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LA 7s Primer: A Glance in the Rear View Mirror

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LA 7s Primer: A Glance in the Rear View Mirror

Fiji likes winning. Mike Lee KLC fotos for World Rugby.

Quick. Look back to the 2018-19 Men’s Sevens World Series season, where Fiji won the Series, and the USA made every Cup semifinal round and finished in second overall; it would be logical to assume that at least one of those two teams would be hunting for a top spot in the standings again a few months later. No?

No. 

The first few stops on the Sevens World Series provide a great reminder that in this sport, there are no certainties. Life on the Series is like a Hollywood film career. One day you’re an A-list actor with a starring role, and the next you’re just lucky to have a bit part. So, as we get set for the kickoff for the LA7s, let’s take a look at which teams started the season ready for the big stage, and which teams have gone completely off the script.

Round 1:  Dubai

Hopes for a new world order were dashed when perennial finalists New Zealand and South Africa faced off for the Cup in Dubai. The game was a validation of the Blitzbokke’s up-tempo style. Watching New Zealand trying to tackle the likes of Justin Geduld, Rosco Specman, and Seabelo Senatla was reminiscent of the scene in the Karate Kid where Mr. Miyagi tries to catch a housefly with chopsticks. South Africa 15, New Zealand, donut.

Notes: Fiji failed to make it out of it’s own pool, which became an unofficial day of mourning back home. Meanwhile the US made the quarterfinals, despite missing the services of Olympians Ben Pinkelman, Martin Iosefo, and Folau Niua.

Round 2:  Cape Town

New Zealand vs South Africa in a Cup Final rematch from Round 1. This game didn’t have the usual sizzle of try-scoring highlights, but it had more tension than a Jordan Peele film. Both teams got within sniffing distance of the tryline, but, alas, a scoreless 1st half. Zeroes on the board for nine minutes, when finally Justin Geduld scored for South Africa. That set the table for the All Black’s Ngarohi McGarvey-Black, who, in the 12th minute, danced through and around three green shirts for the game-winner.

A few scribbles I took down during this game…the bitter taste of Rio still haunts the AB7s…McGarvey-Black is a special player…NZ’s Kurt Baker didn’t get enough hugs as a child…

Notes:  France!  France has never placed better than 7th on the Series table. They are 3rd after two tournaments.

Round 3:  Hamilton

In the next two rounds, World Rugby donned its Vader mask and took aim at the tournament’s quarterfinals from the bridge of the Death Star. Four pool winners went automatically to the semifinals, while three-quarters of the field were left fighting for participation trophies. The move was made to ensure that both men’s and women’s tournaments could be shoehorned into the same weekend at the same venue, but don’t tell that to Canada and Kenya, who finished a rare second place in their pools but were still left out of Cup contention.

New Zealand beat up the French on home soil in the Cup final, earning a second straight celebratory haka. Credit the boys in black, who haven’t looked this dangerous since winning the Rugby World Cup 7s in San Francisco in 2018. Three finals in three tournaments is impressive consistency.

Notes: France! In case you didn’t hear me in the last section, the boys in Bleus are for real. Voila! After three tournaments they are in a tie for second place with South Africa. Meanwhile, Fiji and the USA are in 7th and 8th place. Last year’s #1 and #2 have combined for one semifinal berth in the first three tournaments. Up is down, down is up. It’s 7s!

Round 4: Sydney

Fiji was Sleeping Beauty through the first three tournaments, but they finally shook the spell in Australia. They knocked the Kiwis out of contention in pool play and ensured that, at least for this tournament, nobody from New Zealand would wear the Cup trophy as a codpiece. Fiji looked at times like the team that dominated the Series during the last Olympic cycle, but fans on the island are still nervous. 

South Africa, who stumbled the week before in Hamilton, rebounded well. Fiji scored first in a back-and-forth final. The Blitzbokke, who are usually solid with conversions, needed a two-pointer to tie the game after Zain Davids crossed the line in the 11th minute, but missed. Known for their attacking prowess, Fiji’s defense stiffened at the right time, as they held on to a narrow victory. 

Notes: The USA also looked resurgent as stalwarts Ben Pinkelman and Martin Iosefo returned to form. They bowed to South Africa in the semifinal, but bested England for third place a game later. (P.S. France is still in third.) 

Round 5: Los Angeles

First of all, breathe easy 7s fanatics, LA’s going old school. The quarterfinals are back. It’s two full days of rugby gluttony. So, who are the most likely teams to get a champagne shower at the end of the weekend? Let’s start with the Red, White and Blue. 

The USA are the two-time defending champs on home soil. The crowd, the Eagles’ 8th man, makes a difference. Get on board! You owe it to Danny Barrett. Remember last year when he broke his arm tackling South Africa’s Branco du Preez, then jumped up and made a diving tackle with his one good arm, then brushed aside the team doctor and ran to clean out a Carlin Isles tackler and set up the winning try? He did that for you.

Fiji has won on US soil twice in the last five years. After the last tournament in Sydney, they started looking formidable once again. Incredible attacking flair, and under the posts before you can say “Bula!”

South Africa is as good as ever. How deep is the 7s talent pool in this country? The backs have always been a parade of all-star ankle-breakers, but give the forwards their due.  

Willing to bet against New Zealand? Enough said.

Ones to watch:

You are in Los Angeles, after all. Might as well be looking for the stars. Here are a few to keep your eyes on this weekend.

1. The Perry Baker and Carlin Isles show, USA. Both of these greyhounds are racing to eclipse the 200-try mark. They are both currently on 199. Don’t blink. 

2. Napolioni Bolaca, Fiji. Balance, speed, islander wizardry. It’s all there.

3. Anyone named Davids, SA: There are three of them, no relation. Where did they all come from? Are they like Jones in Wales? Anyway, one is built like a baby elephant, and the others like cheetahs. Approach at your peril.

4. Ngarohi McGarvey-Black, NZ. Getting better as
his confidence grows. Bad news if you’re not wearing black.

Enough chat. Have fun. Go Eagles!

Brian Hightower played on the World Series many moons ago, and is now a rugby analyst for NBC Sports and a freelance writer. He is grateful for the many friends that he’s made through this glorious game.