fifth consecutive dating back to the end of last season.

Isles would go on to score his final try of the weekend in the Quarterfinal against Fiji, which, along with the Eagles' stifling defense, stunned the reigning Series champion for at least seven minutes.

"The Quarterfinal against Fiji was fantastic, in my eyes," Friday said. "The boys' attitudes and effort was first class. You saw the real character of the USA team, the DNA we should expect every time that team runs out.

"We squeezed Fiji, we worked them, we outworked them, we outthought them, and we controlled the game - and we were five-nil up [with Isles' try]."

Not one to shy away from calling for a 'fair shake' in all aspects of the game, Friday pointed out the advantage played by the match official at the tail end of the half for a high tackle on Swiryn. The whistle was not blown, and a turnover quickly turned into seven points the other way just seconds prior to the half-time whistle.

"That was a real let-off for Fiji because we had them under pressure," Friday said. "Had we got the 12-0 it would've been a different game in the second half. When we look at that second half, we were fully in that game. We were 14-5 down, in control of the ball, and then, again, we made a technical error of not hitting the outside channels, which hurt us in the game and ultimately created the game to be 21-5 and we couldn't recover from that.

"When we have our opportunities we need to take them, because that's exactly what Fiji did against us. We can talk about that decision before halftime, we can talk about the side entries and the sliding around in the rucks that were inconsistent in that game - nonetheless, it was a game we could've won and it was just a tight game, and that's the difference between winning and losing in those big games."

Sydney Catch-up

Friday was also disappointed with the way the Plate Semifinal went for his side, which fell to Sydney Sevens host Australia in their final action in New Zealand. The joint-seventh-place finish was their lowest on the season, and contributed to their drop to sixth place in the Series standings heading into the fourth leg.

Perry Baker and Isles combined for six tries in the five matches, accounting for just over 50-percent of the Eagles' five-pointers. In relation to their scoring pace so far this season, it is just under their combined average (the two scored 15 tries in Dubai and Cape Town).

The difference in scoring rate is somewhat negligible when taking into account the sample size, but more may have been expected from the speedsters.

"In respect to the 'Chuckle Brothers,'" Friday said, "six tries in five matches - I think it was a bit tough for them, really. I think at times we didn't deliver the final ball to them as accurately as we needed to, and sometimes we gave them the ball with defenders on them. We've got to recognize that, in the middle of the pitch, if people do over-defend Carlin and Perry, then that leaves holes for others, and we need to be decisive and take those holes. That would keep defenses honest, which will buy us the time to put Carlin and Perry away on the outside.

"With that in mind, I don't think the try return is to the standard we expect of the two of them, of what they're capable of. I think the key to Perry and Carlin: the first thing they have to do is go, decide they're going to have a go, because that keeps defenses honest and also puts them on edge, and that will then create things for other people."

The Eagles were drawn into Pool D in Sydney, a city new to the Series this season. While they managed to avoid the host in the pool draw, they will again play England, as well as a rematch with Wales and a first meeting of the season with Japan. With the addition of Martin Iosefo - fresh off of an injury recovery period - the experience bled into Pinkelman, and the lessons learned from Wellington, the U.S. may just turn a few more heads in their new kit this weekend.

Check back to Friday morning for a team preview of HSBC Sydney Sevens.