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Thursday, April 7, 2016

Hong Kong 7s Preview: Eagles Face Toughest Test So Far


The final stretch of the season for the Eagles begins this week with the famous Hong Kong 7s. With three-fifths of the season now in the books the team has done well and has to be pleased with the way they've played. They have finished in third place once, made the top four twice, and finished in the Plate final twice. They have never missed the Cup round and have piled up some famous wins during the year. It has to be said at this point that there is absolutely no question that they are one of the top teams on the Series and the expectation isn't just that they will make the Cup quarterfinals it's that they finish in the top four and possibly win the stop.

All that said it doesn't mean a medal in Rio. As has been stated in the past, in many ways this season is all about practicing and preparing for the Olympics. The field is going to be smaller in Rio and so is the margin for error. There have been a few times this year where the Eagles have looked out of sorts but by and large they have been excellent. The key for them is going to be consistently beating the top teams. That means consistent wins over the likes of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. They are going to get a chance this go around with Australia in pool play and if they can come away with a victory they have to feel happy about their efforts and where they are on the path to a medal.

Take the jump to read more.

The Team

The U.S. was forced to make a late change to their line-up with Carlin Isles presumably being injured in training and Nate Ebner coming into the team. The U.S. will miss the pace of Isles but as Vancouver showed Perry Baker can carry a lot of the load. Still, it does limit how the U.S. wants to play when Baker is not playing. Ebner has pace and physicality. The question is how much he'll play. He did very well at the Hong Kong 10s but in all likelihood the U.S. choose to play some of their regular starters more.

Also coming back into the team after missing in Vancouver is Zach Test and Maka Unufe. Both could easily be considered the MVPs of the team. Test is so good in the air and his ability to make big plays at crucial times can't be overstated. Unufe is the difference maker. You saw in parts of Vegas and in Vancouver how much of the U.S. offense relies on Unufe. Having him back is going to make a big difference.

Also into the team is Peter Tiberio. He did very well with the Falcons in Vegas. Also look for Ben Pinkelman and Martin Iosefo to continue their strong play.

Squad: Nate Ebner, Ben Pinkelman, Danny Barrett, Garrett Bender, Zack Test, Peter Tiberio, Folau Niua, Maka Unufe, Nate Augspurger, Madison Hughes, Perry Baker, Martin Iosefo

The Opponents

Portugal (6:54 a.m. et/3:54 a.m. pt (Friday)): It may not be kind to say but Portugal have been awful this year. They have a few solid players in Aderito Esteves and Pedro Leal but the rest of the team really struggles. They are almost certainly set for relegation. Their best tournament so far was in Australia where they made the Bowl semi-finals. Other than that they've crashed out in the Shield semi-finals each go around except for Vancouver where they made it to the Shield final. This is a match that should allow the Eagles to get their feet wet in a big win.

Argentina (12:48 a.m. et (Saturday)/9:48 p.m. pt (Friday)): The U.S. are directly competing for fifth place in the standings. Entering Vancouver the two sides were even but thanks to the U.S. showing in the Plate they moved ahead by seven points. Vancouver was really disappointing for Argentina as they finished in the Bowl semi-finals. They've made one Cup final this year and won another Plate but overall the U.S. has been better. If the U.S. can pull off a win in this match it will certainly put them through to the Cup round once again. However, Argentina are a different kind of challenge to most teams and the U.S. will have to be ready.

Australia (5:10 a.m. et/2:10 a.m. pt (Saturday)): In theory the U.S. can do themselves a lot of favors in the standings if they beat Australia to top the pool and possibly knock Australia in the Bowl round if other results go their way. They are 14 points behind Australia in the standings. Australia are a very good side with a lot of solid young players. They are also hot right now. They made two straight finals in Sydney and Vegas and then finished third in Vancouver. It's going to be a tall task but one the Eagles will use to gauge themselves on where they stand for Rio.

The Keys to the Tournament

Player to their Strengths: With Test and Unufe back in the line-up the U.S. will have even more options than they had in Vancouver. Both Test and Unufe open up a lot of space for their teammates if they keep things simple. If the U.S. can make the smart plays they are going to score a lot of tries, even without Isles in the line-up.

Pinkelman and Iosefo: These two players have been massive over the last two rounds as they filled in for absences. Both proved that they are legitimate starters. At the same time opponents will now know more about them and they are going to have to change their game and adapt.

Kicking & Restarts: Folau Niua and Madison Hughes have been excellent in the kicking category lately and the team has done well on restarts. A crucial key to beating Argentina and Australia is maintaining possession. Kicking and controlling the restarts allows them to do just that.

The Takeaway

Think about this: the U.S., along with Fiji, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia, have made the Cup round each stop this year. Every other team below them has slipped up at least once, including Argentina. If there is a tournament set up for the Eagles to slip it's this one with matches against Australia and Argentina. That's teams' 4-6 in the standings. It's going to be a big test to see how the Eagles step up in big moments. It's going to be a struggle but we think they do it once again.

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