The FIFA World Cup isn’t the only major quadrennial World Cup being held this year. Those with World Cup fever can turn their attention to the Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 this weekend on home turf in San Francisco.
Team USA should feature prominently in this World Cup. Seeded fifth, the women will compete for their third consecutive World Cup medal. They finished third at the 2009 and 2013 World Cups. At rugby’s Olympic debut in 2016, the American women finished fifth.
Top seeds are reigning Olympic champion Australia (seeded No. 1) and the 2013 World Cup Sevens champion New Zealand (No. 2).
Although the U.S. men have never finished higher than 13th in a rugby sevens World Cup, they have improved markedly and are seeded fifth this year after winning the Las Vegas Sevens in March. They will face stiff competition from Fiji, the reigning Olympic champion and No. 2 seed, the defending World Cup champion All Blacks from New Zealand (seeded No. 3) and the top seed, South Africa.
Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 is the seventh edition of this tournament and first to be hosted in the U.S. It debuted in 1993 and was held every four years until 2013. With rugby sevens’ inclusion in the Olympic Games in 2016, the World Cup tournament was moved to the middle of the Olympic quadrennial. It will continue on a four-year cycle.
For the first time, the World Cup will not start with pool play. Every game is a must-win if teams want to advance.
NBC will provide more than 30 hours of live World Cup coverage – the most ever U.S. coverage – across NBC, NBCSN, Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA, NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports app and NBC Sports Gold.
Who Should I Watch On The U.S. Men’s Team?
The last time the USA Men’s Eagles Sevens team played an international tournament on home soil, they won. It was the 2018 USA Sevens tournament held in Las Vegas in March — part of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series — and the U.S. men shut out Argentina 28-0. In the 20-year history of the World Rugby Sevens Series, it was only the second win for the U.S. men.
The U.S. men’s team comes to San Francisco with its highest World Cup seeding ever (fifth). The 12-man squad features eight 2016 Olympians who competed in Rio, including two of the fastest men in rugby: Carlin Isles and Perry Baker.
A former football player and All-American sprinter in college, Isles, 28, led scoring at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, and he also was the top scorer in the latest 10-stop HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, tallying 49 tries (five more than his closest competitor). Isles is back for his second World Cup.
Baker — the first American ever to receive World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year Award in 2017 — scored 37 tries this season. After playing with the Arena Football League’s Pittsburgh Power, 32-year-old Baker picked up rugby just four years ago.
The San Francisco World Cup is a homecoming for Rio Olympian Danny Barrett, 28. He grew up in the Bay Area and played rugby for the University of California-Berkeley Bears, as well as for San Francisco Golden Gate. Barrett also played for the USA Eagles at the 2015 Rugby World Cup (15s).
Olympian Madison Hughes captains the team.
“We have a good balance of pace, power, and physicality to add to the positional flexibility in the squad,” said head coach Mike Friday. “If we are fizzing, confident and on point come match day, we will be contenders in this unforgiving format.
Martin Iosefo, Folau Niua, Ben Pinkelman and Maka Unufe round out the group of Olympians. They are joined by 2015 World Cup (rugby 15s) player Brett Thompson, plus Matai Leuta, Stephen Tomasin and Kevon Williams.
Who Should I Watch On The U.S. Women’s Team?
The U.S. women began the 2017-18 HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series by winning the silver medal at the Dubai Sevens. Three tournaments later, in Langford, British Columbia, they added a bronze medal. It’s the first time that they have finished on the podium twice in one season.
The 12-woman World Cup team features three Olympians — Ryan Carlyle, Lauren Doyle and Joanne Fa’avesi. Missing is top scorer Alev Kelter, who scored five tries en route to Team USA’s fifth-place finish in rugby sevens’ Olympic debut in Rio. Kelter, who scored 18 tries this season and was initially named to the World Cup squad, is still recovering from an injury she sustained during the women’s sevens series.
But the USA Eagles won’t be lacking for scorers at the World Cup. A veteran of the 2017 World Cup (15s) team, Naya Tapper was the high scorer for the U.S. this year with 26 tries. The 23-year-old took up rugby while at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Other big scorers on the team include captain Nicole Heavirland and Carlyle, who both scored seven tries in this past world sevens series. Heavirland, 23, attended West Point, where she transitioned from basketball to rugby in the spring of 2015. She made her USA Rugby debut during the 2015-16 World Rugby sevens series and was named a reserve player for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team.
Carlyle, 28, was a multisport athlete in high school and former body builder who made her international rugby debut in 2011. She is the only member of the 2018 squad who competed for bronze at the 2013 rugby sevens World Cup.
In her first major international tournament, Ilona Maher, 21, is called an “impressive new face” by USA Rugby. From Burlington, Vermont, Maher made her USA Rugby debut in May 2018 at the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series’ final stop in Paris, where she scored two tries. Maher took up rugby at Quinnipiac College and received the MA Sorenson Award as the top collegiate rugby player in 2017.
The U.S. women’s team also includes 2017 World Cup (15s) players Cheta Emba, Jordan Gray, Abby Gustaitis, Kris Thomas and Kate Zackary, plus Kelsi Stockert, who replaces Kelter.
How Does The Tournament Work?
The men’s World Cup features 24 teams competing in knockout games. Teams have to win each 14-minute match (two seven-minute halves with one minute between) in order to advance to the championship round.
For the men, the 16 lowest-ranked teams will compete in pre-round matches. The eight winners advance to play the top-eight ranked teams in the round of 16 on Friday.
The U.S. men compete on Friday evening against the winner of the Wales vs. Zimbabwe pre-round of 16 match. Ranked 13th this year, Wales won the 2009 World Cup title but did not advance from the quarterfinals in 2013. Neither Zimbabwe nor the U.S. qualified for the championship final in 2013.
Quarterfinals will be held on Saturday, with semifinals and the gold and bronze finals scheduled for Sunday.
The women’s tournament has 16 teams, with the American women competing against unseeded China on Friday afternoon. If the U.S. wins, it will face either Russia or South Africa in the quarterfinals on Friday evening. This season, Russia is ranked fourth, South Africa 11th.
For the women, semifinals and finals will be held on Saturday.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.