Saturday, Feb. 13, 2010 | 2:02 a.m.
If You Go
- What: USA Sevens Rugby Tournament
- When: Saturday, February 13, all day; Sunday, February 14, all day
- Where: Sam Boyd Stadium.
- Tickets: $35 to $250 for one day, $70 to $500 for both days Purchase Tickets
Rugby terms to know
- Two former NFL players fill USA rugby team's roster (2-13-2010)
- Rugby tournament embracing Las Vegas as new home (1-22-2010)
When the United States national rugby team takes the field at Sam Boyd Stadium for this weekend's USA Sevens International Rugby Tournament, coach Al Caravelli is hoping the Las Vegas crowd will make his team feel at home.
"The crowd really helped carry the team last year," he said. "We'd love for people in Las Vegas to come and root the home team on. We'll need every fan possible."
During last year's tournament in San Diego, the American team rode the momentum of a frenzied home field to a surprising third-place finish.
However, the team became a victim of its own success.
"Most of those players that we had on the squad last year are gone," Caravelli said. "As a matter of fact, there are only two of them that are left. Most of them have moved on to professional, full-time contracts overseas."
With such a large player turnover, the USA has struggled this season, going 1-4 in tournaments in Dubai and South Africa.
"The biggest difference is experience," said captain Kevin Swiryn, one of the few holdovers from last year's squad. "Most guys have played less than 10 tournaments, some less than five."
They showed much improvement, however, during last week's tournament in New Zealand, posting a 3-3 record with two wins against Tonga and one against Scotland.
"It doesn't take long for you to meld together and grow as a team in sevens," Swiryn said. "Having just a few tournaments under your belt will allow your team to grow."
Nese Malifa provided the spark the team desperately needed, scoring four tries and 30 points in New Zealand.
The talented 24-year-old will look to continue his hot streak in Las Vegas and will play a pivotal role in his team's performance.
"Malifa had two shoulder surgeries and a knee surgery after last season," Swiryn said. "He has come back strong. He's been doing really well. He's a playmaker for us, playing every minute of every game."
Swiryn proved his toughness by scoring 20 tries last year while playing with cracked ribs for most of the season.
Nagging injuries have continued to bother him this year, but when he's healthy he's one of the team's best try scorers.
Another key player on the USA squad is the versatile, 22-year-old Marco Barnard out of Kutztown University.
"Barnard is one of our utility guys," Swiryn said. "He'll play anywhere. He's such a workhorse; he's like a little wolverine out there. He throws his body around with no regard and does whatever he can for the team."
If the USA is to be successful in Las Vegas, however, it will take a breakout performance from some of the team's inexperienced players.
Former University of Hawaii football standout Leonard Peters is poised to do just that.
"Leonard started playing in July, and he's really picked up the game quite rapidly," Caravelli said. "The passing is different, so sometimes he has a little difficulty with that. But he knows the rules probably better than most referees."
Even with the athletes at his disposal, coach Caravelli insists that the team will need to rely on more than just individual talents.
"They need to fire on all seven cylinders, " he said. "I don't know if there's a car that exists that has seven cylinders, but the analogy is we're a squad in a country that can't have a guy having a bad game. We need all seven guys to fire all the time."
This is especially true in Pool B, where the USA is set to face some of the hottest teams on the Sevens circuit in Fiji, South Africa and Canada.
"Our pool is definitely what they like to call the pool of death," Caravelli said.
Led by the season's top points scorer William Ryder, Fiji is coming into Las Vegas second only to New Zealand. The Fijians left last week's tournament in New Zealand as champions and could become the top team in the world with a strong performance this weekend.
South Africa was last season's series champions. As well as having one of the most prolific try scorers of the tournament in Ryno Benjamin, the South Africans also are one of the most physical teams in rugby.
"They're very technical in the contact area," Swiryn said. "When they go into a tackle, you have to be very precise, otherwise they'll turn your ball over."
Last year, the USA handed Canada an embarrassing 26-0 loss in San Diego. Coming off a quarterfinals appearance in New Zealand, this year's side is much improved and will be looking for revenge.
"They're a much better team than they were last year in San Diego," Swiryn said. They go forward, they're powerful, and they're strong in contact. They like to get the ball and move it efficiently and quickly."
As competitive as their draw may seem, Caravelli's team was in a similar position last year in San Diego when they found themselves in a pool with South Africa, Australia and Canada.
They finished second in the pool with wins over Australia and Canada and beat Kenya in the quarterfinals before being eliminated by eventual champions Argentina in the semifinals.
"This team has a lot of talent, just as much talent if not more than the squad that we had last year. We just need to play more together," Caravelli said. "If we play to our potential and can come together as a team, there's no reason why the teams that are in front of us shouldn't fear us."