Taking a Look Ahead at The Biggest Names in Premier Rugby Sevens
By Alexander Diegel
From Perry Baker to Martin Iosefo, Naya Tapper to Kayla Cannett, Premier Rugby Sevens has featured some of the top talent in American rugby. The league recently took another step, making international headlines with the signings of a handful of New Zealand Black Ferns and All Blacks. Ruby Tui, the World Cup and Olympic Gold Medal-winning legend, was first announced in early May. Then, the league made a multi-player announcement with the signings of Stacey Waaka, Manaia Nuku, Tysha Ikenasio and Kelsey Teneti from the Ferns, with Kitona Vai and Rhodes Featherstone coming in from the All Blacks.
With other big names invested and rosters taking shape, we thought it was a good time to look at a few of the best and brightest players across the league.
Rocky Mountain Experts
At 31 years old, the 2016 Olympian Garrett Bender still has plenty left in the tank. USA Eagles’ fans will recognize the 6’4” Bender from the era of American ruggers that were routinely pulling in medals at the HSBC Sevens World Series as he rejoins the PR7s competition in hopes of adding a championship trophy to his sterling CV.
Summer Harris-Jones anchors the women’s side of the franchise. At 5’8,” 168 lbs. Harris-Jones has the size and the pace to be dangerous from all parts of the field. Harris-Jones recently earned her first Eagles’ cap and will continue to make a name for herself this season.
Alena Olsen has done just about everything one can do in an American 7s jersey. Having competed in both the World Cup and the Olympics, Olsen made her way up from University of Michigan, where she was an All-American, Big 10 Back of the Year and a member of the CRCs’ Dream Team. The 5’4” fly half can set the table for her teammates, or make a break down the pitch herself.
On the Men’s side, Lance Williams is one of the most physical players in 15s. The 235-lb. Flanker still has plenty of speed to keep up in the 7s game. Think of him as a Danny Barrett type, terrorizing defenses when he gets forward momentum, generally taking two to three defenders with him when he does go down. He’s joined by the young All Black Kitona Vai, one of the recently-announced signings. The 6’3” 230-lb. fullback is just 22 years old, and will bring plenty of size and speed to the squad.
New York Locals
The 30-year-old Life University product Cody Melphy brings pace and poise to this Locals team. Americans are used to seeing Melphy win big on home soil as a member of the Eagles. Melphy also stands out as a fan favorite due to his time served with the U.S. Army. Melphy, a Bridge Engineer Crewmwmber, was part of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program, the 2019 All Armed Forces Dream Team and was the Jon Snow MVP Award winner.
Stacey Waaka is another Black Ferns’ star that will have a go in this year's PR7s season. Waaka was just a part of the Ferns’ HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series in France that took down the U.S. team on May 14. She has 25 caps on the 15s side to go with her standout play in 7s. The 27-year-old center is quite simply one of the most accomplished and complete players on the circuit.
D’Montae Noble is excitement personified. Anyone that’s played with or against him knows it takes two defenders, if not three, to contain his lightning quick side steps and finishing burst. Noble, a Kutztown product, has dominated the Club 7s seen in the Mid-Atlantic, flashed with Old Glory in MLR and has played 19 matches for USA 7s.
Taejah Thompson is a breakout Canadian from the University of Calgary. She recently earned her first cap in March, representing her country in the HSBC 7s World Series. An elusive wing and fullback in 15s, Thompson helped Calgary win three Canada West titles and earned third place at Nationals in 2016.
Golden State Retrievers
Of course, everyone’s eager to see Ruby Tui suit up on American soil this summer. Tui is one of the most exciting players in World Rugby, and gives a great interview to boot.Tui is fresh off of winning the 15s World Cup with New Zealand and will resume her run with the Black Ferns once her PR Sevens sabbatical is wrapped up. But for now, she’s all ours for PR7s fans to enjoy this summer.
Another of those big-bodied American 7s players with pace, the 6’3” Adam Channel has 38 matches and six scores to his name for the Eagles. Before making it to the international level, Channel honed his craft with Belmont Shore, one of the elite clubs in American rugby. Channel also was part of the LA Giltins’ team that lifted the MLR Shield in 2021.
Rugby fans worldwide should be happy to see Ben Pinkelman back in a 7s jersey. The former USA Captain was a complete workhorse and the engine behind the American team for years. He would have been a two-time Olympian if injuries didn’t crop up before the 2020 games. He still works for and supports USAR as an Assistant Coach, but it will be fantastic to see him with the boots on again after the long layoff.
West Point graduate Sammy Sullivan is another service member who will suit up for the league this year. Also brought up through the World Class Athlete Program, Sullivan quickly established herself as a rising star in the American rugby circuit; she received her first caps in both 7s and 15s in 2022, and also competed in the Rugby World Cup that same year.
The second of two All Blacks’ players announced to join the competition this year, Rhodes Featherstone will anchor the Texas Team’s forwards. Having made himself a regular on the All Blacks’ sevens squad in the last year, Featherstone broke out at the Ignite7 Tournament in 2020 and was also part of the NPC Championship-winning Taranaki Bulls.
At 20 years old, Kelsey Teneti has just scratched the surface of her playing career. After breaking through with the Ferns, she’s now ready to make a name for herself on American soil in this year’s competition. She’s joined on the Team by Tysha Ikenasio, who has a bit more experience at 25, but still has plenty of tours left in front of her.
Rhinos x SoCal Loggerheads
We will close with the Rhinos x SoCal Loggerheads, who tout two USA Rugby legends in Jaz Gray and Martin Iosefo. Gray starred for years in a USA 7s jersey, accumulating 45 matches and 21 tries; she recently was part of the American squad that came up just short of a medal in the 2022 World Cup.
Iosefo is another USA 7s star that will light up the tournament this season. Iosefo has done everything one can do in an American rugby jersey: be a regular on tour at the HSBC 7s World Series, provide a spark at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, play in an MLR Championship game, and now is a veteran of PR7s. Adding a 2023 championship to his sterling CV while making new fans along the way would be icing on the cake.