Rugby Sevens World Cup: USA going for glory on home soil

For American rugby player Matai Leuta, this year’s birthday won’t be an ordinary one.

The USA star turns 28 the day the Rugby World Cup Sevens kicks off at AT&T Park in San Francisco. The next day, his team plays its first game of the tournament.

But Leuta won’t be complaining.

“What better way to celebrate than to play in my first World Cup match in America?” the 6’3″, 107kg winger tells CNN Sport.

“The fact that I’ll be able to go out there and wear that white jersey and represent the country in front of family and friends on the biggest stage will be more than enough to me. That’s my way of celebrating.”

And some party it could be. The USA men’s side has never come close to winning a Sevens World Cup — the showpiece event of rugby’s shortened, fast-paced format — having finished 13th in the previous four editions.

But playing on home soil after winning a World Series event in Las Vegas earlier this season — the country’s second ever title — means this is the USA’s best opportunity yet.

“Vegas was massive for us,” says Leuta, who scored eight tries last season. “It definitely fuels us to go on to San Francisco with the belief that we can go out and do a job.

“We’re hoping for a bigger crowd than normal, and not just home fans — people from all around the world getting to experience rugby in the US and have them see that the sport is alive and well in America.”

There are thought to be more than 33 million rugby fans in the US — the second-largest proportion globally — and 95,000 tickets have already been sold for the three-day event in San Fran, which will see 24 men’s and 16 women’s teams play 84 games.

The iconic AT&T Park has been adapted to swap baseball for rugby. Three-day tickets are already sold out for what is set to be a record-breaking attendance for a rugby event in the US.

Success from the home team would be the icing on the cake.

“All we have to do is just continually believe in ourselves and what we have in our arsenal as far as our players are concerned and the depth in our team and our squad,” says Leuta.

“Whoever takes to the field, whatever 12 pull on the jersey — they’ll go out there and represent us the right way and we’ll be able to get it done.”

“Arsenal” is the right word when talking about this US team. Amidst its ranks are Carlin Isles and Perry Baker, two of the fastest rugby players on the planet.

Isles, who trialed for the US athletics team ahead of the 2012 Olympics, has clocked close to 10 seconds for the 100 meters. He top-scored in the World Series last season with 49 tries.

Baker, meanwhile, is his country’s all-time highest scorer with 170 tries. Blessed with footwork and speed, he was crowned World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year in 2017.

‘It will definitely be a fight’

There won’t just be one US side going for victory in San Francisco.

Australia and New Zealand are hot favorites to take the women’s title having between them won every World Series tournament last season and contested the Commonwealth Games final, which went the way of the Black Ferns.

But with the home crowd behind them and the tournament staged in a new knock-out format, hopes are high that America’s women can defy the odds.

“Australia and New Zealand are both phenomenal teams but I am very confident in our preparation leading into this World Cup,” forward Joanne Fa’avesi, who will be playing down the road from her native Sacramento, tells CNN.

“All teams will come out pretty hard first game until the last and underdog teams, they have nothing to lose. It will definitely be a fight.

“The new format — it will be a different challenge but I think it will put a bit of edge on our game.”

Jamaica — an underdog’s journey

Sevens is a momentum game, and if a less-fancied team gets confidence early in the tournament, upsets can be commonplace.

Just ask Wales, which arrived at the 2009 World Cup in Dubai as 80-1 outsiders before going on to defeat Argentina in the final.

And while Fiji and South Africa have dominated the men’s game in recent seasons, one-off tournaments have been won by Australia, New Zealand, USA, England, Canada and Scotland.

One such team hoping to spring an upset is Jamaica, the first Caribbean nation ever to qualify for the competition.

After securing World Cup entry via a last-gasp victory over Guyana back in November, the Reggae Crocs have quickly outgrown expectations in a year where the team would have settled for Commonwealth participation.

There are no rugby pitches in Jamaica and the nation’s sevens team is split between those based on the island and those in London; uniting the whole team is a challenge.

“We don’t get together until we arrive at the destination, that’s the same as any tournament we’ve had thus far,” captain Conan Osborne tells CNN.

“We talk about meeting in Jamaica as preparation the week before, coming together in a bit of a camp, but due to funding that’s not been possible … Essentially we’ve got three days to bring two sets of teams together for arguably the biggest sevens competition in the world.”

While Jamaica lost each of its three games at the Commonwealth Games, the Crocs scored tries against Australia, Samoa and England.

“Five years ago it was a pipe dream to go to the Commonwealth Games, and now here we are at the Commonwealth Games and the World Cup,” says Osborne, who has been with the team since 2013.

“After that, the next immediate goal is the Olympic qualifiers, that’s the year after. Everyone associates Jamaica with the Olympics and to get us there is the goal.”

The team has climbed some 60 places in the world rankings over the past four years, tremendous progress for a country with no real rugby heritage.

The Jamaican sevens side has been bolstered by the news that Olympic bronze medal sprinter Warren Weir will turn out for the team at the upcoming Central American and Caribbean Games, something that could help raise the sport’s profile back home.

Rugby, the players feel, is a sport Jamaica can fall in love with.

“We feel it’s a special brand that we have and that we’re riding the wave of Jamaican sport,” Rhodri Adamson, who balances his rugby commitments with his job as a surveyor in London, tells CNN.

“Everyone around the world loves Jamaica, everyone seems to love rugby sevens and we seem to have found some middle ground there.”

The immediate focus, however, is the World Cup, where the Crocs will face France in their first game — a country with a far greater footprint on the rugby-playing map. Win that and people may begin to take notice of Jamaica’s sevens prowess.

“We’re really targeting that and we know that if we turn up we can really take that one,” says Adamson.

“Taking it one game at a time but France is very much a game we circled as a win … the coaches I know are implementing systems where we can break France down and hopefully Friday night, with a win under our belts, we can look to other opposition.”