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US rugby team set to defend Las Vegas title without key player

Updated February 28, 2019 - 4:39 pm

The U.S. team will defend its USA Sevens International Rugby Tournament title this weekend without one of its best players.

Former NFL player Perry Baker has a broken jaw and will miss his third consecutive tournament when the three-day event begins Friday at Sam Boyd Stadium. The final is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Sunday and will be televised on ESPN2.

Baker scored the first try for the United States in its 28-0 victory over Argentina in last year’s championship match, the team’s first tournament victory since 2015. But USA Sevens coach Mike Friday said his club can overcome the loss of Baker.

“We still made both finals without Perry,” Friday said. “That shows we are not relying on one player. We’re developing depth.”

The Eagles have made four straight finals appearances to begin the 2018-19 season, losing in each one. But they have soared to a tie with Fiji for No. 1 in the world rankings; their previous highest ranking was fourth.

“When you get that far, we all want to win,” Friday said. “But I’ll take 10 silvers. If we take 10 silvers, the boys will win the World Series.”

The U.S. opens against Kenya at 4:50 p.m. Friday in Pool B. It then meets Argentina at 7:51 p.m. Friday before concluding pool play at 1:26 p.m. Saturday against France.

Before this season, the U.S. had made four finals in its history, winning in 2015 and last year. The consistent improvement has not been lost on the players.

“When I first came on the team (in 2016), it was the quarters,” Ben Pinkelman said. “We would get to the quarterfinals but couldn’t get by that round. It’s been growing. We’re close to taking that final step.”

Pinkelman, a Colorado native, started playing rugby after his freshman year of high school. He also played football and planned to keep playing through at least high school.

“But that spring, I got bored,” said Pinkelman, who quit playing football after his sophomore season. “After that, I focused on rugby year-round.”

It’s that kind of enthusiasm that excites Friday.

“We’re very pleased with our work to date,” he said. “But we also need a little perspective. Yes, we’ve worked hard. But we can’t forget that we are only halfway through the season. There’s no way we want to lead at the halfway point if we don’t lead at the end.”

The Las Vegas tournament is the only one of the season in the United States, and the Americans hope to capitalize on the home soil advantage again this weekend.

“It gives us a big boost,” Pinkelman said. “We get to stay in our homes for a longer time. It’s more comfortable since we’ve all been to Vegas before. And we love the crowd energy. It’s so loud there.”

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