Rugby News & Views From an American Perspective
Defense, fitness, and mental toughness are three chief characteristics that Eagle Sevens coach, Al Caravelli, was looking for while nailing down the 12 man squad he will take to Dubai and South Africa for the first two stops in the HSBC Sevens World Series.
Caravelli and his staff have been hard at work since May, when the 2009-2010 Sevens World Series ended, scouting, evaluating and developing talent for this World Series season.
Several intensive camps have been hosted at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista over the last four months. These camps gave Caravelli an opportunity to look closely at over 50 outstanding athletes and also gave him the difficult task of paring it down to 12 who will travel and represent the USA for the first leg of the IRB World Series.
The squad Caravelli has selected for the first two events in Dubai and George reflects a special emphasis on fitness and defense. Mental toughness is also key and is a trait that Caravelli’s squad cultivated as they visited a Navy SEAL training center. The Eagles were drilled by the center’s training staff and by all accounts was a grueling but invaluable experience.
Three newcomers in total are in the squad. Miles Craigwell and Nu’u Punimata, of the Miami Dolphins and UTEP respectively, are two hard-hitting football converts. Craigwell was a defensive back and Punimata was an outside linebacker. Both were Sevens All-Stars this summer and can certainly be intimidating in defense.
The third newcomer to the squad is Boston’s Kyle Marshall. Marshall was the fittest player at camp and smashed all previous Eagle Sevens fitness records (even the Navy SEALs were impressed).
The squad’s nucleus is made up of power forwards Mark Bokhoven and captain Matt Hawkins. At pivot Caravelli selected two crafty playmakers in Nese Malifa and Shalom Suniula. At center, Mile Pulu will be an offensive threat in the midfield. Pulu proved he can be the difference-maker as he was named the MVP of the USA Rugby Emirates Airline New York All-Star Sevens last August. Pulu brings speed, power, and skills to the crucial center position. Roland Suniula is another option Caravelli has at center.
Out wide, speed merchant Zach Test, the powerful Marco Barnard, and veteran Jason Pye will be potent forces on the wings. Pye is making his return to the squad after a year away.
There is a very nice mixture of talent across the board and will certainly be a dynamic squad on both sides of the ball.
For the players that missed the cut, its back to the gym to stay prepared. The USA Sevens team has become more than just the 12 players named to the first squad. The overall success of the team is determined by the depth of the training squad and the ability of players to go in and out of the team without missing a beat.
History has told us that over the course of an IRB season, the USA should go through at least 20-26 players due to injuries and various obstacles. If Caravelli is lucky, that number will stay closer to 20. That still leaves at least eight players not in the initial squad that will be called upon to perform at some time during the season. Keeping reserves sharp and prepared has become a vital component of the USA Sevens team plan.
“I’m very pleased with the squad. This has to be the most difficult camp we have ever had as far as putting something in front of the players that challenged them; not only physically but mentally as well. The mental strength that these young men showed while training with the SEALs was inspiring.
“What we did in March was nothing compared to what they did yesterday. It was great for me as a coach to see which athletes used what they learned to take it further than they ever had,” said Caravelli.
The squad will depart for Dubai on Thanksgiving where they will acclimate and train ahead of the World Series opener on December 3rd. The Eagles face off against Argentina, New Zealand, and Zimbabwe in Pool B in Dubai.
Following the Dubai tournament, the squad will fly to George, South Africa and prepare for the second stage of the Series where they take on Samoa, Fiji, and Namibia in the pool stage.
The USA looks to avoid another slow start to the season as they have traditionally struggled during the first leg of the IRB Series and built momentum as the series advances. The team is physically prepared, which is a major stepping block to overcome. The true test lies in how quickly the team applies their fitness, physicality, and athleticism into Caravelli’s gameplan.
“Our goal is to be a consistent team this year,” Caravelli said. “With that said, we want to be a team that plays in the cup rounds. We know we are a bit behind the other teams as far as game time, but the only way to get that is by playing. One thing for sure is we are very prepared.”
With a solid core of returning veterans in the squad and impressive newcomers, the 2010/2011 USA Sevens team is about to embark on a memorable season.
USA EAGLE SEVENS
Matt Hawkins* (Belmont Shore), Marco Barnard (KU), Mark Bokhoven (Denver Barbarians), Shalom Suniula (Brisbane), Zach Test (Loughborough University), Miles Craigwell (NYAC / Spearhead Academy), Nese Malifa (Glendale Raptors), Nuese Punimata (Old Puget Sound Beach), Mile Pulu (East Palo Alto), Kyle Marshall (Boston Rugby Club), Jason Pye (Provo), Roland Suniula (Unattached)