Rugby News & Views From an American Perspective
The USA Sevens team completed an emotional and successful weekend with a 28-17 victory over France to take the Bowl Championship at the inaugural Las Vegas Sevens stop on the IRB World Series.
The USA’s Bowl title gives the team their first points of the season on the IRB Series.
“These were our first points of the season and winning the Bowl is important to us in order to maintain our core status in the IRB Series. I told the team at the half time of the South Africa game, winners never quit so let’s keep going as hard as we possibly can,” U.S. Men’s Sevens Head Coach Al Caravelli said.
The USA started off Day 1 of the tournament with the tough task of taking on Fiji and nearly pulled off the upset of the tournament as they pushed the Fijiians to the brink in a 14-12 loss.
“We started the game really well against Fiji, but two mistakes cost us two tries, which was disappointing, as we had a game plan and followed it very well,” Caravelli said.
The USA followed the close loss to Fiji by spotting South Africa a 26-0 lead in the first half. The USA regrouped for the second half and outscored South Africa in the second frame, but the huge deficit was far too much to over come as they fell 33-12.
With two losses in their first two pool games, the USA went into their final pool play match in desperate need of a win over their archrivals Canada. The USA came storming out of the gates and rolled to a 26-5 win. The exclamation point on the win came in the dying moments as Paul Emerick broke a tackle and made a break, before passing off to Bennie Brazell, who finished by scoring a try on his first ever touch of the ball on the IRB Series.
“It was a good team try,” Brazell said. “I think we’d rather it was against Fiji or South Africa, but I’m happy I got to compete. It was an honor to represent the U.S. on our home soil. I have to thank my teammates and coach for that. It was truly an honor.”
The big win in their final pool play match gave the USA a favorable draw in the Bowl Quarterfinals. The USA’s opponent, Guyana had given opponents a tough time in pool play and the USA came in wary. The USA kept rolling as they took a 33-0 lead into the break and held out for a 33-12 win.
Next came Argentina in a rematch of last year’s Cup Semifinal, which Argentina won in controversial fashion. The USA jumped out to a 19-0 lead over Argentina shortly after halftime and held on for a massive 19-14 win. Perhaps the most rewarding victory of the weekend for the USA, the team also did it without Captain Kevin Swiryn who injured his ankle in the win over Guyana.
The deciding try for the USA in the semifinal was scored off of the opening kickoff of the second half as Zach Test showed his athleticism by taking the restart kick high in the air, spinning out of a tackle and scoring between the posts in front of a stunned Argentine team.
The victory set up the Bowl Final against France. The two teams locked in a classic duel that went all the way until the final moments when the USA sealed the victory with a great break by Kevin Swiryn, who was back from his earlier injury, and finished by Nese Malifa.
It’s hard to pick out a team MVP from the weekend as so many different players put in big performances for the USA. Matt Hawkins was among the tournament leaders with six tries and played withpower, leadership, and determination all weekend. A close second goes to Nese Malifa who was near perfect playing every minute of all six games this weekend.
The emotional MVP of the weekend clearly goes to Marco Barnard whose Father passed away earlier in the week. Barnard took his game to another level in Las Vegas and was a vital part of the run for the USA.
“It’s been a difficult week for Marco, but the team has dedicated the USA Sevens tournament to his father and the players have really rallied around him,” Caravelli said.
That’s not to overlook the rest of the squad as Nick Edwards, Paul Emerick, Kevin Swiryn, and Zach Test played extremely well. Shalom Suniula, Leonard Peters, Mile Pulu and Thretton Palamo all provided an added boost throughout the tournament. Peters continues his progression and, with less than a year of rugby under his belt, looks like a seasoned veteran.
Let’s also not forget Bennie Brazell, the former Cincinnati Bengal and Olympic hurdler, who played the first minutes of hopefully a long and successful sevens career.
It was a complete team effort for the USA. With such a tough pool, the USA faced steep odds in order to reach the Cup round. The squad nearly did it with a near upset of Fiji and made up for it by cruising through to the Bowl Championship.
That position is exactly where the USA needs to be at this point. Challenging for a birth in the Cup round should be a given for the USA, but in the event they come up short the team should always be a favorite to take the Bowl Championship and the IRB Series points that come with it.
After nearly a month together from their preparation in Fiji to New Zealand and finally Las Vegas, the team has made great strides and yet again shows what can happen when the USA gets time together and consistency in the squad.
The next action on the IRB Series for the USA Sevens team comes March 19-21 as the team heads to Adelaide, Australia.
With the inevitable changes that the team will go through between now and Adelaide, it’s hard to predict if this momentum will be stalled. The positive that the USA has in their favor is a strong core of players that are growing in experience at each turn.