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Friday, December 11, 2015

Cape Town 7s Preview: Eagles Have Higher Expectations

It's pretty safe to say that after three straight trips to the Cup semi-finals, wins over South Africa and New Zealand, and a tournament win under their belts that the Eagles have moved up into the upper echelon of the World Rugby Sevens Series. With that move comes greater expectations. A year ago it was reasonable to hope the team made it into the Cup round. That's now expected with the latest goal every tournament being to win. That's a huge jump. Some teams have learned to thrive under that pressure, some teams in the past have gotten to that point and wilted a bit. It's going to be up to the Eagles to prove that they are the type of team that is consistent and is a threat every tournament. That begins in Cape Town.

*The tournament should be streamed on worldrugby.org.

The Team

Nate Augspurger has headed back to the States for his brother's wedding and it was shown on the World Sevens Series website earlier in the week that Mike Te'o had come in for him. That wasn't true when the final rosters came out with Thretton Palamo instead coming in for Augpsurger. The addition of Palamo brings in another big body that gives the team a creative element. It used to be that Andrew Durutalo provided creative offloads and Palamo should fill that role this go around.

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Overall, the U.S. has a lot of balance to their team. They have players like Brett Thompson, Garrett Bender, and Zack Test are good in the air. Folau Niua and Maka Unufe are smart and creative. Madison Hughes can kick. Perry Baker and Carlin Isles provide the speed. It's not just the starters that did well in Dubai. Mike Friday mixed up his squad a bit, especially in the final match against New Zealand where Will Holder and Kevin Swiryn, both of whom didn't play much earlier in the tournament, started and played well. That depth is going to be extremely important in Cape Town as two weeks of play start to take their toll.

Squad: Carlin Isles, Matai Leuta, Brett Thompson, Garrett Bender, Zack Test, Kevin Swiryn, Folau Niua, Maka Unufe, Madison Hughes, Perry Baker, Will Holder, Thretton Palamo

The Opponents

Wales (3:15 a.m. et/12:15 a.m pt): First up for Eagles is Wales who finished in the Bowl semi-finals last week with a win over Canada and a loss to Scotland in the elimination round. In pool play they lost big to England and Wales before edging Kenya 12-10. They have talented players but this is a team they U.S. should be able to outpace and outmuscle.

Portugal (6:36 a.m. et/3:36 a.m. pt): The U.S. were able to run away from Portugal last week in pool play. This week should be no different. However, the U.S. can't afford a slip-up, even if it's in point differential. As we saw last week it was a crucial try or try stopped against Portugal that helped the Eagles advance.

Australia (10:19 a.m. et/7:19 a.m. pt): This will be the most difficult match for the Eagles in the pool. Australia were very solid last week with only a loss to England on day one. They then lost by a try to Fiji, beat Samoa handily, and then lost to South Africa by five. Australia and the U.S. are on similar paths so a win against a close opponent will be important.

Keys to the Tournament

No Slip Ups: You could argue that it set up a memorable match against New Zealand in pool play but the U.S. loss to France put them in a very difficult position. They can't afford an early loss to Wales or Portugal, they need to head into their match having already sealed up a place in the Cup quarterfinals with the goal of winning the pool. Momentum is a powerful thing and if they can get it from the start they should be a good position.

Fitness: One of the strong suits of the Eagles under the Mike Friday era has been their fitness. Don't expect much of a drop off from them. In fact, because the team has excellent fitness, it opens up opportunities for the likes of Baker and Isles to take advantage of tired defenses.

Possession: If there was a weak point in the Eagles match last week that cost them it was not being able to dominate possession. You saw how England were able to keep the ball for long period of times at the end of the match in strong attacking territory. That led to the winning try. Against France the U.S. were starved of the ball for long periods of time. The U.S. needs to be a bit more clinical on restarts and they need to hold on to the ball.

The Takeaway

It's hard not to feel positive about the state of the Eagles at the moment. As we've mentioned, they have proven that they are more than one hit wonders. They are legitimate contenders for a medal in Rio. That said, something only becomes a habit when it's done over and over. Cape Town will be a test to see if the U.S. can make finishing in the top four and fighting for a title a habit. We think they do.

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