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The men’s 7s Eagles started off the 2016/2017 season with an underwhelming performance in Dubai. They opened with a 14-5 loss to Scotland (more on that in a second). Then Team USA trailed Uganda 7-5 at halftime of the second contest. They’d right the ship in the second half, outscoring the African champions 24-0.
(The USA has now lost five-straight games to Scotland. Dubai actually marked the fourth-straight World Series tournament in which the Eagles have fallen to the Scots. Under Mike Friday, the USA is 1-5 all-time against them.)
The Eagles would end pool play by losing competitively to eventual champion South Africa, but there were some issues in that game, too.
Captain Madison Hughes was simply poor on day one in Dubai. He was benched for the entire Uganda tilt, and with the match on the line against South Africa he was uncharacteristically bad – USA down four with under three minutes to play, Eagles win a lineout and a routine pass from Hughes at flyhalf to Maka Unufe at center is thrown feet in front of Unufe, allowing South Africa to pick up the loose ball, score and put a nail in the USA’s coffin.
Hughes was markedly better on day two, and the coaching staff decided to give him a much-needed break, as he’s not going to be playing in South Africa. Hughes has been the linchpin of the team’s turnaround for two years, evidenced by him leading the entire World Series in points last season.
He didn’t simply get worse before Dubai; he’s just been overworked. While Olympic teammates of his are on elongated breaks following a blistering two years culminating in Rio, Hughes spent the last several weeks flying to and from California, Chicago, Romania, Spain, California again, and then Dubai. And he only had two 7s sessions in him before jetting to Dubai. The effects were obvious.
Less obvious would be any ill effects of Mike Friday spending the entire November tour with the 15s team, too. He took a backseat role in Dubai and won’t be in South Africa. Coming into the season opener, assistant Chris Brown was the lone voice for the coaching staff. He and Friday collaborated remotely on selections, but Friday, like Hughes, barely worked with the team in the immediate lead-up.
Brown is used to being the lone voice. Typically, he runs the show at the Olympic Training Center day-to-day, and Friday comes in for high performance camps and stays with the team through a tour. That didn’t happen this time. Brown is a very capable coach, there’s no doubt about that. But Friday is the head coach.
And this is the second time the 7s team has potentially suffered from Friday pulling double duty with the 15s team. He took time out of the preparations for the Olympics to coach the 15s side in June, and the Eagles missed out on the top eight in Rio.
From the start, Friday’s role has been unique. When he first took the job, he was still being employed as the director of rugby for the London Scottish, and he did both gigs through his first season guiding the Eagles to the most successful campaign in Team USA history, leaving little room for doubt surrounding the arrangement.
That success also laid the groundwork for the case for Friday spending time with the 15s team to make sense. When he was initially announced as the attack coach, I thought, well, he’s a great rugby mind so it’s a good move for the 15s team, and perhaps it will be beneficial for the swing players who do both 7s and 15s to have some clarity and continuity between coaching staffs. It made sense to me - Friday is a fantastic resource at USA Rugby's disposal, and we should try to get as much out of him as possible. However, I now have to wonder if the current arrangement isn’t doing more harm to the 7s team than it’s worth.
With players being shared back and forth between both setups, there’s more potential for a conflict of interest than there was with the London Scottish. Relationships between the USA’s 7s and 15s coaches have been acrimonious in the past, and that’s not without reason. Sometimes what’s best for the 15s team isn’t what’s best for the 7s team, and vice versa. That puts Friday in an awkward situation.
There’s always going to be a semi-open door for players between the two teams. The talent in this country is not deep enough to sustain separate player pools, and players are always going to have varying ambitions. Around Olympic time, 15s guys are going to be lured by the five rings, right before then 7s specialists are going to be enamored with the World Cup, and at any time during any cycle 7s players are going to envy the pay of their 15s counterparts playing overseas. That’s a necessary inconvenience we have to deal with as fans of the 7s and/or 15s teams.
However, as Americans, we’re used to certain things from our head coaches. For instance, we’re not used to them taking side gigs that interfere with their main team. We’re not used to them taking a week off for a break, either. Imagine Mike Krzyzewski taking off a Duke game to get rest because he spent too much time coaching the national team. It wouldn’t happen. Granted, Coach K’s pay probably puts him multiple tax brackets higher than Friday.
If this were a one-off scenario without the possibility of a repeat, then it gets swept under the rug. Friday’s earned a long rope. But with the emergence of the Americas Rugby Championship, which happens in the heart of the World Series calendar, there’s going to be a conflict like this twice a season if he keeps on with the 15s team.
Compound the issue with results, and the answers to the tough questions get clearer. Would the 7s team have fared better in Rio or Dubai if Friday weren’t coaching 15s? No one knows for sure, but I’d argue yes. We’ve seen what happens when his hands are more involved with shaping the team, and it’s been incredible. Would Hughes have been better in Dubai without the November tour? Probably. On the flip side, could the 15s team have gone 0-3 in November without Friday and Hughes? Could they have gone 1-1 in June without Friday? Yes and yes.
That leaves the biggest question of all – is potentially mortgaging the success of the 7s team worth helping the 15s team underachieve? For me, the answer is a resounding no.