SAN FRANCISCO — Five years ago, the U.S. men won one game at the 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens tournament. It was in pool play against the tiny nation of Georgia, and they never advanced to the championship quarterfinal.
What a difference five years makes.
At the 2018 World Cup, the USA Men’s Eagles Sevens finished sixth. The only downside: they lost to Argentina, 7-33, in the 5th/6th-place final.
“As I’ve said to the boys, you’re going to win or lose, but it doesn’t define you,” said head coach Mike Friday. “No one game will ever define you. What you’re doing to grow the game in this country and push the sport forward is the most important thing. We’re in this for the long game, and we’re moving forward game after game, season after season. It’s the best ever finish for Team USA in a World Cup.”
In the gold-medal final, the legendary New Zealand All Blacks beat England, 33-12. The All Blacks were the defending World Cup champions. It was a replay of the 2013 gold-medal World Cup final (except England scored two tries and a conversion this time).
Ranked fourth, England upset No. 1-ranked South Africa in the semifinals. The South Africans beat Fiji, the 2016 Olympic champion, for bronze, 24-19.
To advance to the 5th/6th match, the USA Eagles had one of their best games of the tournament on Sunday morning, dominating Scotland, 28-0, in the semifinal. Team captain and 2016 Olympian Madison Hughes scored two tries and two conversions, with Carlin Isles, Brett Thompson and Olympian Maka Unufe adding one try each.
Hughes was one of the top scorers in the World Cup tournament, scoring 30 points over the weekend.
Coming to their final match, the USA Eagles had confidence. The last time they played Argentina on home soil, they dominated, with a 28-0 win at the USA Sevens in Las Vegas. It was only the second win for the Americans in the 20-year history of the World Rugby Sevens Series.
But almost from kickoff of the 5th/6th final, the U.S. team was not firing on all cylinders, said Hughes. Then halfway into the first half, Perry Baker missed an interception, and the ball passed forward after he touched it. The penalty sent the U.S. team’s top scorer to the “sin bin” — rugby’s version of the penalty box — for two minutes.
“We struggled to get into the game after that,” said Hughes. “It’s disappointing to end the weekend like that. We said coming into today, it’s been a great crowd. We want to have two good performances to show how much the [fans] mean to us.”
Over 100,000 people attended the World Cup over the three-day tournament.
With two years until the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, the USA Eagles believe they are on the right track.
“I think we’ve got the right group, and the coaching staff is excellent,” said Hughes.
What they need to improve is consistency game to game.
“We have performances where we can beat anyone in the world,” added Hughes. “But sevens is about stringing together performances like that, and we haven’t shown we’re capable of doing that on a tournament-by-tournament basis.
“We’re going to have to look at those key areas and figure out why we’re not able to do that every single game. Whether that’s getting all our personnel doing it or as a team, we’re just not coming together in the right way. When we do it, we’re capable of beating anyone.”
Other than the disappointing finish against Argentina, the takeaway from the three-day World Cup was positive for the Americans.
“I’m happy just to be able to play rugby and do it in front of my home team and family and friends,” said Baker. “Overall, we finished the best we ever have, and that shows that we’re growing. That’s what we’re trying to do here in the States is get the game to grow. It’s happening.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.