The U.S. Men's Sevens squad has departed for Fiji to begin its buildup to the USA Sevens, which will take place in Las Vegas on Feb. 13-14.
The preparation includes one day of preparation in Fiji before competing in the Suva Sevens on Jan. 21-23, where the Team will face Super 14 team Western Force, Fiji Army and the Fiji Police in pool play. After the tournament the U.S. squad will stay in Fiji as guest of the Suva Rugby Union. They will train several times with and alongside the Fijian National Sevens Team before heading off to the third IRB Sevens World Series event in Wellington, New Zealand on Feb. 5-6.
"We will narrow down our team from 15 to 12 for the IRB Sevens circuit," U.S. Men's Sevens Coach Al Caravelli said. "Since we are traveling to Fiji with 15 players, I expect the competition for the 12 will be fierce and I've asked these athletes to make my job very difficult in selecting who will go into Wellington and Las Vegas.
"The USA Sevens event is so important to us because we are playing in front of our home crowd - our friends and family. These young men want to do well in front of our fans. The crowd last year was amazing. They really helped propel the U.S. Team to its first Cup semifinal," Caravelli added. "With the pool we are in, we are going to need the help of every fan to push the team just like they did last year. It would be wonderful if we can have an even bigger crowd than Petco Park."
Last year's USA Sevens event, held in San Diego, attracted a crowd of 38,750 and was broadcast on U.S. network television for the first time with an audience of 1.4 million.
The 2010 event, held on Valentines Day weekend in its impressive new home of Las Vegas, promises to set new standards and comes at a time when Rugby Sevens is enjoying unprecedented popularity and interest around the globe following its inclusion into the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
"Although rugby continues to grow steadily in popularity across North America, Olympic inclusion should attract thousands of new fans, participants and cross-over athletes," USA Rugby's CEO Nigel Melville said. "With the largest international rugby event in America taking place in Las Vegas this year, there is no better time or place to showcase what this great sport has to offer."
The first day of competition will include a repeat of last year's USA Sevens final, another meeting between Fiji and South Africa and hosts USA facing rival Canada. The USA Sevens also welcome Chile, Japan and Series newcomers Guyana alongside the core teams, highlighting the universal spread of Rugby Sevens.
In addition to the new teams playing in Las Vegas, the U.S. Team will have a new look as well. Caravelli looks to take a revamped squad of players to Fiji, including Paul Emerick who was released to play by his professional team in Italy, and players returning from injury including Team captain Kevin Swiryn, Mark Bokhoven, Zach Test and Marco Barnard. Both Swiryn and Emerick were key ingredients in the USA Sevens squad that reached the Cup semifinals last year.
Returning from both of the earlier Dubai and George Sevens tournaments in 2009 are Nick Edwards, who scored eight tries thus far this season, Ata Malifa, Shalom Suniula, Matt Hawkins, Leonard Peters, another former NFL player, and Mile Pulu.
"Even though the win-loss record wasn't what we wanted, nor expected, in Dubai and George, we could have just as easily been 2-1 in both pool rounds. We lost four games in the last minute by a combined score nine points, which we attribute to inconsistency, primarily due to a lack of experience," Caravelli said. "We had eight players that had not been to Dubai. Now with two tournaments under their belts and the time in Fiji, we expect to have a breakout performance in Wellington, which will be a great precursor to Vegas."
All the current athletes in the pool have been to prior camps with the exception of Bennie Brazell. In fact, Brazell joins the USA Sevens team with no prior rugby experience, but could be considered one of the best pure athletes on the sevens circuit, if chosen for Wellington.
Brazell played football at Louisiana State University before being drafted in the seventh round (2006) by the Cincinnati Bengals. He was also an All-American track star in college and placed eighth in the 400 meter hurdles at the 2004 Olympic Games. The combination of Olympic level speed and football instinct is just what Caravelli admits to be looking for in cross-over athletes.
"Bennie may not bring rugby experience to the table, but what he brings to this squad is an enormous amount of athleticism and professional attitude," Caravelli added. "He has a lot of big time, big game experience from the Olympics to the Sugar Bowl. Playing in front of 80,000 people does not phase him, it fires him up. One thing I've learned is that speed isn't everything. A track guy can be fast, but can he change direction, slow down and then accelerate quickly? Bennie can do that because of his experience as a wide receiver."
There are an additional two athletes invited along to Fiji who have not been capped yet, but will be putting pressure on the veterans: Nineteen-year-old Dimitri Efthimiou had an impressive showing at the Plata Del Mar Sevens tournament in Argentina with the Belmont Shore team, and Trevor Richards, from the University of Nebraska, has been continuously improving in each assembly. Richards is a versatile athlete who can play prop, hooker and in the center.
"We have a very good mix in the athletes we have at this assembly," Caravelli added. "It is fantastic to have Paul back in the squad and to have him in Fiji as well. He will bring an intensity of take no prisoner attitude which we want and need on this young squad. Kevin is extremely excited to be back and captaining our squad. His enthusiasm and excitement is contagious."
USA Sevens Squad:
Marco Barnard (Kutztown University)
Mark Bokhoven (Denver Barbarians)
Bennie Brazell (Unattached)
Nick Edwards (NYAC)
Dimitri Efthimiou (Mystic River)
Paul Emerick (Overmach Parma)
Matt Hawkins (Belmont Shore)
Ata Malifa (Belmont Shore)
Nese Malifa (Belmont Shore)
Leonard Peters (Aspen)
Mile Pulu (SFGG)
Trevor Richards (University of Nebraska)
Shalom Suniula (Pearl City)
Kevin Swiryn (Old Puget Sound Beach) Captain
Zack Test (Loughborough Students)
U.S. Sevens Staff
Tim Higgins - ATC
Andrew Fautley - Manager & Video Coach
Dave Williams - Strength & Conditioning
Al Caravelli - Head Coach