Men's Eagles Sevens: Vancouver 2017 preview

VANCOUVER, British Columbia - The HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series makes its long-awaited return to the Great White North this weekend with HSBC Canada Sevens, the sixth round of the 10-stop circuit, kicking off Saturday, March 11.

The Men's Eagles Sevens went 4-2 at HSBC USA Sevens - their home tournament - and finished third to improve their 2016-17 Series standing to level on points in fifth with a 17-point haul. Pool C play for the U.S. starts at 12:52 p.m. ET Saturday against Japan, with the action from BC Place Stadium available to viewers in the United States live via World Rugby's Sevens Series web stream.

WHAT YOU MISSED

The Eagles have enjoyed moderate success at Sam Boyd Stadium in recent years, reaching the USA Sevens Bronze Final in both 2015 and 2016. Expectations, then, were understandably high in a Pool B featuring the tournament's invited team, Chile, and a sputtering Samoa. Sir Gordon Tietjens' side had already tasted defeat at the hands of the Eagles in Wellington, and did not have an answer for Danny Barrett on a skinny field. The forward racked up three tries in an impressive display, punishing the Samoans focused on Perry Baker.

Chile struck first against England in its pool opener before conceding 62 consecutive points to England and the Eagles. Barrett again found the score sheet but it was the depth in the team that saw out the shutout as all 12 players - including international debutant Walt Elder - saw game time. So concluded Day/Night One in Las Vegas, with a mouth-watering, pool-deciding matchup with England set to open Day Two.

Martin Iosefo powered his way over the line from a well-worked set play before Baker bettered a chasing Dan Norton for his first try of the tournament. Norton would get his revenge, however, following his own chip kick to bring the score to 12-5 at halftime. Apart from the worthy tries scored, the teams were in a back-and-forth battle across 80 meters of the field the entire game. Young Ben Pinkelman benefitted from a Folau Niua pass to bowl over the defender on the try line midway through the half, but England maintained restart after restart to score three tries in as many minutes, pulling out the victory.

Relegated to the second seed out of the pool heading into the night-time Cup Quarterfinal, the Eagles could not cope with an early Argentina onslaught. Facing a tough task down, 12-0, at halftime, captain Madison Hughes relayed a powerful message from Team USA Olympic teammate Nate Ebner. Despite Argentina's third try of the game to open the half, the Eagles took control of their own destiny to win, 21-19, thanks to an untiring performance by Maka Unufe.

"Great determination in the Argentina game, especially after some calls that didn't go our way," Friday said. "Fair play to the boys; they stuck to task and fought their way back into the game play by play. They learned their lessons from the England game, which was pleasing to see."

In the past two seasons, the Eagles played South Africa four times at home. Two consecutive pool matchups followed by Bronze Final meetings resulted in three wins for the Blitzboks and a draw. Sunday afternoon's Cup Semifinal was another win for the current Series leaders - although it was one of the toughest victories they earned on the weekend - before the Eagles topped New Zealand to nab the medal.

"We have X-factor players but it is consistency in performance and the discipline to stick to the plan and stay on task that wins titles," Friday said. "That is why we didn't beat South Africa, and why they won the tournament and are where they are in the Series."

WHERE THE EAGLES FLY

Barrett's five tries in Las Vegas land him in eighth in the Series scoring charts behind players not named Seabelo Senatla. His 16 tries better Baker's 15, with his name included in the tournament Dream Team - his second such nomination in as many tournaments. The Bronze Medal took a full-squad effort, and a total of nine players dotted down 21 times for Friday's Eagles. Only Fiji (25) and South Africa (22) scored more, while Hughes and Stephen Tomasin combined for a tournament-high 13 conversions.

The Eagles will feel a Cup Final appearance slipped away having held a late second-half lead over South Africa in addition to stealing the final possession close to the try line, but the Argentina defeat elevated them to the top four for the first time this season before ending USA Sevens on a high in the Bronze Final. Being close to home certainly had an effect, as the team did not need to travel across multiple time zones to arrive at Sam Boyd Stadium.

"We have to contend with travel and jet-lag fatigue due to not being able - like most teams - to arrive early at the events," Friday said. "That was not an issue at this event and you can see the difference proper preparation can make to our squad who, while talented, is currently reliant on us not picking up injuries."

Healthy throughout the weekend until Hughes was kept out of the Final, the Eagles used a vibrant, supportive crowd as fuel to put themselves on the front foot against most of their opponents on the weekend. Barrett and his forward teammates took advantage of a smaller playing surface with physicality combined with skilled hands, while the Eagles had a positive penalty differential by the time the Bronze Final ended.

While Unufe rightly earned headlines in the Cup Quarterfinal victory and Barrett was selected to the Dream Team, the consistent play of Niua has been one of the team's saving graces this season. Including the six matches at USA Sevens, Niua - going into his 46th tournament - has played in 35 percent of the U.S.'s total games in 17-and-a-half seasons (only Zack Test has played in more). Although he may not receive the same recognition as teammates with higher scoring records - despite 414 career points scored - his rugby I.Q. and work ethic on both sides of the ball are perhaps some of the team's more dangerous overall weapons.

"Folau was unreal in Vegas," Friday said. "Not just his attack work and his passing variations but people need to watch and appreciate his defensive work and contact work both in attack and defense. He is always moving and organizing. This selfless work may go unnoticed by those that give out accolades but does not go unnoticed by us.

"People should watch the bro with the 'fro more closely to see the contribution he makes in every game."

FLIGHT PLAN

It has been another trying Series for Japan thus far, currently ranked 15th out of 15 core teams. Since qualifying as a core team by virtue of a positive 2013-14 Series result, it has been relegated (2014-15) and subsequently re-qualified (2015-16) prior to reaching the Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games Bronze Final. Japan has only won two of 25 matches this year, but cannot be underestimated with smart players like Lomano Lemeki and Katsuyuki Sakai helping the team trend upwards (the wins came in Sydney and Las Vegas).

France's draw with the Eagles in Wellington was a major factor in the U.S.'s drop to the Challenge Trophy bracket in the third tournament of the season. The Eagles did their part to come back from 21-7 at halftime to level the scores, but the pace at which France plays with athletes such as Terry Bouhraoua and Julien Candelon can cause every team on the circuit issues. The French are going into the latest round of the Series coming off of their worst result of the season at USA Sevens.

Australia will not want to let the Eagles earn a victory in their Pool C matchup, nor will they want to see the U.S. advance to the Cup round seeing as how the two nations are tied on points in the Series standings. The Eagles have momentum with a Cape Town pool-play shutout and a more positive overall result from Las Vegas, but Australia can be a world-beater on its day. James Stannard is a wonderful goal-kicker with enough pace to give his side a protective sweeper option, while the highlighted trio of Ed Jenkins, Tom Lucas, and Nick Malouf provide the side with much-needed experience.

SCREAMING EAGLES

Though there will not be as many pro-U.S. fans in Vancouver as there were in Las Vegas, there will be strong contingent of Eagle supporters due to the proximity of BC Place Stadium to the border. The draw of the sixth leg of the Series has also caused organizers to open another seating section in order to welcome more than 75,000 fans into the indoor arena.

The tournament starts with the Pool B matchups. The Eagles are in Match 2 against Japan at 12:52 p.m. ET before finishing off the day against Australia at 8:08 p.m. ET. World Rugby's live stream will be available to viewers in the United States, while USA Rugby's Twitter account (@USARugby) will provide live match updates.

Men's Eagles Sevens | HSBC Canada 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
13. Malon Al-Jiboori

Men's Eagles Sevens | HSBC Canada Sevens
v. Japan - Saturday, March 11 @ 12:52 p.m. ET
v. France - Saturday, March 11 @ 4:28 p.m. ET
v. Australia - Saturday, March 11 @ 8:08 p.m. ET