Saturday, April 17, 2010

Believe you belong'...strides for US Rugby Sevens

The 2009/10 rugby sevens season is in full swing, and one of the biggest stories of the year has to the vast improvement shown by US Sevens team. There is no doubt the Eagles have made major strides this season, and the entire sevens world is on notice. One person who is watching is Dallen Stanford, longtime writer for our favorite rugby sevens site has some commentary on the improving Eagles. Check it out.

The USA have emerged as one of the most improved team’s of the season making history during the last two IRB Sevens World Series tournaments in Adelaide and Hong Kong.

Most successful US side yet

Al Caravelli’s men have enjoyed occasional victories over the top sevens teams in the world, having reached a handful of quarter-finals and a semi-final in recent years. But it took a special performance from the Americans in the Adelaide IRB Sevens tournament that saw them make their first ever Cup final.

“One of our keys to success has been continuity. Last season we used 35 players on the circuit through the 8 tournaments. So far we have only used 21 players with two tournaments remaining” - Caravelli told

Since head coach Caravelli officially took the reigns in the 2006/2007 season he has taken the USA side from Shield to Cup contenders in only a matter of years.

As we know there is no full-time professional rugby in the USA yet, which means Caravelli’s squad members either train on their own or play overseas inbetween tournaments.

Several of the regular sevens players have not been released this season from overseas clubs with Caravelli being forced to look at home for his next batch of stars.

Talent Identification

The key for the USA is continued talent identification - which includes getting players to start playing rugby at an earlier age.

When I spoke to Caravelli he was travelling from Denver to Dallas, and had just been in Chicago for this purpose. He reminds one of George Clooney in ‘Up in the Air’ traveling more than 365 days a year!

“It is both talent identification, and Kyle (Caravelli’s son) is getting a start for Cal against UCLA, so I get to see him play” added the USA 7s head coach.

I was recently was asked to announce/commentate a few of the Westlake High School matches in Austin Texas. The level of play has been outstanding with several players destined for higher honours if they continue with rugby. Other programs are seeing great success with the Austin Area High School (AAHS) drawing players from several different high schools.

As we know the athletes that will take part in the 2016 Olympic Games could be anyone of these young players…

The cross-over athlete has already produced dividents for Caravelli with Leonard Peters the most successful transition player to date. A few other players have tried to take to rugby with limited results. Sprinter and NFL player Bennie Brazell scored an excellent try in his few minutes on the field during the Las Vegas IRB Sevens but he has returned to Football. Expect many more talented individuals to emerge from this bracket.

Targeting England

The Adelaide tournament showed that the USA can produce consistent sevens over a three-day tournament. The win against England was phenomenal, as was the Wales encounter.

“We had targeted England in Adelaide. In our previous three outings against them we had given them 52 turnovers. My message to the team was to keep ball possession, be hard on defense, and eliminate penalties. Everyone knew their role which was vital” - said Caravelli.

He continued “I knew we had beaten England when at the end of the first half we got a penalty in our 22.

Instead of kicking for touch and being happy with a half time lead, we played patient sevens and scored a vital try. Five English players were laying on the ground, and we now had the belief that we could beat anyone”.

Rarely have America pulled away from Argentina in a match - especially with this one in the Cup semi-final. Samoa has been unbelievable this year, and well deserved titles in Australia and Hong Kong. The other most improved team has been Australia who find themselves in 4th position on the IRB points table.

Adelaide IRB Sevens:
USA 24 England 21
USA 0 Australia 36
USA 29 Niue 7
USA 12 Wales 10
USA 28 Argentina 12
USA 10 Samoa 38

In the famous Hong Kong sevens the United States overcame a tough Portugal side, with captain Kevin Swiryn finishing off 5 superb tries against Thailand to ensure a Cup quarter-final spot by the narrowest of margins! Argentina’s points difference was 42, with the USA one point ahead at 43.

Even though the USA fell to Australia and Samoa - these matches were better contested and certainly not one-way traffic. Fiji has traditionally been a tough contest with the pacific islands out-scoring the Americans.

Hong Kong IRB Sevens:
USA 17 Portugal 10
USA 62 Thailand 0
USA 12 Fiji 38
USA 7 Samoa 24
USA 12 Australia 21

Looking ahead

With only two tournaments remaining the USA lie in 9th position (32 points) on the World Series points table. A top 10 finish would be excellent, but even better would be finishing in 8th ahead of Argentina, who currently have 38 points.

It seems like the USA have been slow starters in the IRB Series.

“We unfortunately don’t have the tune-up tournaments like Singapore or the Gold Coast before Dubai kicks off” remarked Caravelli.

“It all comes down to finances, and I have been told USA Rugby is putting this into the RWC for 2011”.

Players stolen by 15s program?

The sevens program has either improved current American rugby players, or unearthed them to the 15s coaches. This is especially an area of concern I feel as there are only a small number of experienced rugby players in the States. With the Churchill Cup approaching in June, it will remain to be seen if Caravelli has access to his full squad.

Of course this problem will be at its worst with the 2011 Rugby World Cup almost here. The 2010/2011 IRB World Sevens Series will see many new players making their debut - especially in countries like the USA where it is common for players to play both 7s and 15s for their country.

This won’t happen in larger rugby playing nations as the players are more specialized. In South Africa for example we know that coach Paul Treu has contracted his squad for the entire season just for sevens. Occassionally a player may be called up for 15 man duty (like Stormers fullback/wing Gio Aplon and Cheetahs center Robert Ebersohn).

The USA will assemble on May 8th at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Chula Vista, San Diego ahead of the England and Scotland tournaments. Due to rugby being included in the 2016 Olympics the training squad of around 18 players will be fortunate enough to stay on-site at the OTC.

“Believe you belong” was the phrase Caravelli finished off our conversation.

Former Sevens stars… Where are they now?

Chris Wyles (Saracens - England) scored a brilliant try for his side in their 30-19 win over the Sale Sharks this weekend.

Takudzwa Ngwenya (Biarritz - France) produced the moment of the year by running in an 80 meter solo effort - which included beating Shane Williams - giving his team a nail biting 29-28 victory over the Ospreys.

Todd Clever (Lions - South Africa) The first American player to play in the Super 14 competition - has enjoyed a massive season for the Lions starting at 8th man for most of the year.

My next article will look at the USA Collegiate Sevens Championship, interviewing tournament director Dan Lyle.


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