The current myth about international 7s is that it’s a young man’s game.
Australia is winning with 18-year-olds, so we all should be.
That’s not quite true. In fact, experience, both empirically and anecdotally, wins. Anecdotally, look at a team like Kenya. When Collins Injera, Victor Oduor, and Humphrey Kayange play for them, Kenya wins. When they don’t suit up, Kenya loses.
Empirically, let’s look at the facts.
In the first two tournaments of this HSBC Sevens World Series season, the teams with the high number of total World Series appearances have done better. It’s not even close, despite the fact we have one startling outlier.
First, the outlier – Fiji won in Gold Coast and finished 5th in Dubai with one of the least-experienced teams on the circuit. Fiji, however, is probably the country with the most robust and competitive domestic 7s circuit, so there’s an explanation there.
Overall, we ranked the 16 teams in Gold Coast by order of finish, and then compared their rank of experience. Then we did the same with Dubai.
Of those 32 teams, 17 had about the same ranking for order of finish and total experience (difference in rankings 0-2).
Further, ten teams had a moderate separation (3-5 difference in rankings).
Only five teams had what you’d call a large separation, and two of those were Fiji (also France and Argentina in Gold Coast, and Portugal in Dubai).
We also compared the split in individual squads. The average team fielded 2.5 World Series debutants in Gold Coast, and 1.75 players with 30 or more World Series appearances.
The teams with two or more experienced players on their squads (there were nine in each tournament) averaged 7th place, while teams with fewer than two experienced players averaged 10th. (Take out Fiji and they drop to 11th.)
The split for teams with three or more debutants versus those with two or fewer is basically the same. Even with Fiji skewing the figures, teams with a larger number of experienced players, and fewer number of new players, fared better.
So that brings us to the USA.
The USA was one of the most inexperienced teams in the first two tournaments, ranking low in total appearances, low in number of experienced players, and high in the number of debutants.
In addition, unlike almost every other team on the circuit, the Eagles went less experienced for Dubai, while most teams held steady or added an experienced player.
This is a specific decision by Head Coach Matt Hawkins. He dropped himself in favor of Andrew Durutalo. He dropped Shalom Suniula. He left Jack Halalilo back home. (He also had a few injuries to deal with.) Instead he has brought in five players who have never been in the World Series before, as well as two players who have not been in the Series for over a year.
Was this the right move? Obviously, if you’re judging from Dubai, where the USA not only lost all five games, but lost them in convincing fashion, then, no. The USA players were out of position, appeared confused, and didn’t rally when things went wrong.
But it is also possible that come the middle of the season, these new players will figure it out and everyone will start playing from the same songsheet.
Right now, that doesn’t look like it will happen soon, especially when you factor in a new captain (the … surprising choice of Nick Edwards) and a new coach (Matt Hawkins).
It seems that the USA team needs an injection of maturity. It’s a move other teams make all the time, and why DJ Forbes remains a starter on the best team in the world, why Phil Mack was called up to the Canadian team, why Collins Injera still has a job, and why Andrew Turnbull still wears Scotland’s thistle.
You can talk about game plan, or whether you start Isles over Edwards, or whether you seek out more contact or blitz on defense … but whatever the plan, it has to be done right and executed even when everything is about to fall apart. Experience and leadership help make that happen.
So if you're going to blood new guys, you have to have experience around them in order to make it go more smoothly. Hawkins has decided to blood a lot of new guys now ... and then Dubai happened.