Men's Eagles Sevens: Las Vegas 2017 Preview

LAS VEGAS - Nearing the midway point of the 2016-17 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, HSBC USA Sevens serves as the first three-day leg of the season and an opportunity for teams to bask in the daytime warmth at Sam Boyd Stadium and neon nights on 'The Strip' of Sin City.

The fifth leg of the Series is now accompanied by the third leg of the World Rugby Women's Sevens Series, which will kick off the Friday and Saturday match days. The Men's Eagles Sevens will not begin their Vegas campaign until 5:37 p.m. PT (local time) Friday, with knockout play beginning Saturday evening and concluding Sunday afternoon. The men's event can be streamed live on NBC Sports' digital platforms.


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WHAT YOU MISSED

Carlin Isles' return to the Eagles in Oceania was good for both the player and team as the speedster scored six tries in his first Series action since last year's USA Sevens. He also alleviated Head Coach Mike Friday's headache when a bruised Perry Baker was kept out of play in parts of the Wellington and Sydney legs.

Having already lost one Eagle to injury in the lead-up week - forcing a local call-up - the U.S. was somewhat depleted when HSBC Wellington Sevens kicked off near the end of January. A hard-fought draw with France and a defeat of Samoa preceded a pool play-closing loss to New Zealand, sending the Eagles to the Challenge Trophy. There, they nearly let a victory slip away against Japan before eventual Trophy-winner Kenya ended the U.S.'s tournament early.

Baker had initially been taken off in the Wellington match against New Zealand, and partook in just one of six matches in Sydney. Danny Barrett - a Dream Team selection in Australia - took over as game-breaker through the tournament, scoring two tries to send the Eagles over Argentina to open pool play and setting the tone physically in a 31-19 rivalry triumph against Canada. The two victories allowed Friday to give his starting seven a suitable shuffle for the last match of pool play, but it resulted in a loss to Russia.

Even with the pool play loss, the Eagles were Pool D's top seed. The second seed in the matrix-opposite Pool A, however, was a South Africa team that had reached three consecutive Cup Finals to open the season. The U.S. conceded two late first-half tries after Isles had given the team an early lead and failed to overturn the deficit in the Cup Quartefinal. Though they rebounded in the Fifth-Place Semifinal to reach the Fifth-Place Final, a hungry, disappointed Fiji team put the fatigued Eagles to the sword in a 35-12 result.

WHERE THE EAGLES FLY

Isles' short stint on the 2016-17 circuit has come to an end as the 'Fastest Man in Rugby' will undergo knee surgery to ready himself for the 2017-18 season and Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018. Fortunately, Baker was able to recover from the knock he suffered over in Oceania to reclaim his spot in the team for Las Vegas.

Also back from injury is young Ben Pinkelman, one of eight Team USA Olympians from the Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games included in this weekend's squad. The Colorado State University graduate took time off in the fall to rehab a shoulder injury that had plagued him throughout the 2015-16 season in addition to finishing his studies at the Fort Collins, Colo., institution. Fellow former AIG Men's Collegiate All-American Pat Blair has also been brought back into the squad to cover Isles' absence.

Though Baker may not have his "Chuckle Brother" backing him up on the bench, the Eagles are not at a loss for pace with the return of Maka Unufe to the squad of 12. Not selected for the Oceania legs, Unufe spent his time at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center putting himself in the best physical condition and mental mindset possible to earn a spot in Friday's USA Sevens team. He and Martin Iosefo, both favored as midfield players in the Eagles' set up, will offer Friday further options on the wing on what is one of the least wide playing surfaces on the Series.

"We can, if need be, utilize Matai Leuta as a power winger, which the Vegas pitch is well suited for," Friday added.

Lighter on backs than normal, Friday has also rewarded Kansas City Blues' Walt Elder with a U.S. jersey for this weekend. The powerful prop recently toured with the Falcons in South America and had previously been noticed by the coaching staff with the Midwest club at National Championship events. If he is to make an impact in his Sevens Series debut, he will have to follow the lead of established veterans like Andrew Durutalo and captain Madison Hughes while bringing his own unique skill set to the table. An unknown face may trouble the expectant defenses of core Series teams like England.

The Eagles improved to eighth in the Series standings through four of 10 legs, and will look to better their fourth-place finishes from 2015 and 2016 at Sam Boyd Stadium in order to gain ground on the Series leaders.

FLIGHT PLAN

Sir Gordon Tietjens' Samoa had much less success in Wellington and Sydney than the new head coach's past New Zealand teams, winning three of 11 matches across the two weekends. Perhaps Samoa's best performance - win or loss - was a two-point Challenge Trophy Quarterfinal defeat to Australia in New Zealand, but to only have doubled their Series points tally from the Oceania legs that serve as the Pacific Island nation's closest-to-home tournaments will be a disappointment heading into the first three-day event of the season. Tietjens has called on Samoan veterans Afa Aiono and Faalemiga Selesele to help bring along some of the younger players in the squad as they travel further from home.

Chile is a relative stranger to the Series having only played in a handful of tournaments, though USA Sevens has welcomed Los Condores on three occasions: in 2007, 2008, and 2010. Despite being knocked out by Zimbabwe in the 2016 Cathay Pacific / HSBC Hong Kong Sevens Series Qualifier tournament's Quarterfinal round, Chile finished the first Sudamérica Rugby Sevens Series as the best-placed non-core team to earn the invitational spots in Vegas and at HSBC Canada Sevens a week later. The next two weekends will go a long way towards preparing Chile for the 2017 Series Qualifier in Hong Kong.

Team GB's silver medal success in Rio has had knock-on effects for all three representing nations on the circuit; England most of all. England has already reached two Cup Finals in four legs of the Series - winning the Cape Town gold medal at the expense of the home team - and has lost just five of its 23 matches. Its worst result? A Fifth-Place Semifinal appearance in Wellington. Despite that minor setback, England has named the same squad of 12 for the trip to Las Vegas, where it will defend its second-place standing against the Eagles for the first time this season.

SCREAMING EAGLES

NBC Sports Network will provide two-hour broadcasts on cable television each day through the three-day tournament at Sam Boyd Stadium, as well as a Finals re-air late Sunday evening. In the United States, the entire event will be streamed live on NBC Sports' digital platforms, which can be accessed with valid cable or satellite credentials. For more information, visit NBC Sports' FAQ page.

Live match updates of the Eagles' performances will be provided by USA Rugby's official Twitter account (@USARugby). Join the conversation on social media using the event "hashtag" #USA7s.

Men's Eagles Sevens | HSBC USA Sevens
1. Pat Blair
2. Ben Pinkelman
3. Danny Barrett
4. Matai Leuta
5. Walt Elder
6. Andrew Durutalo
7. Folau Niua
8. Maka Unufe
9. Stephen Tomasin
10. Madison Hughes (C)
11. Perry Baker
12. Martin Iosefo

Men's Eagles Sevens | HSBC USA Sevens
v. Samoa - Friday, March 3 @ 8:37 p.m. ET
v. Chile - Friday, March 3 @ 11:36 p.m. ET
v. England - Saturday, March 4 @ 7:24 p.m. ET