USA Men's Rio 2016 Pool Preview
RIO DE JANEIRO - Team USA's men's squad was drawn into the inaugural Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games Rugby Sevens competition's Pool A with Argentina, Brazil, and Fiji Tuesday.
Head Coach Mike Friday led the Men's Eagles Sevens to a combined 2-5 record against fifth-ranked Argentina and back-to-back HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series Champion Fiji during the 2015-16 season, ending the Series on a high in London with a third-place finish at the expense of the current gold-medal favorite.
Before the Rio qualification process, Fiji had been represented at 12 Olympic Summer Games without winning a medal. In fact, only two athletes had qualified through competitive means. The country excelled this quadrennial, with the sevens team joined by archery, football, shooting, table tennis, and weightlifting athletes in that department for Rio.
Ben Ryan's Fiji won four of the 10 Series stops between December 2015 and May 2016; two more than second-place South Africa, with both teams the only two to have played six matches in every tournament on the circuit. Ryan's intense pre-season regimen on the Pacific island prepared Fiji for that kind of workload, as the champion was able to score a Series-high 265 tries for 1,704 points.
Only the fifth-highest points scorer on the team, Jasa Veremalua led World Rugby's DHL Impact Player stats tracker, which considers offloads, carries, tackles, and breaks throughout the Series to determine the most effective sevens player. He did play in more matches than any other player on the Series with 59, but also played in more matches than any other Fijian, with Osea Kolinisau taking the field in 58 and third-best teammate Jerry Tuwai getting touches in 53 games.
It would be unwise to single out any Fijian as the largest threat on a team that barely needed the services of rugby league/NFL athlete Jarryd Hayne in London, especially considering the one-off performances of 15s stars Leone Nakarawa and Josua Tuisova in a Cup win in Paris and the fact 2014-15 Player of the Year runner-up Semi Kunatani appeared twice this season. Any of the seven players on the field at a given time can fend, kick, offload, and tackle as well as the next, and the same goes for the five substitutes available to Ryan on the bench.
The Eagles opened the 2015-16 in Dubai and Cape Town with three consecutive defeats of New Zealand, also the first three in the team's Series history. The third win sent the U.S. to the HSBC Cape Town Sevens Plate Final, where a Fiji team disappointed with a Cup Quarterfinal defeat put an end to the Eagles' giant-killer run.
Though the Eagles went 1-4 against Fiji, the largest margin of victory in any of the five matches was 10 points, demonstrating the gap closed by Friday's side in a two-year run up to Rio.
Two points separated the Eagles with Argentina in the Series standings, with the 17-point haul in London not enough to recover from two Bowl appearances towards the end of the season. The South American nation suffered a similar slump between Vancouver and Hong Kong.
Coached by recently-overtaken all-time Series-leading points scorer Santiago Gomez Cora, Argentina's rise can, in part, be contributed to an expressive style of rugby played by not just the sevens team, but the international and professional 15s teams, as well. It may not show on the score sheet, however, as the Olympic-qualified team was mid-table in terms of points scoring and try output. In contrast, the Eagles were in the top five in both categories.
In regards to tackling, Argentina was third, behind Fiji and South Africa, whereas the Eagles finished 13th. The stat can be interpreted in several ways with the varying styles of rugby ultimately seeing the Eagles nearly even in the final standings.
The two teams did not meet until the seventh round in Hong Kong, the second match of pool play to open the second day of competition. The Eagles came out on top, 26-19, with Danny Barrett putting his own stamp on the match, and his opponents.
The second meeting, however, was all Argentina. The Eagles were shut out, 36-0, in the first match of pool play of the penultimate round in Paris. The winner of each match went on to reach the Cup as the other dropped to the Bowl, with the second victory one of three for Argentina in a fourth-place campaign.
The 15s professionals did not join Gómez Cora's squad for a camp in Rio this month. An experienced group includes Rodrigo Etchart, Fernando Luna, and Axel Müller, who led the team with a combined 61 tries. Argentina likes to utilize the boot in open play, and features the three team-leading conversion-takers - Bautista Ezcurra, Gaston Revol, and Javier Rojas - accounting for less than half of 104 two-point plays. Ezcurra and Revol are also two of just six players to convert a penalty goal this season.
Argentina's Olympic football cousin last won medals - both gold - at the Athens 2004 and Hong Kong 2008 Olympic Summer Games, two of the country's 12 medals in those quadrennials. The country is also one of two in the men's competition to not have men's and women's teams qualified for Rio 2016.
HOME SWEET RIO
Brazil entered a total of six Series stops in the past three seasons, losing in six Shield Semifinals, and qualified for Rio 2016 as the host nation. The team did play in the final two rounds of the past season as part of its warmup to the Games, and drew several of the season's best teams in pool play.
Conceding at least 30 points in matches against Australia, England, and South Africa - three teams qualified for Rio - in Paris, Brazil proceeded to drop knockout matches to Portugal and Scotland. Olympic-qualified Argentina and New Zealand also posted high winning margins against Brazil in London, where the Eagles' 2015 NACRA Sevens Championship Final opponent, Canada, posted a 'W' against the South Americans in the Bowl Quarterfinal.
Brazil has won 108 medals in 21 Olympic Summer Games, including 23 golds.
EAGLES IN FLIGHT
Twenty-six prospective American Olympians are currently in camp with Friday in southern California, including 15s professionals and Rugby World Cup veterans Andrew Durutalo and Chris Wyles. Durutalo was instrumental in the U.S.'s successes in 2014-15, and signed with Super Rugby's Sunwolves in the offseason, missing the recently-completed Series. Wyles was a member of the team that qualified for Rio at the 2015 NACRA Sevens Championships, and won domestic and European championships with English club Saracens this season.
Captain Madison Hughes and the remaining residency players are also in camp coming off of a sixth-place Series finish. The Eagles' joint-highest standing follows a sixth-place campaign the season prior, but the team gained nine more points from the 10-tournament Series.
Hughes led all players on the circuit with 331 points, while Perry Baker's second-most 48 tries were good enough for fifth place in that statistical category. The captain was second on the team in tries scored, and converted 108 of 183 of the Eagles' tries.
Nate Ausgpurger and Will Holder - along with Durutalo for one match - represented the 15s Eagles this month in international tests against Italy and Russia. The scrum half earned his first two caps, while Holder stepped into an important full back role in his fourth and fifth appearances.
Apart from Wyles' 15s retirement and subsequent announcement that he would make a run for the first Olympic rugby team since 1924, the biggest story of the summer was the release of Nate Ebner from the National Football League's New England Patriots. Ebner joined the residency program in March and played in two events on the Series as well as a 10s tournament in Hong Kong and Howard Hinton Sevens in France while the Eagles were in London in an effort to represent his country in Brazil.
"Whilst we are the current holders of the Olympic title, we have the clear pre-tournament favorites for the gold in our pool in Fiji," Friday said. "It will be good to have a crack at them early as we have had some pulsating games against them this season that have gone to the wire on every occasion, including our last battle in London.
"We also have the relentless and resolving Argentina, which will be a tough physical encounter and one we will need to be ready and willing to meet head on. Lastly, having the proud hosts in our group will be a tough encounter as they will no doubt be hugely pumped to perform on their home soil, and we are expecting a full-blooded encounter."
The full Olympic team will be announced Monday, July 18, on USARugby.org. Match schedules for the Rugby Sevens competition at the Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games will be released by the International Olympic Committee in due course.
Men's Eagles Sevens | Rio 2016 Camp