The Eagles Have Landed

The Eagles Have Landed

5 April, 2019 by TIM NOONAN

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We’ve been hearing it for years now. Once the USA Sevens team start attracting elite athletes from the country’s unmatched reservoir of sporting talent, the game will have truly arrived internationally. Well folks, the Americans are no longer coming, they are here - and not a moment too soon considering the top four finishers in the 2019 HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series automatically qualify for next years’ Tokyo Olympics.

            Clearly gripped with Olympic fever, The Eagles jumped out with an unprecedented five straight finals appearances to start the season finishing four of them as runner ups before winning it all in Las Vegas. “All credit to the boys for what they have done,” said US coach Mike Friday, an affable Brit and former captain of England’s national sevens team. “But as I say to them, humility is a big thing and it is underpinned by hard work. The moment we stop being hungry is the moment everything gets taken from you.”

Brash and mesmerizing, USA feature some of the game’s most electric performers and are a constant threat. Down 0-19 to England at halftime in the quarter-finals of the Canada Sevens in Vancouver last month, USA staged a stirring comeback to win 21-19 and propel themselves into the semis against lightly regarded France - and a very likely sixth straight finals appearance.

But as coach Friday clearly states, humility is a big thing and looking past the next game proved costly as the French destroyed the Americans 33-5. A spirited effort against in form Fiji in the bronze final resulted in a 24-14 loss. But when the dust settled after round six of the 10-leg Series, the Americans were still all alone at top of the overall standings.

            Friday was hired to run things in 2014 and while he is largely credited as the architect of this renaissance, even he admits he could not foresee his team’s success this season.   

“Absolutely not,” he replies, before adding with a laugh, “I should say absolutely, yes, it was all in the big plan. No, but seriously I am very proud of what the boys have done and it is the culmination of a lot of hard work from a lot of people.

“Since last year we had to layer on things, to start with getting them to understand what it is to be a good rugby player, physically and tactically. That starts with understanding one another. In America, as you know, diversity is huge so the possibility of misunderstanding one another is bigger and that can lead to disagreements. We are not without our issues, but the boys persevered and a few weeks before Dubai (round one of the Series) the collective collaboration suddenly synched.”

            Of course all the cohesion in the world means little without talent, and luckily for the USA team they have some of top talent in game. Gamebreakers such as Perry Baker and Carlin Isles may lift fans out of their seats, but it’s the boys in the ditches - players like Madison Hughes, Stephen Tomasin and Martin Iosefo - who grind out the wins. Friday and his people have to search long and hard to unearth elite talent, particularly in a country where rugby is easily dwarfed by hugely popular and lucrative sports as American football, basketball and baseball [see accompanying box].

“Fiji may say they are a tier two country but they have tier one resources because the richest resource in the world is players,” says Friday. “But we truly are a tier two rugby country and that’s why our sole focus is to finish in the top four this year and obtain Olympic qualification. For us that illustrates as a tier two rugby nation we are breaking the mould of the traditional top table powers. And that for me is the biggest statement ever for world rugby in the sevens game because we can show other tier two countries that it is possible to break through.”

Indeed. After six rounds USA are on top of the pile with 113 points, followed by New Zealand (106), Fiji (101) and South Africa (89) - with England (80) and Australia (65) just outside the all-important top four.

With a 33-point lead over fifth place England, and only four more rounds remaining, it seems almost a mathematical impossibility the US will not finish in the top four and qualify for Tokyo 2020. Considering that rugby is an obsession in all of the five countries trailing them, winning the series would indeed be a seminal moment for the Americans and the global game.

If all goes well, the Eagles could basically wrap up an Olympic spot by the time they are done in Hong Kong. And the coach can think of no better place for his team to stamp their mark.

“We all know that it is the blue riband event of the World Series and everybody wants to win in Hong Kong,” says Friday. “We are also very close to the US expat community in Hong Kong and do a lot of stuff with the American Club, the Barbeque and other events.”

Maybe not coincidentally the American Club has a box again for the first time in years. And can you imagine what the stadium would be like if they make it to the final? “It would absolutely rock.” says Friday. “It would topple.”

Right now, toppling things seems like business as usual for this marauding band of USA Eagles.