Silicon Valley Sevens Brings International Sevens Back to California
There is no discussion of the history of rugby in the United States that does not mention the state of California again and again and again. From the large number of Californians who joined team USA to claim Olympic gold in 1920 & 1924 to the dominance of the Golden Bears in the collegiate game, California is as much a part of the American rugby landscape as the post-match social. But formerly the home of the USA Sevens, which is now held annually in Las Vegas, the golden state has not hosted top-tier international sevens competition in almost a decade.
The Silicon Valley Sevens changes that. This November 4th and 5th, twelve of the best rugby nations will venture to Avaya Stadium in San Jose. For the participating core teams on the HSBC Sevens World Series, Silicon Valley will be a perfect warmup for the series. For the non-core teams, the competition will be vitally important for preparation ahead of the World Cup in San Francisco in July. But, make no mistake, there is not a single team taking the pitch in San Jose who is thinking about anything other than leaving in triumph.
The competition is absolutely stacked. The teams combine for 117 of the 156 World Series cup victories, sixteen of eighteen series titles, five of the six World Cup titles, and the last three Olympic gold medals in rugby. Half of the nations to ever claim a World Series cup victory are coming to San Jose. If that is not enough to get excited about, I don’t know what is.
The pools have been set:
|Pool A||Pool B||Pool C|
Fifteen of the twenty-four bids to the 2018 World Cup are set. But nine remain for the taking. Eight of the twelve teams have already booked their spots, but Chile, China, Japan, and Tonga will need to build some momentum ahead of qualification. Japanese rugby has shined on the brightest stages the past two years. In 2015, the fifteens team scored one of the biggest upsets in rugby history by defeating South Africa in the fifteens World Cup. The sevens team followed that up with a win over New Zealand during the 2016 Olympic Games. Not satisfied, Japan added France to its list of vanquished in Rio, before falling in the bronze medal match. A young squad struggled to sustain that success and slipped into relegation from core status on the World Series, a few months ago. There is no doubt that Japan will qualify for the World Cup, but without core-member status, the Japanese will need to take every opportunity to test their mettle against top-tier international competition.
In a similar boat is Chile. Unlike Japan, Chile did not compete in the Olympics and has never been a core nation on the World Series. But do not turn your back on the Chileans. Looking to qualify for their first World Cup since winning the bowl at the 2001 World Cup, they are a team to watch. As the non-core invitee to the 2017 USA Sevens and the 2017 Vancouver Sevens, Chile was an exciting team that showed tremendous rugby knowledge and acumen for a nation thirsty for tier-one competition. Chile finished fifth in the 2015 Pan American games, behind more seasoned sevens teams Canada, Argentina, the United States, and Uruguay. But Chile impressed in the 2017 Sudamérica Rugby Sevens, claiming two bronze medals and finishing third overall. Only a Fijian and Argentine contingent did better. In finishing third, Chile topped Uruguay and developmental squads from the United States and Canada. With two spots still left for South American teams, Chile and Uruguay will likely join Argentina to represent South America at the World Cup.
For Tonga, a proud tradition in fifteens has not always translated to sevens. But if you think Tonga is a pushover, you are sorely mistaken. The Tongans came within one match of claiming the Oceania Olympic Qualifier. Before falling to Australia in the final, Tonga hammered Samoa (41–5). A poor performance in the final qualifying tournament saw Tonga go winless in pool play and finish in the bowl final. Tonga also fell flat at the World Series qualifier in Hong Kong. Like Chile and Japan, you can be certain Tonga will earn a bid to the World Cup. Only once has Tonga been left at home during the World Cup (2001). Tonga has also found moderate success in past World Cups, including winning the 1997 plate title. Even if Tonga is not poised to win the Silicon Valley Sevens, it will be a tough foe in Pool C due to the physical style of Tongan rugby.
And the final team still looking for an invite to San Francisco is China. Although mainland China is not well known for its rugby history, this is not the first time that China has turned its eyes to competition in the United States. In 2003, China was set to join the short-lived Super Powers Cup to be contested alongside the United States, Russia, and Japan. A national health concern compelled China to withdraw and were replaced by Canada for the remaining two years of the competition. Perhaps more than any other team, China will benefit from tasting tier one competition against fellow Pacific nations Fiji, Australia, and Japan. The Chinese have competed in the last two World Cups after missing the first four.
With only two spots still on offer for Asian nations and Japan the unmistakable favorite for one, China will need an edge against the remaining field. The Asian leg of Olympic qualification saw China finish fifth. The most formidable opponent for the second seed will likely be Hong Kong. But whether it is soon or a bit further down the road, the sleeping giant of China is awakening. A monumental investment has seen the sport grow by leaps and bounds on the mainland in recent years and the results are sure to follow.
Of the eight teams with tickets in hand for July, Ireland is the only side that is not a core team on the World Series. A semifinalist in the inaugural World Cup, missing out on the final by a last-second try and conversion against Australia, Ireland has announced its presence in the sevens code over the past two seasons. After beginning the process of Olympic qualification in Division C of Europe, the squad tore through Division C and then Division B unbeaten and unchallenged. A third place in the European repechage led to a bid for the final qualifying tournament. A tough loss to eventual champion Spain in the quarterfinal, after having already beaten the tournament favorite, Samoa, saw Ireland miss out on Rio. But Ireland looks here to stay. Narrowly missing the European Grand Prix crown, which included cup wins in half of the tournaments, Ireland has cemented itself as the favorite to win the series qualifier at the 2018 Hong Kong Sevens. Until then, the Irish are eager to take on all comers.
Despite Ireland’s eagerness to shine and remarkably deep pool of talent, Pool A will prove a monumental challenge. Since the 2016 Paris Sevens, each other team in Pool A has won a World Series tournament. Samoa’s victory in Paris stands as an aberration over recent results, but England has reached four finals and two victories since then, and Canada captured its first cup in Singapore, this past spring and a bronze medal in London. Each pool will be competitive, particularly at the top, but Pool A is a meat grinder. It would be shocking to see Ireland win the Silicon Valley Sevens, but certainly not outside the realm of possibility. But England and Canada should each enter expecting to walk away with the title. In the last tournament, the London Sevens, England and Canada finished second and third, respectively.
Pool B is both the easiest pool to project, but also the one most well primed for massive upsets. Smart money is on Fiji to bounce back from a disappointing 2016–17 campaign after earning the series crown the two prior seasons and bringing first-ever Olympic gold to their homeland. But Australia could certainly top the pool. Australia reached three semifinals last year and finished ahead of Fiji in the final tournament of the year. Then there is Japan. The Japanese were awful on the series last year. But in 2015–16 and the Olympics, Japan played incredibly well. It reached the plate final at the 2016 USA Sevens and, as we mentioned, finished fourth at the Olympics. Japan should not beat Fiji or Australia, but just when you think Japan cannot win, that’s when Japan shines brightest. China is the one team that really should not have a chance, but a time will come when China is ready to shock the world, and there’s no way to be certain that the Silicon Valley Sevens is not that time.
And Pool C will be a doozy. At the top is the ultimate blue blood of rugby: New Zealand. The All Blacks Sevens is the most accomplished side in sevens history. New Zealand has won 55 World Series cup titles. Second on that list is Fiji at 31. New Zealand has won 12 season titles. The other nations to have won series titles, Fiji (3), South Africa (2), and Samoa (1), combine to only half as many. And the All Blacks have won two World Cup titles (2001 & 2013) and are the defending champion. But the once invincible team has not been its usual self the past two years. A missed conversion at the end of USA vs Fiji in the Olympics was the only reason New Zealand made the knockout round. And, for only the third time, New Zealand finished the 2016–17 season without a cup win. But before you shed too many tears for fading New Zealand glory, the All Blacks remain the only team to never miss the quarterfinal and finished fourth last year with three bronze medals.
Pressing New Zealand for the top seed in Pool C is team USA. The Eagles have soared to unprecedented heights under Mike Friday. Prior to Coach Friday, the Americans had only ever reached three semifinals and one final. Since he took over, the United States has won a cup title, been to another final, and been to at least three semifinals in each season. Last year, team USA went to five of the last six semifinals and finished fifth on the season, the nation’s highest mark. And, importantly for Pool C, prior to Coach Friday, the Eagles had never beaten the All Blacks. In 2015–16, the Americans not only beat New Zealand, they posted a winning record (4–3). Last season, the Eagles took a step back against the All Blacks, going 1–3, but have shown the gap is closed.
It has been a while since team USA last faced Tonga, but the two sides have a long history in sevens. They first met on the World Series at the Wellington Sevens in 2002. The Eagles came out 21–14 winners in the bowl quarterfinal. Tonga got revenge the following season in Brisbane (29–10) and added salt into the wound the next year in New Zealand (41–0). In 2005, Tonga sent the Americans packing from their own tournament, the USA Sevens (35–12), and added another defeat at the World Cup (31–10). And the losing streak saw one more go against the Americans at the 2006 Wellington Sevens (19–17). After reaching six consecutive losses with yet another loss in New Zealand (38–7) in 2008, the United States finally got a win (17–14) at the 2009 Australia Sevens. The Americans turned it into a win streak with two wins the following season in New Zealand, then proceeded to add two more the following season. Since then, team USA has added two more wins to sit on a cool seven-match win streak. But the two sides have not faced off since 2013. The United States will be the monumental favorite in this matchup.
Like Tonga, team USA also rarely sees Chile. The Eagles squared off with Chile this past season in Las Vegas and came away with a 31–0 victory that was harder than the score might seem. In 2015 and 2011, the United States added victories over Chile in the PanAm Games (26–7 and 14–7). Prior to that, the teams last met each other on the major international stage at the 2008 USA Sevens, with Chile also losing (40–12). But do not count Chile out. The Chileans are tough competitors, and anything can happen in fourteen minutes with an odd-shaped ball. Chile was a loss to a game Germany away from reaching the final of the series qualifier.
Picking a winner is impossible with this deep of a field. But regardless of who walks away with the hardware, the real winners are the fans and the teams that can gain experience in a competition unprecedented on American soil. The ability to get a jump start on the Sevens World Series is invaluable to many teams, but will hopefully help team USA in a way that the program has desperately needed. In recent years, the Eagles have consistently started the season slowly, only to finish remarkably strongly. Above all other teams that will benefit, the United States should be most well primed to build on a strong showing in San Jose to make a push for excellence.