The USA is into the top eight at the Hamilton 7s in New Zealand after a 3-0 Day One, but it’s a silver cloud with a dark lining, as the Eagles have lost superstar Perry Baker to injury.
South Africa, Fiji, and New Zealand join the USA as pool winners, while resurgent Canada, Samoa, Australia, and Scotland round out the top eight.
The USA played some inspired rugby, especially on defense, with Stephen Tomasin and Ben Pinkelman leading an effort that held opponents Tonga, Samoa, and England to 28 points. However all of that was tinged with the news that in the opening match against Tonga, Baker took a head-to-head shot, and broke his jaw.
The two-time World Rugby 7s Player of the Year collapsed to the ground and was eventually helped off the field, on to a hospital, with the plan to send him back home to the USA for treatment. Pat Blair replaced Baker on the squad of 12, but you could see in the faces of the Eagle team for the rest of the day a grim anger - one of their own was needlessly taken out of the tournament, the next tournament, and possibly the entire season.
The response from he Eagles was to ramp up their play. Carlin Isles was put in to take up more minutes on the wing and he responded, scoring three tries against Samoa - a game in which he could have had more had other backs opted to pass to him - and a crucial score against England to seal the deal.
USA 29 Tonga 7
Folau Niua started the tournament with the kickoff against Tonga, and as a result tied Zack Test for most World Series appearances by a USA player. Seconds later Niua sold a dummy and galloped through a hole to score the USA’s opening try.
Tonga replied, but then some superb interplay from the Eagles led to Isles picking up from the halfback position and sniping over. Niua set up Tomasin with a wide kick, and then a perfect miss pass set up Tomasin again. Maceo Brown burst through the middle to make it 29-7 over Tonga.
USA 31 Samoa 14
Samoa started the game with a try and ended the game with a try, but in the middle the Eagles sent Brown and Martin Iosefo up the gut and Danny Barrett and Pinkelman enforced at the breakdown, opening tiny spaces for Isles to race through. Iosefo and Madison Hughes also scored as the USA rolled.
USA 19 England 7
The third game smacked of desperation as England went into the game knowing Samoa was 2-1, and thus the English needed to win to make the quarterfinals. The game itself was a bit wild, very physical, and marked by a bit of a Wild West attitude in the breakdown.
The Eagles scored right off the kickoff. England’s kick wasn’t ten meters, and from the ensuing free kick, Hughes cut through the score from 50 meters out. His conversion attempt hit the post, and that was it for the first half. Both teams had scoring opportunities. Dan Norton hauled in Isles on one break, Tomasin made a superb cover tackle and poach on the other end. The half ended with the USA knocking on the door, and ultimately knocking on.
But in the second half, the tries came. Some strong defense from Hughes and Barrett led to a turnover and no one seemed to mark Tomasin, who just put his head down and took off for 70 meters. Norton capped off some good work from England to make it 12-7, but then Isles toasted his defender in classic fashion and that was the game.
England stayed in it partly because they were allowed to crawl over the ball after being tackled, but the USA players held off, were patient, and made their tackles.
So it was a defensive win on Day One in New Zealand, and that suited the USA players just fine. They were clearly angry at what had happened to Baker, and took it out on the opposition. Now at 3-0, the USA takes on Scotland in the quarterfinals and the either New Zealand or Australia after that.
Cup Quarterfinal Matchups:
Fiji vs Canada
South Africa vs Samoa
New Zealand vs Australia
USA vs Scotland