Men’s Eagles Sevens: Vancouver 2016 Preview

VANCOUVER - Canada is set to host its first HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series leg this weekend, March 12-13, with HSBC Canada Sevens just beyond the halfway point of the 2015-16 season.

Despite Canada participating on the circuit each year since the inaugural season kicked off in 1999 - and finishing as high as third once in 127 tournaments - the neighbor to the north has never welcomed sevens teams to its shores as part of the Series. Langford, British Columbia, will host a stop of the Women's Sevens Series for the second consecutive year in April, while the province's largest city will see the men's teams play 45 matches inside BC Place.

What you missed

Though Canada's not too far from home for the Men's Eagles Sevens, the fifth stop of the Series belonged to the U.S. The "U-S-A" chants, the Sin City-related costumes, and the party atmosphere from Friday, March 4, to Sunday, March 6, made HSBC USA Sevens all the more special for Mike Friday's group, which gifted the crowd a fourth-place finish for its national team.

A defeat of Wales in the opening match of pool play was just what the doctor ordered in front of the predominantly red, white, and blue crowd considering the Eagles' last few matches on the circuit. The nighttime showdown with the Canadians, however, saw a 19-point second-half lead erased after losing returning midfielder Maka Unufe to a shoulder injury. The match ended in a 26-26 draw, leaving the U.S.'s hopes for another Cup Quarterfinal in the air.

Canada's loss to Wales ensured the Eagles would finish at least second in the pool, and a shutout at the hands of South Africa finalized the seedings for Pool D. In its seventh consecutive Cup Quarterfinal, the U.S. faced Kenya, which had won its own pool with the help of a shutout of New Zealand. Already 0-2 against Friday's old team on the 2015-16 season, the Eagles jumped out to a two-try lead before the Kenyans knotted the score at the end of seven minutes. Martin Iosefo and Zack Test dotted down in the second half to help the Eagles advance to the Semifinal, where a combination of missed opportunities and wind crushing the pitch at more than 20 miles per hour led to a loss to Series-leading Fiji.

Where the Eagles fly

The Eagles were not able to finish off their home tournament with a win in the Third Place Match, losing to South Africa for the second time in as many days (the Blitzboks had also put two over the U.S. in 2015 at the same venue). Fourth place yields 15 points in the Series standings, putting the Eagles in fifth.

Perry Baker earned a Dream Team selection with a few electrifying tries on the weekend, leading the team in scoring with five tries. The wing earned praised from his head coach for his defensive work, however, and may be seeing more match time in the coming weekend as Carlin Isles is unavailable for Canada Sevens. Pat Blair, Seth Halliman, Ben Leatigaga, and Thretton Palamo have all been called into the squad as Will Holder, Test, and Unufe nurse injuries, with the four each part of the USA Falcons team that won the invitational tournament outside of USA Sevens.

Two of the four chosen - Blair and Palamo - have Series experience, while Halliman and Leatigaga will make their debuts in Canada. The coaching staff watched the Falcons' play in Vegas and debated the call-ups, knowing several in-form athletes would be left at home.

"When we were picking the 12, we felt - for Vancouver - that we needed to have a more forward-oriented squad," Friday said. "As a consequence that kind of influenced the decisions we made and the people we brought. It's tough for [Falcons captain] Pete [Tiberio] and others to miss out but it's more on a mix and balance with the squad.

"I've always kind of wanted to experiment with playing a different kind of wing combination, playing a slightly bigger man with a fast man in the outside channels. That's something we can look to do and something we'll consider experimenting with this weekend."

Flight plan

Friday and other Series coaches, as well as players, discussed the playing surface at Sam Boyd Stadium over the weekend as being a bit less than forgiving. It could be much of the same at BC Place, which will be lined with turf in front of an expected 28,000 fans each day. In what Friday called the "pool of death," the Eagles will play England, France, and New Zealand Saturday.

France has not been quite as good as its Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens and HSBC Cape Town Sevens performances would have indicated, and has now missed three consecutive Cup rounds. The departure of Virimi Vakatawa to the 15s national team has hurt, while ill-timed losses in pool play - including one to the Eagles in New Zealand - have seen Les Blues drop to ninth in the standings.

"France are pretty consistent and pretty settled, and have just been on the wrong end of some poor results as of late," Friday said. "They are a very dangerous team; very powerful, full of pace and gall, and, in [captain] Terry Bouhraoua, have got a real match-winner."

England had its worst-ever showing on the circuit in Las Vegas, bowing out of the tournament in the Shield Semifinals. Last year's fourth-ranked team - good enough to qualify Team GB for the Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games - sits below the U.S. in the standings. The team did not win any of its five matches last weekend, with a late draw with Japan the closest thing to a victory.

"England is hugely resilient," Friday said. "Simon Amor's doing a fantastic job in getting every ounce out of that squad. They're going to be a tough team to beat [in Vancouver]. They're wounded and hurting from what happened last week so we're going to have to have our wits about us."

Rounding out the pool is perennial Series-topper New Zealand, which used extra time in the USA Sevens Plate Semifinals to defeat Argentina on the way to a Final victory against Japan. Missing some of the "star" power on show in tournaments in New Zealand and Australia, the All Blacks Sevens trotted out Liam Messam and welcomed DJ Forbes back to the mix in Vegas. The Eagles won the first three matchups of the season, but lost the most recent, a Cup Quarterfinal in Sydney.

"We're going to have to be up for the battle and we're going to have to fight for everything in all three games if we want to progress out of this pool, which is going to be very tough to do," Friday said of this weekend's prospects. "Challenges are what we're all about; challenges are what we like, and the boys are ready for those challenges and keen to take them on."

Screaming Eagles

There will not be a national television broadcast in the United States for HSBC Canada Sevens, but World Rugby's stream will be accessible to American viewers. It all kicks off for the Eagles at 10:58 a.m. PT in Vancouver, with USA Rugby's Twitter handle providing live match updates to go along with the broadcast commentary (featuring none other than former Eagle Dallen Stanford).

Men's Eagles Sevens | HSBC Canada Sevens

1. Thretton Palamo

2. Ben Pinkelman

3. Danny Barrett

4. Garrett Bender

5. Ben Leatigaga

6. Pat Blair

7. Folau Niua

8. Seth Halliman

9. Nate Augspurger

10. Madison Hughes (C)

11. Perry Baker

12. Martin Iosefo

Men's Eagles Sevens | HSBC Canada Sevens

v. France - Saturday, March 12 @ 10:58 a.m. PT

v. England - Saturday, March 12 @ 2:34 p.m. PT

v. New Zealand - Saturday, March 12 @ 6:44 p.m. PT