Alexander Magleby took over as the U.S. sevens rugby coach after last year’s disappointment in Las Vegas, and he slowly has been trying to establish a physical presence.
His effort remains a work in progress, and perhaps one day the strategy will take hold and make the Eagles more of a world power.
He has reason to believe it will work, especially when the Eagles showed noticeable improvement Friday by bouncing back from a 26-7 loss to Australia by nearly upsetting defending USA Sevens champion Samoa, which escaped with a 12-7 victory.
“We have to stick to the pattern, and that’s what we did the second game,” U.S. player Colin Hawley said. “We’ve got to play a little smarter, that’s all.”
U.S. hopes are over for the Cup title, so the Eagles now hope to win the Bowl (ninth place) championship.
They finish pool play against Spain at 2:34 p.m. today at Sam Boyd Stadium, and the Bowl quarterfinals begin at 4:24. The Cup quarters are at 5:52.
More than failing to win at home, which isn’t unusual for the U.S. in this stadium — or UNLV’s football team — the Eagles are in danger of failing to make the top 12 for the season and guarantee them access to all nine stops on the Sevens World Series. They entered this tournament tied with Spain for 14th.
The U.S. feels the urgency to win, making today especially important at about the midway point of the season.
“It’s really important that we collect points,” Magleby said.
The U.S. ended last season 11th, including a loss in the Bowl semifinals in Las Vegas. Al Caravelli, who had been the coach since 2006, resigned shortly after that tournament, and Magleby took over.
Magleby is trying to establish a more physical presence for the Eagles but couldn’t establish such aggressiveness against Australia. The Aussies repeatedly forced turnovers deep in U.S. territory, turning the miscues into a 19-0 halftime lead.
After Australia extended its advantage to 26-0 midway through the second half, the U.S. finally broke through when Blaine Scully’s long kick found a wide-open Carlin Isles, who easily scored the try with 56 seconds left.
U.S. captain Matt Hawkins met with every player between games and apparently got his point across.
“In the meeting, he said in life, in anything, you put your heart and soul in anything, but if you don’t bring your brain along with it, it’s a lot harder than it should be,” Hawley said.
The Eagles showed early against Samoa it would be a different kind of game, even taking a 7-5 lead at halftime on Zach Test’s try. Samoa’s Reupena Levasa’s try 2:11 into the second half proved to be the winning points.
But the Eagles had a chance to steal the victory when Rocco Mauer found himself on a breakaway down the right sideline. With Samoan defenders closing quickly, he tried to kick the ball forward but instead sent it out of bounds to effectively end the game.
The U.S. played better, even throwing a scare into a better team.
“Improvement’s really important,” Magleby said. “That’s what we look for. But at the end of the day, we’re paid to win. We’re here to win, and we’ve got to get better.”
■ NOTE — A crowd of 11,411 attended the first day. That was up from the crowd of 10,323 that attended last year’s first day of the tournament that went on to set attendance records.
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at email@example.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.