Martin Iosefo runs with the ball at the Rugby World Cup Sevens on July 21, 2018 in San Francisco.
SAN FRANCISCO — Rugby has its roots in Britain. And England’s squad came to the Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 tournament to drive home this point.
Great Britain - made up primarily of English players but also a couple from Scotland and Wales - won the Olympic silver medal in Rio, and England also finished second at the last World Cup in 2013. On their roster is Dan Norton, all-time try scorer in rugby sevens, and Tom Mitchell, leading scorer during the 2013-14 season and captain of the 2016 Olympic team.
The USA Men’s Eagles Sevens came to San Francisco with some weapons of their own, namely the foot speed of top scorers Carlin Isles and Perry Baker. These two men scored 86 tries between them this season.
But in a physical match, England prevailed, winning the championship quarterfinal against the U.S. in sudden death overtime, 24-19.
“We gave it our all,” said Folau Niua, a 2016 Olympian who scored a try in the second half. “We left everything out there on the field. So to us, I know we lost the game, but we did our best. We play for one another, so I think we did that. It’s just sad we came up short.”
The Americans will now meet No. 8 ranked Scotland in the 5th-8th-place match on Sunday, then will face either Argentina or France in the 5th/6th or 7th/8th match.
Despite the loss, the World Cup tournament has illustrated the USA Eagles growing strength. The team had never finished a World Cup higher than 13th. Now, they will finish no lower than eighth.
They started the quarterfinal match on a fast note, with team captain Madison Hughes running for a try in the first minute of the game, putting the U.S. up 5-0. With the two-point conversion, kicked by Hughes, the Americans were up 7-0.
But England quickly responded with two tries and a conversion.
The U.S. men fought back from 7-12 at the half to tie England 19-19 in regulation time.
In overtime, Mitchell kicked the ball forward for England. Teammate Phil Burgess caught it and ran to the end zone. Game over.
“Credit to them,” said Danny Barrett, who grew up in the Bay Area. “I don’t know about you guys, but that was a [heck] of a cross-field kick to score on to win. It was a ballsy move, and it worked out.”
But the British players in turn credited the Americans. Mitchell, who has played on England’s sevens team since 2012, has seen “massive improvement” in the U.S. squad in recent years.
“There used to be, in sevens, four teams competing for the top,” Mitchell explained. “Now it’s not like that. It’s incredibly competitive play, and USA Sevens are right up there.”It’s not just the Americans’ speed, with Isles and Baker, but their balance, said Mitchell. The team has power and strength in addition to fast footwork.
“They’ve got a bit of everything in their squad,” Mitchell added. “It makes them very difficult to play against. They’ve shown that this season, and we’ve just seen that out there as well. We really feel good to come out on the right side of that result.”
The Americans hand it to their coaches for their improved play. Barrett called out head coach Mike Friday, assistant coaches Chris Brown and Phil Greening, strength and conditioning coach Jon “Hoody” Hood and athletic trainer Brian Green as key to the team’s progress up the rugby sevens rankings.
“When I came down [to the national team] in early 2014, we were lucky to even be on the field, let alone contending in cup quarterfinals,” Barrett said. “We didn’t even have a whisper of ever winning a cup final.”
Now, thanks to the sport attracting sprinters such as Isles (who aimed to compete in track and field at the 2012 Olympic Games) and Baker, they will finish better than they ever have at a World Cup.
“As Americans, we have the athletes,” added Barrett, who took up rugby in high school because he didn’t have the grades to try out for baseball. “We have that pedigree to compete on the world stage. So now it’s about getting the knowledge and understanding of the game.”
And perhaps the USA Eagles will get the cup in another four years. Or contend for an Olympic medal in 2020.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.