Men’s Eagles Sevens: London 2016 preview

LONDON - The 2015-16 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series comes to an end this weekend at the site of the Men's Eagles Sevens' first Cup title: HSBC London Sevens.

At the culmination of Mike Friday's first full season in charge, the Eagles finished the nine-stop 2014-15 Series in sixth - their highest placement since the circuit's inception, but two rankings away from automatic qualification to the Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games.

The Cup win at Twickenham Stadium did much to alleviate any fears the team would qualify, however, as the U.S. stormed to a 5-0 record at the 2015 NACRA Sevens Championships for the Americas position in Rio de Janeiro.

This season, the U.S. could finish as low as ninth, but, for that, the team would have to put together its worst performance since the 2013-14 Series. With 16- and 18-point advantages over Samoa and England, respectively, and five points to the good ahead of Kenya, the Eagles are more likely to stay ranked in the top half of core teams.


Despite their title as reigning Cup Champions in London, the Eagles go into the 10th and final round of the Series having not reached a Cup Quarterfinal in two tournaments dating back to HSBC Canada Sevens in March. Scotland got the better of Friday's squad in the HSBC Singapore Sevens Bowl Final, and destined the Eagles to an early flight to London with a narrow victory in the HSBC Paris Sevens Bowl Semifinal.

The Eagles have been missing Carlin Isles since their Canadian excursion, and Perry Baker has done well to make up for his wing partner's absence. In Paris, however, Baker was kept quiet, crossing the try line just once. The U.S.'s all-time leading try-scorer, Zack Test, led the team with five tries at Stadium Jean-Bouin, with Folau Niua and Maka Unufe each dotting down multiple times.

Nate Ebner was one of seven players absent from the score sheet, playing in three of the five matches in France. The New England Patriot is getting more playing time this weekend with Chris Brown's USA Falcons at Howard Hinton Sevens, with the development squad having already played two of its four pool matches in Tours, France.


As the Eagles have progressed from participants to contenders in the past 17 months, they have gotten the better of the "established" rugby sevens powers. The U.S. followed up wins over Australia, Fiji, and New Zealand in London last year with three victories from three meetings with New Zealand to start the 2015-16 season.

Friday has long characterized the Series as "unforgiving," and this particular season most of all in the 17-year history of the competition. With Rio 2016 not three months away and several teams searching for top form heading into the final repechage qualifier, there is little room for error at the top.

Ben Leatigaga was called in to the Eagles squad for this weekend's event in place of Ebner, set to be the second appearance for the U.S. Army World-Class Athlete Program bruiser. He played a part in the Eagles' run to the Plate Final in Vancouver, which included an extra-time Cup Quarterfinal against Fiji, and was rewarded with a try before all was said and done.


The Eagles did not win the Plate in Canada, though; that honor went to Samoa, which has since improved its standing amongst teams still in the hunt for Rio qualification. Manu has been an up-and-down competitor this season, reaching only four Cup Quarterfinals in nine tournaments and further evidenced by a 30-22 overall record. Wedged between the nation's first Cup win since 2012 and the repechage event, the Eagles' pool matchup with Samoa comes at a time when the opponent may be at its hungriest.

South Africa has been a common opponent for the U.S. in the past two seasons, but the Blitzbokke have excelled just a bit more this year with flyer Seabelo Senatla leading the Series in tries scored with 64 - 24 more than Baker. They have only won one Cup - at home in Cape Town - but have consistently been amongst the top teams. South Africa's lowest finishes thus far have been two Plate Final victories, keeping the Rainbow Nation as Fiji's sole opposition to the Series Championship.

Two seasons ago, it was Canada ranked sixth at the end of a long Series. This year, the Canadians have yet to reach a Cup Quarterfinal. The neighbor's best performance came at home with a Bowl Final win at Canada Sevens; otherwise the team has had to celebrate the little victories, like a draw with the U.S. at HSBC USA Sevens. There was a point this season in which the Canadians defeated Samoa, but those two teams are on opposite sides of the seesaw when it comes to overall form. Even with an expected eye on the repechage, Canada must perform well in London.


The Eagles' matches at Twickenham Stadium will cause viewers in the United States to get an early start to the weekend, with the first match against Samoa scheduled for 5:14 a.m. ET Saturday, May 21. All matches will be broadcast live on World Rugby's website, with live match updates provided by USA Rugby's Twitter account.

Men's Eagles Sevens | HSBC London Sevens

1. Ben Leatigaga

2. Ben Pinkelman

3. Danny Barrett

4. Garrett Bender

5. Zack Test

6. Thretton Palamo

7. Folau Niua

8. Maka Unufe

9. Nate Augspurger

10. Madison Hughes (C)

11. Perry Baker

12. Martin Iosefo

Men's Eagles Sevens | HSBC London Sevens

v. Samoa - Saturday, May 21 @ 5:14 a.m. ET

v. South Africa - Saturday, May 21 @ 8:42 a.m. ET

v. Canada - Saturday, May 21 @ 11:26 a.m. ET