Back in LA: US looks to maintain rugby momentum in sevens

JOE REEDY
FILE - In this July 21, 2018, file photo, United States' Madison Hughes scores in front of England's Alex Davis during the Rugby Sevens World Cup in San Francisco. The World Rugby Sevens Series and the U.S. Eagles are back in Los Angeles for the first time in 14 years. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

CARSON, Calif. (AP) — The World Rugby Sevens Series and the U.S. Eagles are back in Los Angeles for the first time in 14 years in much different shape.

The last time the tournament was held at Dignity Health Sports Park in 2006, rugby was still trying to gain followers in the United States while the national team was struggling to avoid relegation. The sport has grown in popularity since then and become part of the Olympics. The Eagles have also emerged as one of the world's top teams.

“We've come a long way from one of the teams at the bottom to one of the best in the world,” U.S. coach Mike Friday said.

The sevens tournament returns to Los Angeles after a 10-year run in Las Vegas, where weekend attendance was over 60,000 the last eight years. That's quite an improvement from the first year in 2004, when it drew only 15,800. The tournament also had a three-year stint in San Diego from 2007-09.

While the tournament was popular for fans in Vegas, players and coaches did not like the narrow field and uneven playing surface. Because Dignity Health Sports Park was built primarily as a soccer stadium, it should be a faster track as well as a wider, regulation rugby field.

“It is nice having the wider pitch because it is better for our speed players,” U.S. captain Madison Hughes said.

Hughes said the biggest indication of the sport's popularity is that more kids are coming up to him and saying they took up the sport, whereas most of the players on the current team didn't start playing until they were in college.

Another reason for the move back to Los Angeles is because the complex will be the rugby venue for the 2028 Olympics.

“It is tough when you have to leave an established market but there is huge potential with LA. Since the Olympics were awarded, putting an event here was at the top of World Rugby's list,” USA Rugby CEO Ross Young said. “We certainly think as a sport it is appealing to the public and the Olympic connection gives it resonance. We want to build momentum and peak at the right time.”

It also isn't tough to find rugby on television anymore. The NBC Sports Group aired 221 hours of rugby last year compared to 30 1/2 in 2014. NBCSN is planning over 12 hours for this weekend's tournament.

The Americans are trying to become the first team since South Africa to win its home tournament three straight seasons. They had a breakout season in 2019 with seven top-three finishes in the 10 tournaments, but got off to a slow start this year.

They are tied for sixth in the standings with 47 points but were third in Sydney earlier this month. Hughes is hoping this weekend can serve as a springboard to Olympic preparations. The U.S. is in Pool C this weekend with Australia, Scotland and Samoa.

“At the beginning of the season we had moments where we were unable to capitalize against top teams. We took a step forward in Sydney but have to take a massive step here,” he said.

There are four pools of four teams with the top eight advancing to knockout play on Sunday.

THE RACE TO 200

Americans Perry Baker and Carlin Isles are likely to become the seventh and eighth players in the history of the series to reach 200 tries. Both sit at 199 and have 997 points.

“There’s nothing like getting the ball to either of them in the slightest bit of space," Hughes said. "We’ve got not only one speedster, but two who can do that, and few teams can boast that.”

BIGGER PRIORITY

With the April tournaments in Hong Kong and Singapore being moved to the fall, the LA Sevens leaves just four tournaments until the Olympics. Former Fiji coach Ben Ryan, who works as an adviser for France, said some teams were thinking about resting players this weekend, but that there has been a change of plans due to the altered schedule.

“Most of the teams that are here are at full strength. They are going to be trying different combinations because it is a great dress rehearsal,” he said.

SERIES LEADERS

New Zealand leads with 67 points but is coming off a fifth-place finish in Sydney. The All Blacks are in Pool D with Wales, Spain and England. Captain Tim Mikkelson, who is set to become the most capped New Zealand sevens player this weekend with his 90th tournament, is hoping their position in the knockout round doesn't come down to Saturday's final game against England.

MOMENTUM FOR FIJI?

Defending series champion Fiji captured Sydney for its first top-three finish of the season. It comes into Los Angeles in fifth place in the standings and looking to have better luck in the U.S. compared to last year. They won five tournaments in 2019 but their sixth-place finish in Las Vegas was their worst of the season.

Fiji is in Pool A with Argentina, France and South Korea.

POOL B

South Africa, Canada, Ireland and Canada make up Pool B. The Blitzboks will be the overwhelming favorite in the pool after winning the season-opening tournament in Dubai and second-place finishes in Cape Town and Sydney.

South Africa has won four titles in the U.S., with the last coming in 2017.