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Thursday, December 3, 2015

Dubai 7s Preview: Eagles Final Drive For Gold Begins

With Olympic qualification in the books and the team fresh of a win at the London 7s there is a lot of momentum surrounding the Eagles right now. Two year ago it would have been laughable for the Eagles to potentially be a team to medal and qualification was even dicey. Now things are different. Under head coach Mike Friday the team is clicking and everyone expects them to do well in Dubai.

All that said, this is the final stretch of tournaments before the Olympics and the World Cup is in the books. Many teams, South Africa and New Zealand included, have brought in their 15s stars for a run at a medal. That is going to change the dynamic this year. While it may give the Eagles an advantage early if they don't keep pace with the rest of the field as they improve throughout the year they could be left behind. There is a lot at stake this year and it's going to be a fun ride.

Take the jump to read more.
Before we get into more detail on our preview a note on the streaming. We've made several inquiries this week and it looks like NBC has the rights but don't plan on streaming the tournament. We're unclear if that means the World Rugby stream will be geo-blocked in the U.S. or not. The best bet is is to plan on finding a stream on your own.

The Team

There are a few changes from the team that played in London and the NACRA 7s but the core remains. Stalwarts like Carlin Isles, Garrett Bender, Zack Test, Folau Niua, Maka Unufe, Madison Hughes, and Perry Baker all return with an extra year of experience. Look for Test once again to be a leader along with Hughes. The only question among this group is how the players that played at the World Cup--Test and Niua--hold up. They've had a long enough break so that shouldn't be a problem.

Other World Cup players that won't be on the team in Dubai are Danny Barrett and Andrew Durutalo. Barrett is injured and Durutalo has moved on. Both of those players are going to be enormous losses for the Eagles this go around. Durutalo was arguably the best player on the Series at the breakdown and Barrett gave the team an extra bite. It's going to be up to a combination of Matai Leuta, Brett Thompson, Kevin Swiryn, Nate Augspurger, and Will Holder to fill the gap. Leuta had solid moments last year and will be expected to step up. Thompson, Swiryn, and Holder all also need good tournaments.

Overall, the team has plenty of speed and power. Few teams, if any, are going to match the U.S. with players like Baker and Isles. That is a real advantage. They also have plenty of experience but will miss Barrett and Durutalo. Small mistakes make a difference so those stepping in much play error free.

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

The Opponents

Portugal (1:52 a.m. et/10:52 p.m. pt): To put it simply, Portugal were not very good last year. They never made it out of the Bowl competition and slumped to a couple of last place finished. Even worse for Portugal, they have no chance of making the Olympics. They could be the shell of the team they once were but they may also being looking for redemption. The Eagles should win this one handily.

France (5:36 a.m. et/2:36 a.m. pt): The U.S. and France have played some fantastic matches over the last few years and they've played some duds. In many ways they are similar teams. The U.S. has the pace to beat France but they must keep the ball. Any error against the French will hurt the Eagles. If they can keep possession the U.S. could win this one comfortably.

New Zealand (10:58 a.m. et/7:58 a.m. pt): Yeah, this is New Zealand. There has been no better 7s team over the last few years than the All Blacks (possibly Fiji). They only won once last year but only missed out on the final four times. They are going to want to come out and have a great year. The U.S. has played them well in the recent past but they will need something special once again to beat them. This match should be for first place in the pool.

The Keys to the Tournament

Possession: 7s is all about possession. The numbers say if you have it, you score, if you don't, you give up a lot of points. The Eagles turned things around last year because they were able to win restarts and punish teams with good ball movement.

Offloads: Outside of the breakdown the area in which Durutalo might be missed the most is in his offloads. As the top teams show, being able to put in an offload puts teams on their heels and creates mismatches. For the Eagles, it springs their speedsters. The Eagles are going to have to get creative and make up for Durutalo.

Kicking (yes, again): This is another area that the Eagles were solid at last year. Hughes has been excellent not just at conversions but in kicking for territory. They are going to need to be solid here again.

Breakdown: Barrett and Durutalo were huge here. They earned a lot of turnovers and prevented a lot of turnovers. Whoever takes their minutes must do the same.

The Takeaway

For the Eagles it's not even about making the Cup quarterfinals anymore. That is expected at every tournament. Now their goal is the top four. They may not be able to make it but they need to at least show they can compete for a spot. We think that they do it. They have the capability but they've always been somewhat shaky in Dubai. Hopefully playing at the Halloween 7s will help to get out some of those kinks. We think it does and that they make the Cup quarterfinals but not the final four.

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