The Eagles head to the Gold Coast today for the first IRB Sevens Series event of the year with a tough challenge ahead of them after being placed in a pool with defending Series champions New Zealand, South Africa, and North America rivals Canada. That group would be tough for any Series team, especially one with a bit of turnover from last season, but Eagles head coach Alex Magleby isn’t worried about that. “I don’t care who we’re playing,” said Magleby when asked about the group. “There is so much that we’re trying to figure out about ourselves and work on, that we’re not really worried about who we’re playing.”
That has been the mantra for the team since Magleby took over from Al Caravelli last spring. With a core group of young players whose average age is 24 (22 if you take out Matt Hawkins, Peter Dahl, and Mike Palefau), Magleby has his hands full integrating newcomers into his squad. For Gold Coast, the team has brought in five new players with no IRB Sevens Series experience and a few others with only limited experience.
Two of those younger players include Brett Thompson and Mike Teo. Both had done well in camp in the lead up to the tournament and had been working toward making the team. Thompson rose to prominence with his strong performance at the Collegiate Rugby Championship with Arizona, subsequent play with Atlantis in Victoria, and the College All-Americans in Glendale. “Brett runs good lines, and he’s done well in camp,” said Magleby. “He’s a good athlete, and he’s been working on what it takes to compete at this level.”
Teenage standout Teo similarly had a busy year. Last spring he helped Belmont Shore to a strong DI season, filling in at scrumhalf after a series of injuries created an opening. He followed that up with a Junior World Rugby Trophy championship with the Junior All-Americans in which he played hooker. Magleby suggested that versatility helped Teo be ready for the Series. “Mikey’s versatile. He’s worked really hard, has a good attitude, and is a smart kid.”
Still, Magleby’s philosophy to focus on the what the team is doing, as well as the youthfulness of the squad, doesn’t mean that the team doesn’t care about winning. He and his team were extremely disappointed to lose the NACRA 7’s final to Canada in August, but that loss, and their philosophy going forward, has focused more on improving their play rather than worrying about who they are playing.
In order to help nurture those younger players, Magleby has brought back some more experienced players, like Series veteran Matt Hawkins. The “Polar Bear” took a break from rugby last spring and has recently returned to training with the team. Magleby expressed that the squad “was glad to have him. He brings another element of leadership to the team. He’s strong in the scrum, and he knows the game well.” Another veteran player returning to the team is Peter Dahl, who only recently returned to rugby after dealing with personal issues. However, the former All-American has been one of the better domestic players this last summer and deserves his shot.
The team will be missing a couple of veterans to injury, however. Colin Hawley is home and resting after being active for over a year. “He’s played a lot of rugby, and he needed a break,” said Magleby. “Looking at the calendar, we thought it was a good time to give him a break in order to get more out of him the rest of the year.” Two other experienced players not participating in the tournament are Andrew Durutalo and Folau Niua, who are both still nursing injuries.
On the field, one of the aspects Magleby is looking for the team to improve upon is their use of possession. “We were disappointed in our ability to maintain possession in that game,” Magleby said referring to the NACRA 7’s final loss against Canada. “We had twelve possessions in that game and created line breaks on seven of them. If you have a good strike rate, you are going to score four or five tries.” In addition to getting more efficient with their possession, the team is also looking to be stronger and quicker in contact.
Overall, the Eagles and Magleby are concerned about getting results, especially with the new promotion and relegation system on the Series, but they are more worried about making sure the team is strong in the fundamental aspects of the game. The ultimate of the program is a medal in 2016 after all, and that only comes by focusing on themselves.
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