Team USA played their last game of the international sevens season on Sunday. After a bruising Saturday in Scotland, the Eagles were set to face Kenya in the Emirates Airline Edinburgh Sevens Bowl Quarterfinals. A tight 15-17 loss to the Kenyans sent the USA to the Shield Semifinals. Russia would score a late try to pull away and eventually hang on to win, eliminating the Eagles from Shield Final contention.
In their 17 previous encounters, Kenya had won 10 games and they would increase that tally to 11 against the USA on Sunday. Undoubtedly the Kenyans had thoughts of the Eagles hoisting the Bowl in Adelaide after defeating Kenya 17-10. It would be the Americans who lost on Sunday though.
Shalom Suniula struck first against Kenya, showcasing his elusive side step and penetrating speed to score as the Kenyan fringe defense was a shambles after Paul Emerick plowed through the ruck and took two Kenyan defenders with him. However after the early Eagle strike, Kenya upped their intensity at the breakdown and were able to capitalize on American penalties.
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The last two tournaments of the HSBC Sevens World Series are approaching, and U.S. Coach Al Caravelli has opted for experience in his team selection.
The London tournament, starting May 21, is up first, followed by Edinburgh from May 28-29.
And, according to Jerrod Beckstrom of USA Rugby, a departure from the typically young team picks for the final stops of the Series (often smattered with freshly out-of-school collegiate players), the 12-player squad he has named this year is steeped in speed, experience, size and physicality.
The only player in the squad from the college ranks is Cameron Dolan, the dominant eight man for Life University’s College Premier Division side who has been on Caravelli’s radar since Dolan was an Under-17 player.
Mike Palefau and Nese Malifa are back in top form according to their coach, and their considerable experience and expertise will be an asset to the team, if in limited capacity as they transition back to international rugby. The last time Malifa was with the squad was last year in Adelaide, when the USA played in its first-ever Cup final in Adelaide after beating England, Wales and Argentina. Palefau’s last time with the team was in 2009.
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When the IRB Sevens tournament moves to Las Vegas this weekend, it will be a coming-out party of sorts for Rugby in the United States.
Now that the American Football season is over with last week’s Super Bowl, the NBC network has decided to program about 15 hours of live Rugby. A first. A big first.
All of the Eagles Rugby World Cup games will also be broadcast back home. The U.S. Sevens team, during their recent visit to Wellington, were all buzzing about what this unprecedented TV exposure could mean for the sport.
“It’s huge for us,” said Captain Matt Hawkins. “It really gets our name out there. It creates awareness for Rugby.”
Of course, the players also know that it will be important for them to perform well. Their second-day performance in Wellington, when they beat both Canada and France to win the shield, will have given them a good boost. Everyone involved with U.S. Rugby is hoping the paly will do the same for NBC’s ratings. Building a buzz around the sport is the quickest way to bring new talent to the game.
USA Sevens Captain Matt Hawkins talks about how he came to the States from his native South Africa and why he thinks the addition of Sevens Rugby to the Olympics could spawn a huge interest in the sport in the United States. He recently spoke to the U.S. Embassy at the team’s Evans Bay training ground before the Wellington Sevens tournament.
“What are you going as?” is the first question out of people’s mouth these days in Wellington as the IRB Sevens tournament comes to town.
I’m apparently meeting two Troy Polamalus – friends from the Pacific islands dressing up as the legendary Pittsburgh Steeler strong safety – and an Uncle Sam.
The annual tournament – played here since 1999 – is the town’s excuse to go a little wild. More than 30,000 people come to Wellington for the tournament and even those without tickets head downtown in costume to let their hair down – or to don a wig.
“Wellington, if I had to describe it to anyone that didn’t know, I would explain it as if there’s a rock concert going on and all of a sudden someone decides to play a game of Rugby,” said U.S. captain Matt Hawkins. “It’s awesome. There’s no vibe like Wellington. The city’s awesome. The people are awesome.”
The two-day tournament features teams from 16 countries. The U.S. first faces England on Feb. 4, the first of their three games that day. Their tournament involvement begins with a multi-nation parade through the streets of Wellington.
The U.S. Eagle has had some success in Wellington, having gone to the cup twice and, last year, winning the shield. They’ve had big upset wins over Fiji, England and Samoa – and are hoping for more of the same.
“Wellington is almost as good as being home,” said U.S. Coach Al Caravelli. “So I like our second home here in Wellington.”
The Rugby is important, but so is the atmosphere. “Wellington really comes to life this time of the year,” said Roland Suniula.”
“We miss seing our Borat costume,” chimed in his brother, and fellow Eagle, Shalom.
Swimwear. Anyone who’s seen the Borat movie will know what that means. The Wellington Sevens rules describing permissible costumes no longer allow that type of attire. Shalom may be the only person sad about that. Then again, maybe not.
Adrian Pratt, U.S. Embassy, Wellington