To say it’s been an up and down season for the U.S.A. 7’s team would be an understatement. The team has failed to pick up hardware. They finished as Shield semi-finalists twice, while at the same time advancing to the Cup quarterfinals twice, with both happening in two of the last three tournaments. The Eagles haven’t advanced that far into a competition twice in row in two years.
Put together, the up and down performances have the Eagles sitting in 13th place with only three tournaments to go before the relegation round in London. Below them in the standings are Portugal and Spain while above them are Scotland and Canada. In order to avoid relegation the Eagles must pick up enough points to climb over Scotland or Canada. That could be tough considering the current parity that exists on the IRB circuit. Every team except for Spain has made the Cup quarterfinals at least once.
For the leap over one of the teams ahead of them in the standings, the Eagles are going to have to play consistently. “Consistency is the key,” explained head coach Alex Magleby when asked about having success on the series. “Maybe you beat Fiji in one match but then you have to turn around and win the next game.”
For Magleby, that lack of consistency comes from players relying on old habits that aren’t up to Series standard. “We had some issues (in Las Vegas) where some guys made decisions under pressure that were not what we wanted to have happen, that were not part of the game plan,” he explained. “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results its gets. It’s not magic. So when people say “why did they go off the game plan when that’s not what you wanted them to do?” well, they are doing exactly what their brain is telling them to do based on previous input they’ve had under pressure. You’ve got to de-condition and then recondition them to make the decisions you want them to make.” Magelby then gave the example of where a player may have found success taking space against domestic players thinking he can take that on the Series. “But on the circuit, that space is an oasis, it isn’t there. So now you take that space and get isolated when you should have passed.”
Overcoming those old habits is still a work in progress. The residency program at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California is only a little over a year old and some of the players have only had contracts for the last six months or so. Additionally, unlike in years past when the Eagles featured arguably their best players at any level—Chris Wyles, Todd Clever and Taku Ngwenya—the current team is made up of young players with an eye towards 2016. That does not mean that these players aren’t talented and can’t be on the World Cup team, many have and will continue to, it only means that there is now more of a focus on developing these players as 7’s specialists. The good news is that their age makes it easier to get rid of bad habits, but at the same time they will need more time to catch up with the experience players on other squads.
Magleby has only been on the job for one year, and with players coming and going into the program it has taken time to get out old habits. The team has been training in an intense environment down in Chula Vista and over the past few months fringe players have been flown in to push the current players in residency, raising the overall quality.
According to Magleby there is no question that the players are buying into the system and that results are improving, he just questions whether it is fast enough. “We’ve been improving, even faster than our opponents, but not fast enough,” said Magleby who then went on to note the teams overall improvement since the Gold Coast. “We are over 50% in possession, 85-90% in ruck retention (the goal is 100%), the tackle rate is improving, restart retention is improving, and we’re reducing the number of line breaks against us.” Magleby also noted that individual players have been in improving as well but that it was all relative to the competition. In the end Magleby says that these improvements are “all positive signed but you need to be winning and we needed to be winning a few months ago. We don’t want to be put in a situation of relegation.”
Those next three tournaments will be key to the growth of the Eagles. Ending up in the relegation playoffs does not mean they will be relegated, in fact they have a decent chance of winning that bracket, but it would be a barometer of where the team stands. As the tournament in Las Vegas illustrated, when the Eagles are playing the way Magleby wants them to play and sticking to the system they are seeing success, when they veer off that they only hurt themselves. The question is whether three tournaments is enough to show improvement. They’ll find out soon enough as the Hong Kong 7’s are now less than a month away.
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