It’s only the fourth tournament of the IRB Sevens Series, but for the Eagles this weekend’s tournament in Wellington could make or break their season. The team got off to a poor start in the Gold Coast and Dubai, finishing with a combined 2-11 record. However, they rebounded in South Africa with a much stronger performance and an appearance in the Cup quarterfinals. That feat helped them move up to 12th place in the standings and out of the relegation zone, but they are only two points above England and four points above Spain. With only six tournaments left in the season, a string of bad tournaments could put them in a big hole.
If the pressure of getting results wasn’t enough to make this a potential make or break weekend, the pressure of performing well at home in Las Vegas next week makes this weekend even more important. Teams always want to perform well at home. They want to show their fans that they have what it takes to succeed and they want to give them something to cheer about. But even that motivation at times isn’t enough to get results. Sometimes the pressure gets to teams and they flounder at home. A good result this weekend in Wellington would give the Eagles extra confidence heading into Las Vegas and put them more at ease playing in front of their fans. A bad weekend in Wellington could put added pressure on the team in Vegas, and if they don’t perform well, they have only four more tournaments in order to avoid a relegation playoff finish.
The good news for the Eagles is that this may be one of the most talented squads in recent memory. Returning to the team are core veterans like Shalom Suniula, Matt Hawkins, Zack Test, and Colin Hawley. They are complimented by solid players like Maka Unufe, Luke Hume, Nick Edwards, and Folau Niua. Raw but exciting Carlin Isles and Jack Halalilo also made the team.
Still, most important for the team may be the return of Blaine Scully and Andrew Durutalo from injury. Scully, who played with the Eagles XV in the World Cup, ruptured his achilles heel and has been out for over a year. Before his injury he was looked at as one of the up and coming players for the United States. He has a solid build, runs well, and has a great rugby brain. Durutalo returns from a knee injury. Before his injury he was a key piece of the Eagles turnaround late last season. He is one of the biggest players on the Series but moves well. Teaming with Hawkins, Durutalo should give the Eagles much needed size.
Winning the size battle will be important because it helps clear space for the speedsters on the Eagles roster. Everyone knows about Carlin Isles and his pace, but Maka Unufe and Jack Halalilo have aren’t slow. If teams focus too much on Isles then one of these two players will burn them.
Still, the key to a successful tournament in Wellington is Luke Hume. He’s carrying a bit of a knock but is healthy enough to give it a good go. He is incredibly shifty and does a great job opening up holes for his fellow players. He also does a great job of holding onto the ball. Keeping possession is vital in 7’s and with Hume pulling some of the strings in the open field, the Eagles look set-up to succeed.
One of the most impressive skills this team has in comparison to previous U.S. teams is a collective rugby intelligence. All of the these players, minus Isles, have been playing rugby since they were young. They know what to do in certain situations and know what is a smart play. In 7’s where one mistake on offense or defense can ruin your whole tournament, playing smart is key.
Failure to play well in Wellington wouldn’t be the end of the world for the Eagles, but it would give them a lot of confidence heading into Las Vegas and could potentially set up the rest of their season. That being said, this team certainly has the talent to repeat what was done in South Africa.
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