Article by Alex Solomon | Originally published at usarugby.org
LAFAYETTE, Colo. - The club sevens circuit is in full swing across the country, and many of the usual suspects are enjoying continued success of yesteryears as teams eye qualification for the Aug. 13-14 Club 7s National Championships at Dick's Sporting Good Park in Commerce City, Colo.
Several teams find themselves in the thick of their regional qualification processes despite the omission of key players that either participated in the Men's Eagles June test series or Women's Rugby Super Series, are at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., competing for a roster spot on Team USA, or are still busy playing 15s for one of five PRO Rugby North America teams.
Old Blue of New York currently sit atop of the sevens standings table in the Atlantic North despite the unavailability of some of its best players because of their time with both the Eagle XVs and Sevens, as well as PRO Rugby. Nate Augspurger, Harry Higgins, and Luke Hume each earned minutes in the Eagles June test series, and Augspurger immediately returned to southern California to link up with the Sevens teams. James Bird, although not named to the roster for tests against Italy and Russia, did miss valuable time with Old Blue as he trained with the Eagles in June. Another Old Blue standout with Eagle credentials, Ryan Matyas, has been breaking lines for San Diego's PRO squad rather than Old Blue.
"Missing five capped international players from your squad will always leave a bit of a gap on and off the field with the leadership qualities and experience they all bring, especially when trying to instill an elite high performance culture into an amateur club," said Old Blue Sevens Head Coach Dominic Wareing.
Opening the Atlantic North qualifying series with two first-place finishes is proof Old Blue has not been devastated by the loss of their Eagles. In fact, there have been positives from the experience, including room for younger players to get time with Old Blue's top side, as well as a motivational boost from seeing their teammates preform while representing their country.
"We were planning for their absence, and it didn't affect the boys much coming into sevens preseason," explained Wareing. "If anything, seeing the success of their peers at the international level has created a real drive and hunger within the squad."
The return of Bird, Higgins, and Hume to New York City opens the door for the trio to make a push towards Nationals with the club they helped qualify for the 2016 National Semifinals in 15s, but the internationals also know they have to warrant selection just like everyone else.
"I have spoken with all of them, and they know they have to earn a spot on the team - nothing is given at Old Blue," added Wareing.
Men's clubs have not been the only teams affected by Eagle call-ups. The Women's Rugby Super Series supplied the Eagles with three test matches, and many of the players earning caps against Canada, England, and France typically apply their summer rugby within the club sevens setup.
Out west, the Life West Gladiatrix, San Diego Surfers, and Seattle Saracens each finished in the top five of the 2015 Club 7s National Championships, and no doubt have expectations to return to next month's Championship tournament. While none of the three teams have been struggling this summer without veteran players who were in Salt Lake City for the Super Series, they will no doubt welcome back these players with open arms once their bodies have healed after a grueling three-match test series.
Its run to the Division II National Championship in 15s showed Life West has a deep and talented roster, and has looked strong during the early part of the Northern California competition. However, last weekend's defeat to the Berkeley All Blues in the Final of Silicon 7s could have been avoided had the Gladiatrix had Eagles Catherine Benson, Megan Foster, and Jenn Sever at their disposal.
After reaching the Cup Final of the 2015 Club 7s Nationals and coming off of its second consecutive win at the Club 15s Championship event, it is not a slight to a talented Oregon Sports Union side to call the Saracens' recent loss to ORSU in the Final of the Can-Am 7s an upset. But one must wonder how Seattle would have faired had it ran out Ryan Carlyle and Asinate Serevi. Carlyle is training towards a roster spot on the Women's Eagles team that will be heading to Rio later this month, while Serevi earned her first cap playing with the Eagles at the Super Series, and both helped Seattle to a second-place finish at last year's Club Nationals.
Full back Jessica Wooden scored 21 points for American Rugby Pro Training Center during its Championship-winning run at the 2015 Club 7s Nationals. This summer, the National Development Academy has been terrorizing the opposition in the Red River Region, including a clean sweep at its latest qualifying event in Fort Worth, Texas, and Wooden was not there. After being one of the standout players during the 2015 Super Series, Wooden again roamed the back three in this year's international rugby jamboree.
Fellow National Development Academy Scion Rugby Academy has been dealing with the loss of world-class players due to Eagle duty, but to a much greater extent. Eagle veterans and Scion athletes Stacey Bridges, Samantha Pankey, and Kimber Rozier accumulated additional caps at the Super Series, as did fellow Sirens Saskia Morgan and Alycia Washington.
"We definitely missed the intensity, experience, and leadership of our Women's National Team players while they were at the Super Series, but we knew that was a distinct possibility at the start of the season, and tried to prepare and plan our rosters accordingly to fill in for them," said Scion Rugby Academy COO Joanne Liu.
Scion seems to have planned perfectly. The team collected a plus-127 point differential during pool play of this past weekend's Ruggerama 7s before besting Northern Virginia Rugby in the Final of the Mid-Atlantic qualifier, and managed the tournament victory without its five Eagles.
Liu does admit there have been challenges for head coach Toshi Palamo and his staff in regards to building continuity because of players missing training and qualifying tournaments to represent their country, but it has given experienced players like Abby Gustaitis and Maggie Myles the opportunity to step up in the leadership department, and for new athletes such as Niamh Byrne, Sara Parson, and Fumie Reyes to make their own mark within the Scion setup.
Although Scion looked awfully good without its Eagles, the Sirens are still pleased to have some of their best players back training in Washington, DC.
"It's just a pump of energy to have the girls back from some hard-fought games versus international teams, but also they're excited to finally get to play with Scion this summer," Liu said. "Training has a new level of intensity this week because everyone knows they will be challenging each other for spots."
It is not only international fixtures in 15s and training regimens with the Men's and Women's Eagles Sevens testing the depth of many of the best clubs in the country, but PRO Rugby North America, as well. 1823 Rugby, being based out of Columbus, Ohio, saw a few of its players offered PRO contracts by the Ohio Aviators. Still, it has not slowed the Midwest select side thus far. 1823 has won each of its first two qualifying events this summer, but it will be interesting to see if the team can improve upon last year's fourth-place finish at Nationals without standouts Aaron 'Spike' Davis, Allan Hanson, and Taylor Howden.
Three-fifths of the PRO franchises reside in California, so you can bet a few Pacific Rugby Premiership clubs are lacking players they have relied on in past summers to assist in their qualification to Nationals. In San Francisco, Olympic Club has shown well after two Northern California events, but you can imagine how dangerous O-Club would be with the addition of San Francisco Rush steppers Jake Anderson and Michael Haley.
In Southern California, Old Mission Beach Athletic Club is currently on the outside looking in of the Pacific South qualification process. OMBAC would probably like its chances of qualifying a lot more if dangerous playmakers and San Diego Breakers backs Kalei Konrad and Zach Pangelinan were sporting OMBAC's blue and white kit. Belmont Shore, on the other hand, is faring quite well even though game-changing full back Mike Te'o started in the Eagles' 25-0 win over Russia and is one of the first names penned on the Breakers team sheet. The same can be said for Santa Monica, which is on pace to earn a spot to Nationals despite its best ball handler, Harry Bennett, suiting up at fly half for the Sacramento Express.
Perhaps no team has been hit harder than the Denver Barbarians, though. Given the team's recent and historic success, it is no surprise that PRO Rugby's Denver Stampede brought on several Barbarians into its setup, including Logan Collins, Maximo de Achaval, Bobby Impson, and Ata Malifa. That is over half of a starting lineup unavailable for selection in the three-leg Frontier qualification process, and the quartet of Stampede players does not include Olympic hopefuls Martin Iosefo and Ben Pinkelman, both of whom helped Denver reach the Cup Final of the 2015 Club 7s National Championships.
The Aug. 13-14 Club 7s National Championships at Dick's Sporting Good Park will not only be the place for current Eagles and the very best domestic rugby teams to vie for a National Championship, but will also be the stage for the next crop of Eagles and future Olympians to be spotted. Fans of rugby sevens can purchase their tickets to the two-day event just outside Denver through Altitude Tickets.