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Jubilant fans turn out for World Rugby Sevens tournament in Carson

USA 7s Carlin Isles passes the ball to Madison Hughes (10) out of the scrum against Scotland 7s during a match Feb. 29, 2020, at the HSBC World Rugby Sevens tournament in Carson.
Carlin Isles of the U.S. Eagles passes the ball to Madison Hughes (10) out of the scrum against Scotland on Saturday at the HSBC World Rugby Sevens tournament in Carson. The U.S. won 33-12.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Foot traffic on the concourse and in the stadium aisles was constant Saturday at Dignity Health Sports Park.

With 16 international teams playing in the frenetically paced HSBC World Rugby Sevens tournament, jubilant fans — many adorned in colorful costumes — were on the move, alternately cheering their teams, mingling and exploring food and drink offerings.

Joe Tavai of Sacramento, a Fiji fan, happily stood in a line that stretched 100 deep for a plate from the Viti Curry House. He had just watched his team, the defending Olympic and series champion, pull out a victory over France.

“We are a rugby nation,” said Tavai, wearing the blue wig donned by many Fiji fans. “It’s like the USA with football and baseball. It’s a national sport so we can’t miss it for the world.”

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The spirit of the crowd in Los Angeles — an event official said total attendance was 17,436 — exceeded those that Tavai was a part of in Las Vegas during the U.S. series stop the last few years. The U.S. won the tournament in 2018 and 2019.

“It’s catching on,” Tavai said. “And it’s going to be big in the U.S.”

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Joe Tavai, Keli Toroca and Eminoni Mafi, left to right, came out to the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series to root for Fiji.
(Gary Klein / Los Angeles Times)

The U.S. continues to make global inroads in rugby sevens, a stripped-down, sped-up version of a sport that will be part of the Olympic program for the second time in Tokyo this summer.

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In pool play Saturday, the U.S. Eagles defeated Samoa and Scotland but lost to pool winner Australia. Fiji, New Zealand and South Africa also won their pools. The U.S. will play South Africa in a quarterfinal Sunday.

Mike Friday, the U.S coach, was frustrated by his team’s penchant for losing possessions and giving away points, even in the victories.

The emergence of U.S. rugby coincides with the maturation of speedy wings Carlin Isles and Perry Baker, who have become America’s first superstars in the sport.

“Showed glimpses of what we’re capable of doing, but also showed too many errors and too many kind of easy possessions given away,” Friday said. “So it’s the beauty and the pain of sevens all wrapped up there in one day…. We’ve got plenty to think about, but I’m confident that we’ll come out with the right reaction.”

The U.S., the ninth-place finisher in the 2016 Olympics and runner-up in last year’s series, entered Saturday’s matches ranked sixth.

“It’s a great experience because it’s not every day you get to represent your country and play in front of the home fans,” U.S. wing Carlin Isles said.

Rugby sevens matches are played between teams with seven players on each side. The matches include two seven-minute periods with a short break in between. A try, rugby’s version of a touchdown, is worth five points. Afterward, a successful kick through the uprights of a goal post is worth two points.

On Saturday, Isles and fellow wing Perry Baker scored their 200th career trys for a team that overcame slow starts in its first two matches but could not do the same in the finale.

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American fans cheer after the U.S. Eagles’ Steve Tomasin, right, scores against Scotland on Feb. 29, 2020, at the HSBC World Rugby Sevens tournament.
American fans cheer after the U.S. Eagles’ Steve Tomasin, right, scores against Scotland at Dignity Health Sports Park.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

In its first match against Samoa, the U.S. fell behind, 12-0. Stephen Tomasin and Ben Pinkelman of the U.S. scored to tie the score at halftime. That set the stage for Isles, whose try sent the U.S. on its way to a 19-17 victory.

“Glad we got that off our chest,” Isles said. “Now we can move on a little more relaxed and get back to the basics.”
Against Scotland, the U.S. team began to feel the home crowd. After Scotland took a 7-0 lead, fans began chanting, “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!,” reprising the motivational call throughout the match.

Eagles center Martin Iosefo broke a 7-7 tie when he leaped to grab a kicked ball on the restart of the second half, and then dashed down the field and across the try line.

Baker, Kevon Williams and Maka Unufe also scored for the U.S. in the 33-12 victory.

In the final match of the evening, Australia took advantage of U.S. mistakes to take a 17-point lead en route to a 17-7 victory.

“Lessons learned, I hope,” Friday said. “We’re in the quarterfinals… so we get an opportunity to kind of right the wrongs.”


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