The USA 7s team camp has been a different one this September.
A new coach, and a passel of new players, has shaken up a group that has gotten to know each other fairly well over the past year.
Matt Hawkins is now a coach, not just a teammate, and that’s been an adjustment for him and the players, as well. In addition, with the loss of Luke Hume and Blaine Scully to overseas opportunities and Colin Hawley to professional opportunities, the squad was drastically reduced going into the 2013-2014 season, meaning Hawkins needed a lot more players to come in to Chula Vista to push for spots.
Right now 22 are in camp, and those are all expected to stay on through the end of the year. Hawkins has spread out the money to make this happen, giving many players small stipends while they try make ends meet with some work, or as they finish their schooling.
The players who return from the 2012-2013 season are: Nate Augspurger, Andrew Durutalo, Nick Edwards, Jack Halalilo, Carlin Isles, Folau Niua, Shalom Suniula, Mike Te’o, Zack Test, and Brett Thompson.
Matt Hawkins himself is also still considered a player.
Maka Unufe was in camp, but has left and is not under contract anymore as he works on some other things.
That’s a shame because Unufe has enormous potential.
Into camp came: Chris Bergquist-Turori (OMBAC), Patrick Blair (Central Washington University), Miles Craigwell (Seattle-OPSB), Tai Enosa (tiger Rugby), Pono Haitsuka (Oregon State University), Ryan Matyas (University of Arizona), Zac Mizell (Arkansas State), Nu’u Punimata (US Army), Stephen Tomasin (San Diego State), Mike Ziegler (Bowling Green State University)
Of these, most are expected. Blair, Haitsuka, Matyas, Tomasin and Ziegler all played well at the Serevi 7s in Glendale. Of those, Matyas probably did himself the most good, showcasing the wide range of skills that made him a favorite of his late coach, Dave Sitton.
Punimata almost single-handedly made Army rugby great, and is fitter and more agile than he was with the Eagles. Bergquist-Turori is a young, raw talent from OMBAC, while Mizell starred for Arkansas State in 7s and 15s.
Then there are the prodigal sons – Craigwell and Enosa have both been in and out of the USA programs. Craigwell basically took the last two springs off from 7s to get minutes with Seattle-OPSB. It was a smart move, as his rugby knowledge has increased and he has become a more dangerous 7s player, also.
Enosa was given some specific work-ons, and has come back stronger and more astute.
So that brings us to the selections. There was a halfback battle between Shalom Suniula and Tai Enosa. Enosa won, but it’s not an all or nothing situation for Suniula. He remains on contract and will likely lead a USA squad to the NACRA 7s in the Cayman Islands and Coral Coast 7s in Fiji, both in November.
“I want to see the Shalom Suniula from a couple of years ago,” Hawkins told RUGBYMag.com, and that was a player who took chances and challenged defenses.
Andrew Durutalo was not chosen, and Hawkins will play in his place, and that’s because Durutalo is still finishing up with his legal problems stemming from an assault charge when he punched then-teammate Nolan Allen during a training session in Seattle in 2012. Durutalo has pled guilty, and is serving his penalty, but it appears not smart to put him on the team, and on a plane out of the country, at the moment.
Bringing Hawkins in as a player was logical given his experience. But there still remained three spots open. And here’s also where Hawkins had to deal with what he lost.
So far he had:
Zack Test, Brett Thompson, Jack Halalilo, and Matt Hawkins in as forwards, with Test and Thompson somewhat able to play center or wing on occasion.
He had Folau Niua and Tai Enosa as the halfbacks.
He had Craigwell and Edwards as wing/center types, and Carlin Isles as a wing.
Craigwell can also play prop, and that brings up an issue – versatility. The USA team lost Colin Hawley this fall, and Hawley was able to play every position save for scrumhalf (and he could probably do that if he was asked). Having a player like that on a 12-man roster is invaluable.
What he needed for this team was a little cover in the forwards, to at least make sure the backs stay backs, some cover in the center, where he had no true centers, and someone who can cover multiple positions.
So in came Patrick Blair, a solid forward who busts his behind and has good ball skills. In came Ryan Matyas, who will play a lot of center, but could also be a first receiver if needed. And in came Tomasin, a young talent who made the All Americans as an 18-year-old, and will fill a Marco Barnard role as a guy who can play a little center, a little halfback, and even a little hooker.
It will take some time for those younger players to get used to it all, but, interestingly, Shalom Suniula, who was officially dropped today, understood.
“There’s always going to be someone pushing to get you off the team,” he said. “I think there’s a lot transitions going on in the squad, and I think it’s tough, but Matt Hawkins is doing it the right way. Sometimes you have to throw some players in at the deep end. It’s a massive gap from domestic competition to international 7s, but the young guys bring a ton of energy to the camp, and they learn quickly. Look at Brett Thompson. He was a new guy having to learn all this stuff, and now he’s a likely starter.”
So this is a forward-heavy team, with only two halfbacks, which is a bit of a departure from the Alex Magleby selection decisions.
This Hawkins team looks to be set to give Isles more minutes, and it will be interesting to see the new and more experienced Miles Craigwell back in an Eagle jersey. Center remains a big question, as the more experienced players who could play there aren’t known for their passing.
But the big, big message is also the most obvious one – anyone can make this team, and anyone can be left out. Hawkins wants competition. Now let’s see what he does with it.