Rugby News & Views From an American Perspective
USA Sevens Head Coach, Al Caravelli is in a familiar, albeit an unenviable position. With the start of the IRB Sevens World Series just a few weeks away, Caravelli needs to trim down his training squad to a mere twelve players that will represent the United States in the first two tournaments of the popular IRB Series.
Caravelli’s squad is a cross-section of experienced veterans, former collegiate stars, top club performers, and a growing number of cross-over athletes.
Getting onto the National Sevens team has never been a walk in the park and it’s not getting any easier as more and more players are seeing the abbreviated version of the game as a pathway to Olympic glory.
To raise the bar even higher, the USA Sevens team is coming off their most successful IRB season ever and expectations are riding high. Aside from the fans that are pulling for an even better season, the team now has the eye of the US Olympic Committee watching their every step.
From a media perspective, handicapping the team is difficult, so one can only imagine the tough decisions that Caravelli will make in the coming weeks.
However, just because the handicapping is hard, doesn’t mean that I’m not going to take a crack at it.
Here’s a look at the squad and how it may shape up headed into the Dubai and George, South Africa stops on the IRB World Series.
Barring injuries, it will be a shock if Nese Malifa, Matt Hawkins, Shalom Suniula, Zach Test, and Marco Barnard don’t make the squad. They made up the core of what was a very good team last season and the team needs that same stability and leadership.
The squad will certainly miss Kevin Swiryn and Nick Edwards as scoring threats, but Hawkins is the heart and soul of the team. That was evident when he missed the last two tournaments of the season.
Malifa led the team in points scored (120pts) last season and made some huge plays in big games for the USA. He simply continues to get better and better.
Test, Barnard, and Suniula all had breakout seasons that led to them becoming automatic choices as the season went on. They need to raise their game another notch this season to get the USA into the Top 8.
The core of the team is very important to the overall success this season. By mid-season, the core group should grow to 7-8 players.
Mark Bokhoven heads a group of players that have a very good chance of making the squad. Were it not for his penchant for injuries, Bokhoven would be a lock for the team. If he’s healthy, then he is in. The only problem is for how long? He’s been haunted by injuries.
Joining him are Mile Pulu, Zach Pangelinan, and Colin Hawley.
All three players have plenty of experience with Caravelli’s squad and fit into the overall look of the team. Pulu has the speed and now with more experience under his belt could be poised for a breakout season.
Pangelinan did well as the understudy for Nese Malifa in Adelaide and Hong Kong last season and could be up for more of the same this season.
Caravelli needs to prepare for life without Malifa as the corner turns on a World Cup year, Malifa may become unavailable to the sevens squad towards the end of the season to keep him healthy and ready as the Eagles prepare for the World Cup.
Hawley is a skilled athlete that has also worked his way into contention for a slot on the Eagles squad for the 2011 World Cup.
With a likely 7-8 spots on the team sewn up above, that leaves 15 players to duke it out over the remaining 4-5 spots.
This group is led by a group of players returning to the mix with USA Sevens experience. Justin Boyd is the most notable of them as he returns from a year off due to a devastating injury. Boyd’s enemy is the time off and needs to prove that the injury and time off didn’t cost him a step. With plenty of speedsters in camp with finishing ability, Boyd may need a camp or two to get back up to speed.
Also returning to the mix are Jason Pye, Ata Malifa and PJ Komongnan. They all have plenty of experience to bring to the table, but will need something extra to get them over the hump. Malifa will be in the mix to serve as back up to his brother Nese, a role he filled last season before being injured in Wellington.
Former football players, Miles Craigwell and Nu’u Punimata come to camp and may become the newest cross-overs to make the team. Caravelli has made a point, the last couple of years, to place at least one “project” on his roster for each tournament.
Craigwell has versatility and got hands on work with Caravelli this summer while playing for NYAC. Punimata is a powerful forward that could fill the role left temporarily vacant by Leonard Peters.
All of the players in the squad are there for a reason and all are capable of making the team. However, with intense competition for spots, there are always going to be players left off the team.
That said, these guys may serve as Dark Horses and fight their way into the squad despite not being given much attention.
Heading that list this season is Gerson Blaise. Possibly one of Caravelli’s biggest project players ever, Blaise has world-class speed and athleticism to boot. He could learn quite a bit on the IRB Series by just being in the setup and around the game. The issue will come down to how many roster spots can the team afford to have sewn up with inexperienced players?
Also coming in under the radar are players that came through the club ranks in Kyle Marshall and Matt Degutes. Both have proven to be among the best club sevens players in America and now have a chance to break into the USA squad.
Another player to keep an eye on is Taylor Mokate. A powerful forward with some pace, Mokate could find himself in the squad at some point during the season if the forwards fall into injury trouble.
Other players not to be overlooked are Alex Ross, Roland Suniula, James Aldridge, and Dmitri Efthimiou.
Efthimiou has been in camp repeated times over the last two years, but has yet to crack the roster. Could this be his time?
Aldridge is another intriguing prospect that brings power and pace to the plate. A former running back at Notre Dame, Aldridge has been getting the crash course at Spearhead Academy along with Blaise and Craigwell. Having graduated with a psychology degree in 3 ½ years at Notre Dame, Aldridge is a quick study and has made much progress in his short time in the game.
Ross played in seven games for the USA last season during their final two tournaments. Fast and shifty, Ross has a lot of competition to face to win a roster spot.
Don’t Forget About These Guys
They aren’t in the squad, but don’t be surprised if at some point in the season Leonard Peters, Tai Enosa, or Paul Emerick join the squad or at least get into the picture. All played on the team last season with Peters and especially Emerick aiding the success of the team.
After signing a short-term contract with Ulster to fill in for injuries, Emerick is now on loan to Malone as the injured players have returned to first team play. Emerick is one of the fiercest players to have put on the jersey for USA Sevens team and has made it no secret that he enjoys playing for his country.
Peters is at home due to a family issue, but expects to become available at some point during the season. A powerful forward that has gotten better and better in his short time playing rugby, Peters had become a core member of the team last season and will be missed at least during the early portion of this coming season.
Enosa could be the long-term replacement for Nese Malifa when/if he decides to focus on 15’s. Enosa has a ton of potential in both versions of the game.
With sevens becoming bigger and bigger on campus, more and more collegiate stars will begin to emerge on the scene. Even now, players such as Tennessee’s Benji Goff and Bowling Green’s Rocco Mauer have put themselves on Caravelli’s radar. Were it not for a shoulder injury, Mauer was in line to get a long look at the upcoming camp.
In time, the growing collegiate pipeline will not only create a healthy domestic competition, but also a fruitful crop of USA Sevens hopefuls each year.
The USA Sevens team opens up playing on the IRB World Series December 4-5, 2010 in Dubai, UAE.
The USA 7’s camp squad:
James Aldridge (Spearhead Academy)
Marco Barnard (Unattached)
Gerson Blaise (Spearhead Academy)
Mark Bokhoven (Denver Barbarians)
Justin Boyd (Unattached)
Miles Craigwell (NYAC/Spearhead Academy)
Matt Degutes (Chicago Lions)
Dmitri Efthimiou (Mystic River)
Matt Hawkins (Belmont Shore)
Colin Hawley (Sacramento)
PJ Komongnan (NOVA)
Ata Malifa (Glendale)
Nese Malifa (Glendale)
Kyle Marshall (Boston)
Taylor Mokate (Oklahoma)
Zach Pangelinan (OMBAC)
Mile Pulu (SFGG)
Nu’u Punimata (Old Puget Sound Beach)
Jason Pye (Provo)
Alex Ross (OMBAC)
Roland Suniula (Unattached)
Shalom Suniula (Brisbane)
Zack Test (Loughborough)