Philly Sports Live

US Rugby 7s Face Tough Task in Hong Kong

The United States’ Rugby 7s squad has, over the last several years, managed to claw its way into the sport’s international focus.  This weekend, they will have to fight to stay there.

The International Rugby Board’s (IRB) Sevens World Series makes its way to Asia this week, as the Hong Kong Sevens kick off this Friday morning, followed by the Japan Sevens.  It is the sixth and seventh leg of a nine-tournament, eight month odyssey that is scored like the F1 series and has the speed and intensity to match.  Teams score points depending on how well they do on each leg (22 points for a tournament win, 19 for runner-up, etc).   Up until this year, the IRB named twelve “core” teams, teams that automatically qualify for every leg of the tour, via an ad-hoc process before the season.

For this year’s series, the IRB expanded the number of core teams to fifteen, and introduced a promotion and relegation system to determine next year’s group.  The top 12 teams automatically retain their core status in 2013-14. The bottom three core teams at the end of the series’ penultimate leg in Scotland on May 3th-5th will join four qualifiers and Hong Kong in a Core Team Qualifier during the tour’s final stop in London May 10th-12th.

Sitting in 13th place, the US team, nicknamed the Eagles, is the drop zone.  And time is running out.

The Eagles, however, come to Hong Kong with a bit of momentum.  Their last tournament appearance at the USA Sevens in Las Vegas saw them sneak into the quarterfinals with a thrilling 22-7 win over Spain, also facing possible relegation, in the final group match.   Needing a 14-point win to advance and only leading by eight, it was a last minute try and conversion by Nick Edwards that put the US through.   Though they lost to Fiji in the quarterfinals and ended up finishing tied for seventh out of 16, the points they earned were enough to stay five points behind Scotland for the last automatic core spot.

More importantly, the team got a chance to showcase their talents – and their sport – on a national stage.  The Spain match was broadcast live on NBC, and the nationwide audience got a look at the most electrifying player on the World Sevens Series, Carlin Isles.  Isles, a track star and Division II football player at Ohio’s Ashland University, started playing rugby last year and has turned heads with his blazing speed.  Isles scored the first two tries in the Spain match, both in which his team was down a player due to a yellow card, and the second while a second player was injured and out of the play.

But the task in Hong Kong is going to be rough.  The Eagles are drawn into Group B against New Zealand, France, and Kenya.  New Zealand’s All Blacks have dominated World Sevens since the series inception, winning ten out of a possible thirteen championships.  And with 22 point lead over second place South Africa, Tomasi Cama and his crew look to have #11 just about salted away.  The All Blacks have beat the Eagles in both games this year, 19-7 in Australia and 17-10 at home in Wellington.   France also has a notch in their belt over the US, a 17-14 decision in Dubai back in November.

Anything is possible, however.  No team has won more than one leg this season, with New Zealand’s big lead in the championship coming by way of three runners up to go with their sole win in South Africa.  However, if the US is to secure their place in next year’s core group, qualification to the quarterfinals by finishing in the top two of Group B is almost essential.

Elsewhere in the main draw of the tournament, South Africa, winners in Las Vegas, are joined by Wales, Argentina, and Australia in Group A.  The Wallabies of Australia are also on wobbly ground, currently in 11th place and just seven points ahead of the US.  Samoa, Scotland, England, and Portugal make up Group C, while Fiji, Spain, Canada, and regional wild card Hong Kong complete the field in Group D.

The festivities in Hong Kong will also include twelve teams attempting to qualify for the Core Team Qualifier in London.  The teams are divided into three four-team groups, with the top four getting a chance to play for core sports in May.  Group E has Tonga, Chinese Taipei, Tunisia, and Uruguay, who finished 14th in Vegas as a wild card.  Group F features Japan, Jamaica, Brazil, and Georgia, while Group G contains Russia, Zimbabwe, Mexico, and the Cook Islands.

After this weekend’s tournament, the teams head to Tokyo.  The draw for that tournament will be conducted next week.