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Friday, January 29, 2016

Wellington 7s Preview: Expectations High For Eagles

After making the top four in three of the last four tournaments, including a tournament win, and the Cup quarterfinals of eight of the last nine tournaments dating back to last year, the expectation is that the Eagles will not only finish in the top eight, but they will finish in the top four and challenge for the title. That's exactly where the team needs to be as they have only a few more months to Rio but the challenge will be for the team to maintain at least their current third place position and to move up the table.

The Series has been more mixed than usual this year with New Zealand struggling in 10th place and the likes of France and Scotland fourth and seventh respectively. Every team is capable of beating everyone else as more and more teams are bringing in their big stars. All you have to do is look at Australia and New Zealand, who have brought in Sonny Bill Williams, to see how the stakes have increased. In that openness the U.S. has excelled. Their core group is peaking at the right time and they've gained a confidence that all the top teams need to succeed.

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At the same time they are entering the Wellington 7s having had a long layoff and will be in a pool against some of the best teams on the Series. Right now there could be no better preparation for Rio than this. At the Olympics there will be no easy matches. Every team is there to compete and the pools are going to be difficult. If the Eagles can show they can not only make it out of the pool but top it, they will prove once again that they are a top team. Even more, if they can make another Cup final they will install fear into their opponents.

The Team

Head coach Mike Friday has made a few changes to his team from Cape Town. Danny Barrett is back from injury and will help fill the shoes left by the Super Rugby bound Andrew Durutalo and the injured Garrett Bender. The other changes to the team include Ben Pinkelman making his debut in place of Maka Unufe, who is at home attending to a family matter. Nate Augspurger is also back. He played in Dubai but had to miss Cape Town for his brother's wedding.

The big worry heading into Dubai and Cape Town was how the team would deal with the absence of Durutalo and Barrett. Overall the team did really well with Thretton Palamo, Brett Thompson, Matai Leuta, Will Holder, and Kevin Swiryn stepping up to fill the void. Now they have Barrett back with Palamo, Leuta, Holder, and Swiryn all in the team. Pinkelman is added into that group. He'll likely be brought along slowly but he has the potential to be a star.

Once again the U.S. team is full of athletic potential. They should once again be solid in the air, have speedy players on the wings, and have the power to be strong at the breakdown. Kicking wise Madison Hughes and Folau Niua have been solid. All in all, the team is built for another strong run.

Squad: Nate Augspurger, Perry Baker, Danny Barrett, Will Holder, Madison Hughes, Carlin Isles, Matai Leuta, Folau Niua, Thretton Palamo, Ben Pinkelman, Kevin Swiryn, Zack Test

The Opponents

*All matches start today, January 29th in the United States.

Samoa (5:52 p.m. et/2:52 p.m. pt): Samoa are having an alright year. They made the Cup round in Dubai when they finished second in their pool, although they did lose big to South Africa. In the Cup round they barely lost to New Zealand before being dumped out by Australia. Cape Town wasn't as good. They finished at the bottom of their pool before winning the Shield. They have the potential to be good and if they have possession will punish you, but this is a match that the Eagles must win. In many ways it's the easiest of the pool, something that would have been crazy to suggest even two years ago.

England (8:54 p.m. et/5:54 p.m. pt): The U.S. and England have created quite a rivalry over the last several tournaments. Their Cup semi-final match in Dubai was epic with England only winning in controversial fashion in extra time. Both teams are on similar trajectories and neither wants to finish below each other in the standings. England did miss the Cup round in Cape Town, something they will be keen to avoid again.

France (11:54 p.m. et/8:54 p.m. pt): France have been one of the surprises of the season. That probably shouldn't be the case when you have Terry Bourahoua and a whole host of solid players on your roster. That said, France have been buoyed by the play of Virimi Vakatawa but he's been called up to the French team for the Six Nations. It will be interesting to see how France respond without him. It could leave them vulnerable.

The Keys to the Tournament

Shake Off The Rust: That seems a silly thing to say but it's been roughly two months since the U.S. took to the pitch. A lot can happen to a team during that stretch and with a tough pool the U.S. can't afford an early slip up. They need to be the team coming out firing and let other teams deal with rust.

Possession: 7s is a simple game in that if you have the ball, you'll win. If you don't, you won't. When the Eagles have lost this season it's because they haven't been able to hold on to the ball. They need to do a better job at disrupting the breakdown (something Durutalo was very good at) and retaining their restarts.

Smart Decisions: The U.S. has been making smart decisions under Friday. However, there was some slippage recently. This not only means making the right pass but also knowing when not to make a certain play.

More Of The Same: It's not like the Eagles haven't been successful. All they need to do at this point is stick to the program Friday has laid out for them and they'll pick up wins.

The Takeaway

As just mentioned, the U.S. are on the right track but it won't be easy. If they have a "trip up" pool this is it. If they don't click they could finish without a win. If they do click then they could win the whole thing. Either way, the expectation is that they challenge for the title, something that we think they do. As things approach Rio, being competitive for a medal is what you want. 

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