The Eagles head into the Wellington 7s in eighth place in the World Series standings. It's not where they wanted to be after two tournaments, but it's fitting given their Challenge Trophy win in Dubai and making the Cup quarterfinals in Cape Town. In many ways we are still trying to figure out who this Eagles team is. Some players from the Olympics have moved on and others have taken their place. The Olympic team developed an identity and this team needs to do the same. That means that not only veterans need to step up and play big, but also newcomers to the team as well.
A lot has been made about the off-the-field challenges the team is facing. A budget crunch has meant fewer training camp attendees, and the team wasn't able to send a 13th player to Wellington. The Olympic Training Center has also changed hands. Even if there is still some continuity to the team, there still seems to be a struggle as they move on from the Olympics and deal with the changes. Wellington and Sydney should be about defining themselves as a team and as individual players. If they emerge from Oceania with confidence heading into Vegas, then the tournament will be a success.
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The Eagles had to make a couple of changes due to injury, with a knee injury keeping Kevon Williams out and putting Connor Wallace-Sims in. Brett Thompson was injured after arriving in New Zealand, and due to budget constraints at U.S.A. Rugby, the team didn't fly a 13th player to Wellington. As a result local player Pago Haini has been drafted into the team. Not much is known about him other than he plays for Marist St. Pats. Maybe he's a diamond in the rough, but at this point who knows.
The rest of the team offers a veteran presence. Carlin Isles returns from injury and will be able to partner up well with Perry Baker. When those two are both on the roster, the Eagles have a one-two punch of speed that is very difficult to match for other teams. If Williams had been healthy, it would have given them three speedy players.
Other veterans back include Danny Barrett, Andrew Durutalo, Folau Niua, Madison Hughes, and Martin Iosefo. Those five players, along with Isles and Baker, are going to be asked to carry much of the load in Wellington. Matai Leuta, Don Pati, and Steve Tomasin have been around the team before, and at this point they need to make an impact. Wallace-Sims and Haini could surprise, and especially Wallace-Sims who has been outstanding for the Northeast Academy.
Squad: Carlin Isles, Matai Leuta, Danny Barrett, Pago Haini, Don Pati, Andrew Durutalo, Folau Niua, Connor Wallace-Sims, Steve Tomasin, Madison Hughes, Perry Baker, Martin Iosefo
France (7:18 p.m. et/4:18 p.m. pt): Like the Eagles, the French have had mixed results this season. They made the quarterfinals in Dubai, but then missed them in Cape Town. We've always felt that the French are one of the most enigmatic teams the Eagles face. There are many things the French do well that the Eagles have a difficult time handling and vice versa. These two teams always seem to trade wins, but at this point the Eagles should be beating France regularly if they want to be seen as elite.
Samoa (10:42 p.m. et/7:42 p.m. pt): Samoa have missed out on the top eight both in Dubai and Cape Town, finishing third in each tournament. With Gordon Tietjens at the helm they are expected to rebound to their Series winning form, but it's going to take awhile. When the Eagles met Samoa in the Challenge Trophy final in Dubai, the Eagles won 28-14. There are not going to be any easy matches in this pool, and even if the Eagles beat France, Samoa is no easy task.
New Zealand (3:02 a.m. et/12:02 a.m. pt): If you look back at last year's results, the Eagles have actually had some success against the All Blacks. However, playing a team at home is always difficult, and you can bet New Zealand will be fired up. They still have a veteran team that knows how to win matches in the clutch. Bottom line, if the Eagles want to make the quarterfinals, they will likely need two wins before they face New Zealand.
The Keys to the Tournament
Confidence: As we've seen in previous tournaments, the Eagles need to play with confidence. Who can forget Danny Barrett bobbing his head to the music at the final of the London 7s two seasons ago? That's the type of confidence the Eagles need to regain. In Dubai and Cape Town they still seemed somewhat traumatized by their Olympic experience and came out of the gate slowly at times. If they want to have any success in Wellington, they can't let that happen.
Strong Starts: As mentioned, the Eagles need to start out strong. They are a good team when leading, not so much when playing catch-up. For sure they have had their share of famous come from behind wins, but it's much easier to find Perry Baker and Carlin Isles space if the other team has to push.
Kicking: It's something we talk about every tournament, but it's so key for 7s, not only in making conversions but on restarts. It's all about possession and chalking up the points. If the Eagles can keep possession through restarts, they'll win. If they can make conversions, they'll win.
For us it's all about how the Eagles start. If they start out strong against France, we see them making the top eight. If they struggle, it's hard to see them beating both Samoa and New Zealand for a spot in the quarterfinals. The tough pool could mean that one win is enough, but it's really all about starting strong. Like we mentioned above, starting strong helps lead to confidence, and as the Eagles begin the push in the heart of their season they'll need it.