The USA 7s team is going through a series of three-a-days this week to get used to the demands of the Pan-Am games October 29-30.
Not lost on the players is the importance of this tournament. It is the first venture for American rugby into the chilly waters of the Olympics. And this could be a crucial first step. Coming away with a medal is basically expected, but won’t be a walkover.
Coming away with a gold medal is distinctly possible, but means the Eagles will have to get by Canada and Argentina.
Head Coach Al Caravelli is very aware that no game can be overlooked. Brazil has been working and training hard, and is a very physical squad. Chile has been training in South Africa and looks strong. Uruguay, Mexico and Guyana all have IRB World Series experience.
“What we have discussed is all the things we’ve been discussing as a team,” Caravelli told RUGBYMag.com. “Control the ball, be organized on defense and make our tackles, and be strong in the set pieces. We need to play to our game plan, not get emotional, and treat every single game as if it’s the Gold Medal Game.”
Caravelli has an involved team-building process, and said all the players in camp have embraced his way of doing things wholeheartedly. Without Matt Hawkins (injured) and veteran leadership such as Pate Tuilevuka (not eligible for Olympic competition), the USA has to look to others to lead the forwards. Caravelli will ask more of Mark Bokhoven, Nu’u Punimata and Zack Test, as a result.
“I have had to do minimal work on team-building,” said Caravelli. “The veterans have really stepped up, and the guys have really fallen in step.”
So who will be on the Pan-Am team? Caravelli will name the squad October 21, at which point the six players not picked will be sent home, and the remaining 12 will continue to train through to October 24, at which point they will fly to Mexico and take up residence in the Athletes Village.
Here are the players:
Mark Bokhoven (Denver Barbarians). Back from injury and looking very fit, Bokhoven has said he will run the ball with more confidence now, and if he combines that with greater dependability on defense, he could dominate games.
Justin Boyd (Belmont Shore). Basically a wing specialist, his understanding of what Caravelli wants in his type of player helps him enormously.
Miles Craigwell (Old Puget Sound Beach). Is at a crossroads. He has pace and power and could transition to a forward who is a danger out wide.
Andrew Durutalo (Old Puget Sound Beach). A wild card. A candidate for the Fijian national team, this USA-born forward is physically imposing but trained in the wide-open Fijian style.
Paul Emerick (Life University). The best back at the Rugby World Cup for the USA. He will bring everything he can playing either at center or prop … if he can stay healthy after a grueling past few months.
Colin Hawley (Olympic Club). Not used much in New Zealand, Hawley seems more at ease playing 7s for the Eagles. He has played flyhalf, center and wing, as well as prop and hooker. That versatility will make him an even better candidate.
Duncan Kelm (Belmont Shore). Can play in the forwards and backs. Has a lot of work to do to break into this group.
Rocco Mauer (Chicago Lions). Has been close to the national team right now. Injuries might open the door for him, as does his pace.
Folau Niua (San Francisco Golden Gate). Has been playing superbly this summer and fall. He is left-footed, so he can throw in a wrinkle as a restart kicker. Can play scrumhalf and flyhalf, and is super quick.
Don Pati (University of Utah). In 7s, Pati is less a pure scrumhalf as he is just an overall attacking threat. He can sidestep, pass, defend. He is powerfully built. His versatility again is good for his chances.
Nu'u Punimata (Old Puget Sound Beach). Could potentially be the lynchpin in the forwards. Not tall like Bokhoven, Hawley or Test, he is strong, deceptively quick, and very physical.
Milemoti Pulu (San Francisco Golden Gate). Was at one point the best 7s player on the USA team. Tumult regarding his availability meant he didn’t build on that momentum. What would be wonderful would be to install him at center and leave him alone.
Blaine Scully (Unattached). One of a group who played in the Rugby World Cup, and as a result you wonder about the conversion from 15s to 7s, not to mention the potential for injury. Has outstanding open field skills and can also play as a 7s forward.
Roland Suniula (Boston). Like Pulu, could do well to simply slot in as center for the 7s team and that’s it.
Shalom Suniula (Belmont Shore). Looks set to be either scrumhalf or flyhalf; either way he’ll be on the field.
Zack Test (At Large). Can play prop, hooker or wing, and on the restart, if he’s on with his timing with the kickers, is as good as anyone in the world at nabbing restart kicks out of the air, and can often just waltz in for a try. That skill is highly valuable.
Peter Tiberio (University of Arizona). Very quick, smart, and versatile. He will be in a battle with Shalom Suniula, Don Pati and Niua Folau for the scrumhalf position.
Maka Unufe (Utah Warriors). A still raw but astounding talent. Deceptively fast, audacious, and good ball skills. Very young, and to put him in the high-pressure venue of the Pan-Am Games might be a risk. But, then again, you never know. If you put him on the squad as an impact sub, he could destroy teams late.
But think on this that Caravelli said Monday:
“We will take no experiments,” he said. “We have really great depth at this camp, and I will be selecting 12 players who can start at any time. I know out of this group I can get 12 players I am very, very comfortable with.”