England’s impressive run halted after draw with Russia
The crowd favourites had been in fine form after beating South Africa but were suddenly struck by stage fight
Fans favourites England topped their group after day two of the Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens but the enigmatic nature of their season was on show in their last game of the day when they were held to a tie against the previously poor Russians.
The game ended 12-12 and, as that scoreline suggests, it could have gone either way. After rolling highly fancied South Africa on Friday night the trouble the Russians provided Simon Amor’s men was unexpected. And the normally deliriously support England have here was muted to say the least.
England came to Hong Kong seventh in the world series standings after bowing out of contention early in the previous events in Las Vegas and Vancouver, but Amor said that was more down to the long-term plans he has with his squad with tryouts for the Great Britain team heading to Rio.
Young players were preferred in those two rounds and more seasoned sevens players such as returning captain Tom Mitchell and Dan Norton, introduced late against the Russians, have obviously helped the English land now they face a Cup quarter-final on Sunday against Australia.
“One of the things we are trying to do with our programme is develop and grow the depth of our squad,” Amor said. “We’ve got to give young guys the opportunity. We’ve got to throw them on to the world series stage so they can develop and they are going to make some mistakes.
“When we get our main guys up and running we’re a good team, but we have to grow that depth and that’s something we’re trying to do here.”
Saturday was a day the pre-tournament favourites shifted through the gears with two wins to Fiji (57-0 over South Korea and 36-10 over Wales) and New Zealand (a nervy 5-0 over Kenya and 28-10 over Samoa) and a return to form for the South Africans after Friday night’s wake-up call.
They trounced Russia 50-0 before a 31-0 result over Scotland secured their place in the quarters – with a match-up against the impressive USA looming. Top gun Seabelo Senatla and newcomer Siviwe Soyizwapi looked to be warming to the task ahead, too.
“Defensively, the system worked for us today,” said coach Neil Powell. “Two games without a try conceded. If we can build on today’s performance we’ll go well. It’s the team that doesn’t make any mistakes that will do well and I think we can be that team.”
Perhaps the happiest man around as darkness fell across the Hong Kong Stadium and the nearly 40,000 started to make their way into the night was USA coach Mike Friday. His side brushed aside the Aussies 22-7 in their last game to leave the group stages undefeated and the form – and more specifically the pace – of Perry Baker out wide augurs well for the business end of the tournament.
The Aussies had looked impressive in a romp over an overmatched Portugal (45-7), but couldn’t deal with the American’s swift passing game. Star billing Nick Cummins watched from the sidelines with an ankle strain, but hopes to enter the fray against England on Sunday.
“We played smartly against an Australian team who have been the form team of the last three circuits,” said USA’s Friday. “So to play like we did with the accuracy but also the nous we showed to control the game and control the ball was impressive from the whole squad.
“Baker came on and did well. We tried some different combinations and they worked. The boys up front – the piano pushers as I call them – did the job. They controlled the breakdown. That was the difference as that’s where Australia have excelled.
“I’ve got great memories here with four titles with England in a row, a semi-final with Kenya and a quarter-final last year with USA.
“We’re there again this year and I am hopeful we can kick on now. You start tomorrow with nothing again so it’s what we do next that matters.”
Super Bowl winner Nate Ebner has so far only been a witness to the American action after being drafted in late to the squad from the 10s competition.
Friend said it was a case of making sure he was fully recovered before he’d get a run out at the stadium – if indeed he does at all.
“He’s still adjusting to sevens rugby and will strip tomorrow,” said Friday. “We’ll see how he feels in the morning. But the most important thing is we look after Nate and introduce him slowly.”
Reigning champs Fiji will face Kenya in the quarters on Sunday and New Zealand face Wales.