GLASGOW, Scotland – Only two stops remain on the 2013-14 IRB HSBC Sevens World Series circuit for Matt Hawkins’ Men’s Eagles Sevens. At this point last year, the Eagles were fighting relegation.
This year, the Eagles are 13th in the Series standings above Portugal and Spain heading into Emirates Airline Glasgow Sevens with 37 points. The team has improved as the season has progressed, gaining 15 points through the first five tournaments and 24 in the most recent two in Tokyo and Hong Kong.
The team has also seen a number of changes since the end of last year’s Series and the IRB Rugby World Cup Sevens 2013 in Moscow, Russia, not least of all Hawkins’ hire as head coach. Hawkins coached and played at Gold Coast Sevens, the first round of the Series, before blooding new players at each of the following stops.
Madison Hughes, who is not with the team in Glasgow, scored 76 points in his short time with the Eagles, while Oregon State’s Pono Haitsuka, 22, has proved to be an impact player on the circuit, showing his speed and playmaking ability since his debut at Emirates Dubai Rugby Sevens.
Other new players with the squad, which is chosen from the 28 available players in residency at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., include Danny Barrett, Pat Blair, Ryan Matyas and Stephen Tomasin.
With a different team makeup from the coaching staff down, Hawkins had always expected success to take some time.
“We’ve approached the whole season and our program very differently,” he said. “At the end of the day, we didn’t know how quickly or how long it was going to take for everything to start progressing the way we wanted it to progress.
“I took over September 1. For the guys, it was a change in the coaching staff, someone who was pretty close to some of the guys. So they had to manage that. The first tournament, I was still playing at that point. From there, I was sort of withdrawing myself. We brought in some of the youngsters to fill out the squad the way we wanted to. We had a lot of youngsters that were essentially taking the field for the first time. Then we slowly progressed. That was always the plan.”
Despite their age and lack of experience on the circuit, the younger players have risen to the occasion, taking on responsibilities some teams may reserve for their senior players.
“From my perspective, a lot of our younger players are really good leaders themselves and I think they take on a lot and take a lot of ownership for the team,” Hawkins said. “That’s been a fantastic thing for me as a coach to see. We’ve got a bunch of really young leaders and it’s been fantastic to see them come into that and watch them grow and evolve.”
The Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games loom on the horizon, though the Eagles will not have the opportunity to qualify until next season. With younger players complementing a core group that includes Andrew Durutalo, Nick Edwards, Zack Test, and Brett Thompson, the future looks bright for the Eagles.
Test, who was named to three Series Dream Teams in Tokyo, Glasgow, and London last year, was selected to each Dream Team in Tokyo and Hong Kong in March. The Eagles’ Glasgow Sevens captain recorded nine tries in 11 matches in Tokyo and Hong Kong, but provided more than points on the scoreboard for his team.
“I believe Zack’s one of the top five players in the world,” Hawkins said. “He is sort of finding that consistency and he’s our emotional leader. He’s the guy that leads from the front. He doesn’t always have to say much; he will, but he doesn’t have to.
“People will lead and others will follow, and Zack’s a guy who wants to lead and he looks to lead whether it’s by playing or saying what he needs to say. I think he’s a guy, on and off the field, who’s an integral part of this program and will be an integral part of this program for years to come. As a coach, I’m very fortunate to have a player like him.”
The Eagles will open Glasgow Sevens against Spain, against whom Hawkins’ squad has an undefeated record of 5-0 this Series. The two sides have not met since Wellington Sevens in early February, but two consecutive Shield Final victories at USA Sevens and in Wellington will give the Eagles confidence.
The host, Scotland, is also in Pool D with the Eagles, as is Australia. The Eagles hold a combined 0-4-1 record against the two teams, including a defeat to Scotland at Cathay Pacific HSBC Hong Kong Sevens and a loss to Australia in the Tokyo Sevens Plate Final.
Two wins against sixth-ranked Samoa, including a comeback victory from a 17-0 halftime deficit, and a defeat of Canada are signs the team has turned a corner, but there is still a ways to go to reach the upper half of the Series standings and, eventually, the podium in Rio. The first step will be Glasgow, which kicks off Saturday, May 3, at 8:04 A.M. ET.
Men's Eagles Sevens | Emirates Airline Glasgow Sevens
v Spain - Saturday, May 3 - 8:04 A.M. ET
v Scotland - Saturday, May 3 - 11:10 A.M. ET
v Australia - Saturday, May 3 - 1:55 P.M. ET