USA rugby sevens: The sleeping giant of the men's game has finally awoken

Ahead of the Hong Kong 7s, coach Mike Friday reveals how the Eagles went from one-hit wonders to Tokyo 2020 Olympic gold medal contenders.
By Andrew Binner

What a difference a year can make in rugby sevens.

In March 2018, the USA men's team had just won the Las Vegas Sevens, yet still languished in sixth place in the World Rugby Sevens Series.

But fast-forward 12 months and the perennial underachievers tag has been well and truly shed by Mike Friday's men.

Olympic Channel caught up with the coach, whose Eagles have been elevated to the number 1 ranked team in the world, ahead of the showpiece Hong Kong 7s tournament (5th/6th April 2019).

The missing component

In truth, their 2018 achievement in the desert was the latest of a series of excellent one-off performances which had become the hallmark of USA rugby sevens.

Boasting arguably the world's fastest player in former sprinter Carlin Isles, and his turbo-charged team-mate Perry Baker, it was a familiar tale of unfulfilled promise.

Ominously for the USA's opponents, the 2019 season shows they have found the consistency they had been craving, just over a year out from Tokyo 2020.

They reached the final in all of the first five tournaments.

That included Las Vegas, where the Eagles retained their title to soar high above their rivals as the world's no.1 men's team.

But any danger of becoming complacent has been extinguished quickly by Friday, a man who has been pivotal to their improvement.

"Could we win gold? Absolutely we can win gold." - Mike Friday talking to Olympic Channel.

"But while we are number one in the world, that isn’t our focus. We want to be the best we can be as we build towards the Tokyo Olympics." Friday told us in a wide ranging interview.

"We’re under no illusion about how hard that will be with the fantastic rugby nations that will be there.

"It’s that old saying, 'You’ve got to be in it to win it', so we’ve got to get a ticket to the Olympics first, and then we can start building towards being successful.

"The boys are working hard but we’ve still got plenty to do, and are far from perfect."

The top four men's teams of the current World Rugby Sevens Series will join hosts Japan in the 12-team rugby event at Tokyo 2020.

The remaining berths go to a representative of each of the six continental confederations, with the last spot going to the winner of an international sevens tournament still to be determined.

Magic Mike Friday

Former England and Kenya men's sevens boss Friday was part of the Olympic Channel's Z Team series, where he coached the Indian women's U-17 team to their best-ever finish in an international event.

The ex-professional scrum half has been at the helm of USA Sevens since 2014, and the fruits of his labour are finally on show for the world to see.

As well as instilling his technical expertise on the pitch, the 46-year-old has given his team the belief that they can be world beaters.

Perhaps most telling is that the Americans missed two of their most potent attacking weapons - two-time World Player of the Year Baker and powerhouse prop Danny Barrett - in Vegas this year through injury.

In the past, those absences would have been catastrophic for the men in red, white, and blue.

But that victory suggests the USA have developed a more rounded game plan and a deeper pool of players, rather than relying on sparks of individual brilliance.

Overcoming the odds

Regardless of how USA fare in 2020, turning a tier two rugby side into one of the world's best teams is an astounding feat.

But that's not enough for Friday.

"When I arrived in 2014 we were given less than a 10% chance of even qualifying for the 2016 Olympics," he told Olympic Channel.

"By the end of the year we were at 90%, and when we got to the Olympics people were seeing us as a contender, when really we shouldn’t have even been there."

Defeat to Argentina in their opening game at Rio 2016 wrecked USA's chances of reaching the quarter-finals.

It meant they needed to beat Fiji in their final pool encounter to qualify, but were pipped 24-19 by the eventual champions.

Friday reflects, "Rio 2016 itself didn’t go the way we wanted and it was seen as not that much of a success, but again, we shouldn’t have even been there."

"The reality is that America loves winners. They love the Olympics but they also want us to win, so the important thing is that we have to be challenging for a medal in Tokyo." - USA rugby 7s coach Mike Friday

The challenge

To understand the scale of USA's improvement, one must understand where the players have come from.

When Fiji's rugby sevens team won their nation's first ever Olympic medal at Rio 2016, coach Ben Ryan had challenges aplenty off the pitch.

But on it, he had a group of the world's most naturally-gifted sevens players, who all grew up playing the country's national game.

If the USA were to claim gold at Tokyo 2020, Friday would have achieved this feat with vastly less experienced athletes.

"Our boys are on the minimum wage"

The American sports market is a saturated one with rugby still very much a developing sport.

This means the team receives very little commercial support compared to its rivals.

"The stark reality is we’re a tier two rugby country in a tier one economy and we get very little funding and support centrally, so we are reliant on our philanthropy godfathers." - Mike Friday

"We have a group of people called the Golden Eagles, that are a group of generous individuals who donate to the programme.

"Just to give you a sense, our boys are on the minimum wage in America.

"When you look at the people they play against in the World Series, they are making huge sacrifices - as are their families - to try and open the eyes of the USA sporting public to the game of rugby."

And that sacrifice is paying dividends as far as raising the sport's profile.

The Las Vegas leg of the World Sevens Series has become one of the highlights of the calendar, while all three days of the San Francisco 2018 Rugby Sevens World Cup were sold out.

The Nate Ebner blueprint

Like most Eagles players, Isles and Baker switched to rugby from other sports later in their career than rivals who grew up playing rugby.

As a result, America is playing catch-up.

"Every young American wants to be the next Tom Brady or Steph Curry and that’s fair enough, but we need to create alternative role models."

"If they can’t be Brady or Curry, maybe their mums and dads want them to be the next Madison Hughes or Perry Baker or Danny Barrett."

Friday's hope is that rugby will be introduced at high school, alongside American football, baseball, and basketball.

Players would them develop a basic rugby skill set from a younger age, and have the ability to return to the sport should their dreams of playing other sports professionally fall through.

"All of a sudden we’re exposing a lot more players to rugby from the ages of 12 to 18. And if you do that, you can change that college football dream or that college basketball dream and if it doesn’t work out you can then come back to rugby.

"The blueprint or the person that’s done that is Nate Ebner, who was a rugby player at high school, became an American football college walk-on with Ohio State.

"He signed for the New England Patriots, won the Super Bowl. Within four or five months he was able to get his rugby IQ to the front of his brain, made the Rio 2016 Olympic rugby squad then went back to the NFL and won another two Super Bowls."

The golden question

Before Eagles fans get too carried away with the Tokyo 2020 favourites tag, Friday urges caution.

"The Olympics is like the Colosseum. Every game matters and every game is on a knife edge, and it can be won on lost on decisions and moments that are out of your hands.

"Are we contenders? Absolutely. But unlike many other Olympic sports, in sevens you have no idea who is going to win because on any given day, anyone can turn up and do the job.

"I think that's the beauty of the game but also the pain for the coaches because it is just absolutely 'Gladiator!'"