When the Eagles kick off 7pm Thursday ET at Wellington 7s, it will be the first time the core of the team does so as full-time professionals. The overwhelming hope is full-time status will propel the 7s program into unparalleled success.
Is it unfair to expect that success to be instant? In many ways, yes. But in at least one way, we can already see contracts paying off -- continuity.
Only three changes have been made to the Eagles roster between the last leg of the IRB 7s World Series and New Zealand, with Garrett Bender, Maka Unufe and Roland Suniula joining the team. Had it not been for a case of the flu, Matt Hawkins would be in Wellington instead of Bender, making it just two changes.
Only three times in the last two-and-a-half IRB seasons (including the Pan-Ams) have the Eagles transitioned from one leg of the series to another with so few changes to the lineup.
For years, the USA has used more players in a given World Series season than pretty much any other core team. That’s been a problem, and perhaps the full-time contracts, only 11 of which have been announced by USA Rugby, are already remedying the revolving door syndrome.
Peter Tiberio has suspended his studies at the University of Arizona to play 7s this season. Shalom Suniula moved to the United States last summer. Had the advent of contracts not been imminent, Tiberio might still be playing with the Wildcats and Suniula might still be making his home in Australia.
Had the contracts been doled out directly following the Pan-Am Games, perhaps there’d be one less change made between the opening three tournaments and the Wellington/USA stretch of the Series. Unufe led the Pan Am Games in tries, and it’s safe to say Caravelli wanted Unufe for the opening leg of the IRB season, but the flyer was listed as unavailable. The chance to make a few dollars and, potentially, a home for his budding family by playing rugby has seemingly made the source of Unufe's unavailability disappear.
Unufe is making his Series debut in Wellington. Caravelli, along with some other credentialed onlookers, believe the 20-year-old has the makings of a legitimate world 7s star. He showed as much at the Pan Am Games, and Wellington will be the world’s first chance to get a glimpse of him.
It would appear, other than between actual IRB World Series seasons, the Eagles will have much more continuity from tournament to tournament, effective immediately.