The 2013-14 IRB Sevens Series season comes to a close this weekend in London and for the U.S. it provides an opportunity to prove whether or not the program is advancing as quickly as it needs to in order to qualify for Rio in 2016. The Eagles are coming off a terrible 0-5 Glasgow 7s where they lost to bottom teams Spain and Japan. Making that result worse was the fact that the team made the Cup round in both Hong Kong and Tokyo. At this point it’s unclear where the squad is really headed.
The last time an Eagles 7s team only made two or less Cup rounds on a season it got their coach ousted. That may not happen to Matt Hawkins this time but a poor tournament in London could bring changes elsewhere, especially in the player personnel department. Aside from Zack Test and a few other players like Danny Barrett, Madison Hughes, and Brett Thompson, no player has nailed down a permanent role on the team. Time is getting short to get ready for Rio so if player have shown they can’t cut it than a change may be necessary.
All of this isn’t to say that the team heading to London isn’t better than the team that started the season in the Gold Coast. There is no question that players have improved. The issues lies in their improvement compared to other teams on the Series. Alex Magleby used to say that improving was nice but are they improving at the same rate as other teams on the Series? At this point the answer has to be no. Last year the Eagles finished in 11th place with 71 points. This year they are 13th with 38 points. Compare that London 7s pool opponent Canada and you see the difference. Last year Canada finished in 12th with 69 points. This year they are sixth with 82 points. They have made the final four twice this year.
The U.S. can pull their season slightly around if they do well this weekend and they have the potential draw to do it. Canada are playing really well right now and are favorites to win the group but Kenya and Samoa are teams the U.S. has beaten in the recent past. Samoa are on a string of miss three straight Cup quarterfinals and lost to the U.S. in Hong Kong and Tokyo. Kenya have done better but are still a side the U.S. can beat. The U.S. must at least win one game in pool play to save face.
A key part of any success the Eagles see this weekend could be the return of Carlin Isles and Madison Hughes. As anyone who watched the Hong Kong and Tokyo knows, Hughes was a huge part of those teams both with his smarts and his boot. The Eagles desperately missed his playmaking ability in Glasgow and his return will be most welcome. Isles’s return is a bit more controversial. The Eagles actually seemed to play better when he wasn’t in the line-up. How his return impacts the team will be a huge storyline to watch.
As mentioned, if the Eagles don’t have a successful tournament—which at this point means making the Bowl final or the Cup quarterfinals—there has to be changes. The Olympics are too near to go with the status quo. Maybe you give the team one more season but if they haven’t shown they can consistently make the Cup rounds maybe it is time to blow the OTC system up and rely on overseas professionals like Chris Wyles who may want to try and win an Olympic medal.