7’s is growing by leaps and bounds in the U.S. and nowhere is that growth more illustrated that in the Club 7’s Championship. This year’s tournament will feature 16 of the best teams from around the country who qualified from one of seven regions (Pacific Coast, Southern California, West, South, Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast). A team from Hawaii also qualified. The competition on this year’s domestic 7’s circuit was extremely competitive. The host team--and one of the best teams in the country--San Francisco Golden Gate didn’t even qualify for the tournament. Other top teams had similar problems.
But the big question on everyone’s mind is who will win the tournament? Let’s take a look at each pool and find out a little more about each team’s chances.
Pool A: Old Aztecs, Denver Barbarians, NYAC, Charlotte
The Old Aztecs qualified for the tournament as the number one seed from Southern California. The Aztecs have never been in contention for a national title until this year. That turnaround is due to former Eagles 7’s captain Matt Hawkins, who recently took over the team. Hawkins has recruited top players, including Eagles Justin Boyd, Duncan Kelm, and Peter Tiberio. They are loaded with talent and have to be considered a favorite to win. However, they do have weaknesses. For one, they haven’t had much time together. That could come back to haunt them in a close match. Still, they shouldn’t have any problem advancing from their group and should be a solid favorite for the title.
The Denver Barbarians surprised quite a few teams this year. It was supposed to be down year for the Barbos but a combination of some excellent play and some weakened teams in their region allowed the team to claim the number one seed in the West. Don’t be fooled, under head coach Mark Bokhoven, Denver are extremely talent. However, being in the same pool as the Old Aztecs and NYAC, it could be difficult for them to advance out of their pool. If they did though, it wouldn’t be a total surprise.
What kind of NYAC team will show up? That is the question that everyone will be asking. NYAC are a strong programme that have produced some great players in the past and they have some strong players in their lineup. Chris Chapman is one such player to keep an eye on. If the strong NYAC team shows up, they should be the favorite to grab second place in the pool, but if not, they could be on the outside looking in.
Traditionally teams from the South region have not done well in national competition. Even though Charlotte will try to reverse that trend, they will find it difficult to win a match against any of their pool opponents.
Pool B: Schuykill River, Old Blue, Olympic Club, OMBAC
Despite finishing in second place at last year’s tournament, the darkhorse team in this tournament has to be Schuykill River. The Mid-Atlantic champs bolster a very talent side of solid players. Greg Ambrogi and Gareth Jones are the team’s best known players, but it is the role players that really make the team go. Schuykill River didn’t have the best qualifying tournament even though they grabbed the top seed, still, they should be able to beat the rest of their pool opponents and grab the top pool spot.
Old Blue, as have the rest of the teams from the East Coast, have flown under the radar this season. Led by Eagle Luke Hume, Old Blue could surprise a few people. They are a young team with some college kids and that could be a problem in tight matches that require experience, but it could also be a good thing in that players won’t be intimidated by other teams. In reality, Pool B is a toss-up, and if Old Blue play well, they could even end up with the top seed.
Olympic Club was repeatedly beaten by SFGG in the Nesquick 7’s Series this summer. However, when it counted, Olympic Club stepped up and beat SFGG for a chance at nationals. Eagle Colin Hawley leads the team that also features several other former college 7’s stars. They certainly have the talent to win and as long as they play mistake-free ball, they should be one of the top two teams in the pool.
Even though OMBAC finished third in Souther California and only advanced to nationals on a tie-breaker, they have the talent to go far in the tournament. Zach Pangelinan has been a part of the Eagles in the past and a strong showing with OMBAC could see him back in the national team picture.
Pool C: Daytona, Youngbloodz, Old Puget Sound Beach, Maryland Exiles
Daytona are the top seed from the South and their core group have players has been together for awhile. Still, a top two finish in the group would be a major accomplishment and most likely the team would be happy with a strong showing in the Challenger bracket on Sunday.
Youngbloodz, a 7’s specialist team from Minnesota, has been threatening to become one of the major players in club 7’s rugby for the last several years. This year may finally be that opportunity as they have an experience group of players. Garrett Bender was under contract with the 7’s team last year and has looked very good this summer. Nate Augspurger was just named a College All-American. Beating OPSB isn’t going to happen, but Youngbloodz should have no problem finishing second in the pool.
Old Puget Sound Beach are scary, scary good. They feature a star-studded lineup, even when they are missing a couple of their key players. Mike Palefau was one of the best 7’s players in the country last year. Tim Stanfill has come into his own. Miles Craigwell is as solid as ever. Emosi Vucago is a 7’s legend in Fiji. OPSB plays great defense and are lightening quick on offense. The team also stormed through a tough Pacific Coast 7’s qualifier. Winning Pool C is a given for this year, but the question is, do they have what it takes to go all the way? The answer is most likely yes.
Led by several strong players, like CRC star Trevor Tanifum, the Maryland Exiles have the potential to be good. However, in a pool with OPSB and Youngbloodz, making the top two will be quite an accomplishment. It can be done though with some strong performances by Tanifum and former Eagle Owen Lentz.
Pool D: Chicago Lions, Tama Laie Lions, KC Blues, Belmont Shore
Along with OPSB, the Chicago Lions have been dominant this 7’s season. Headlining the squad is JP Eloff and Rocco Mauer. Mauer burst onto the Eagles last year with some very strong performances in Hong Kong and Tokyo and has only improved upon that play with the Lions. Eloff, who many consider to be the Eagles future flyhalf, has been spectacular as well. The Lions are deep and have playmakers all over the field. Their defense is also strong. They should fight Belmont Shore for the top spot in the pool.
Belmont Shore got some good news with Eagles captain Shalom Suniula was granted a waiver to play with the team. Suniula had missed the entire summer to get married and only recently returned to the states. His addition bolsters what is already a very strong side. Peter Dahl, Ed McKenna, and Ed Pitts are 7’s legends in SoCal. Mikey Te’o is still a teenager but has showed some tremendous skill. If they play well, they could be the top team at the tournament, as they were last year. However, they are not invincible.
In order to tap into the large rugby community in Hawaii, U.S.A. Rugby ensures a spot in the championship for a team from the islands. Last year, when Marist were invited, no one knew what to expect and that team made the quarterfinals. However, that run last year means that no one is taking the Tama Laie Lions lightly. They are an athletic team with a lot of rugby knowledge and could go far in the tournament. Their biggest disadvantage is the same as their biggest advantage: no one has seen them play.
The KC Blues claimed the West number two seed after a good summer. However, that was in a weakened West. Throw in the fact that they were put in what could be called the “group of death” and it could be a long weekend for the Blues.
So who wins? A team could always surprise and capture the title, but the real contenders come down to four teams: OPSB, Belmont Shore, Chicago Lions, and Old Aztec. The next set of teams includes: Tama Laie Lions, Youngbloodz, and Olympic Club. Of the four contenders, OPSB and the Chicago Lions look to be the strongest but the OPSB juggernaut is just unstoppable this year.
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