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It’s not time to hit the panic button, but Team USA is ailing, evidenced by back-to-back bowl quarterfinal appearances in Singapore and Paris. Last season ended on a sublime note – the Eagles won their first-ever World Series tournament in the London finale, and they beat Canada emphatically in the North American championship match to qualify for the Olympics. But this season, recapturing that magic has proven elusive.
The 2015/2016 World Series campaign is still on track to end as the USA’s best. Mike Friday’s Eagles reached the cup quarterfinals of the first seven tournaments, making it nine in a row spanning back to the previous season. Going into London, they’re sitting in sixth place, with Argentina and a record fifth-place finish in striking distance.
And they’ve been very close to replicating London at times. In Dubai, only five points separated them from the Cup final in a loss to England. In Las Vegas, the Eagles were hard done in a 21-14 defeat at the hands of eventual champ Fiji in another semifinal. And the same thing happened the next week in Canada a round earlier.
The concerning part is the trajectory. USA fans would rather see the Eagles trending upward as the Olympics approach.
“We’re a very frustrated group, and a little bit disappointed, really. Whilst our consistency has greatly improved, whilst we’ve moved forward as a squad, certainly in my eyes and the squad’s eyes, we haven’t moved to where I expected and wanted us to be, and that’s not forgetting where we’ve come from, far from it,” Mike Friday told Rugby Today heading into the Paris event.
“As I’ve said to the boys, you’ve been fantastic from where you’ve come from over 18 months, but the long and the short of it is our expectation of each other and of ourselves is higher than what we’ve achieved to date.”
Part of the recent problems is process, as through the last two tournaments, Friday has deployed eight different starting lineups in 11 matches. Expect changes in the squad this week going into the final tournament, as London is the last live competition anyone in the player pool will have to make their case for Rio, and Friday wants to give guys that chance.
And injuries and turnover have been in play all season. Carlin Isles hurt his ankle in training before Hong Kong, and he’s missed the last four tournaments. He’ll miss London, too. Matai Leuta, who looked like an emerging star at the beginning of the season, was dropped on form prior to Las Vegas. He broke a bone in his foot playing for the Falcons in the LVI. Kevin Swiryn and Brett Thompson both suffered ACL tears. Maka Unufe, once a shoe-in to start every game, missed the better part of four of the last seven tournaments, and he’s struggled to return to form and the starting lineup consistently since. As well, the loss of Andrew Durutalo can’t be understated. He was a monster in the breakdown for the USA last season, but since he took a contract with the Super Rugby expansion Sunwolves, his shoes haven’t been filled.
Those variables aside, the reality is the Eagles simply have to get better, and especially in the late moments of tight, important games. They’ve shown what their capable of in London, at the NACRA qualifiers, and in beating New Zealand twice to start the season. So the bar’s set, and it’s up to them to reach it with more consistency.
“There’s been so many kind of critical moments over these first eight tournaments where if we had managed ourselves better or done what we needed to do, then we probably would be heavily ensconced in that top four,” said Friday.
“And that’s the most disappointing thing for me and us as a group, that we haven’t taken advantage of those critical moments that have been offered to us.”
It’s important to bear in mind where Team USA is coming from. A big game for the Eagles two seasons ago was the pool finale against the likes of Scotland or France, hoping to eke into the Cup quarterfinals as the second seed. Even a bowl or shield final carried extra weight, as hardware was often a welcome consolation. Just qualifying for the Olympics was the goal then, as actually competing for a medal seemed unrealistic. The stakes are higher now, and the team’s performance has to meet the mark.
“The reality is the boys have got to pay attention that making that pass, executing that tackle, thinking clearly with that decision at that critical moment is the key, and it’s about not taking the detail for granted, it’s about not being complacent in anything we do in the training park, because that translates onto the rugby field,” said Friday.
“Part of that is mental, but part of that is also just paying attention to the detail and not taking anything for granted, and if you train with that mentality and you train with that intent and that focus, then you translate it into those big moments in the game.
“We’ve shown that we’re capable of doing that. We’ve shown that we can do that in training. But the challenge to the boys is you have to do that consistently, you have to do that day in and day out, you have to do that every minute of every hour when you’re on that training park, because the reality is as professional rugby players, you’re very, very fortunate to have something you love as your job.”
It’s almost hard to remember now, but it’s not that long ago Eagles were regular working Joes holding down regular jobs between tours, where they scraped in a per diem to take home. In 2011, full-time Olympic Training Center contracts were first handed out. And it’s been a struggle for many to find their feet in the new environment. Players aren’t paid much, and certainly well below the average of their peers in Southern California. But they’re professional athletes nonetheless, and with that comes a heightened expectation.
“You’re on the training park, in reality doing 8-10 hours a week. Most people are working 40-50 hour jobs, so don’t tell me how hard your life is when you’ve been blessed with this great opportunity because of the abilities you have, and you need to make the most of every moment that you have doing it. That’s what we need to grasp. That’s what we need to recognize. And that’s what we need to hold onto. And at times we haven’t done that. And that’s the reason why in those critical moments we haven’t delivered.
“90-percent of the time we’re on the money, but we can’t afford to be 90-percent of the time on the money when we get to where we are now. When we were just participants and there was no expectation on us or ourselves, then that’s fair enough. Where we are now and what we expect of ourselves or what our country expects of us or what the passionate rugby supporters expect of us, 90-percent isn’t good enough. We’ve got to be on the money every time, all the time. That’s the burden of expectation, but they’ve earned that right. They now need to live up to that. And that’s tough, that.”
The Eagles have one more chance this season to set the ship in the right direction, this weekend in London. After that, it’s some well-earned time off before they assemble again, and Rio will be here before you know it.
"Nobody in the world wants to play America, nobody, because they don’t know what they’re going to get. And we need to make sure they know what they’re going to get – the most physical, powerful and quickest team that can play. Sometimes we are, and sometimes we’re not," said Friday.
"We can do it. We’ve shown on occasions. We just haven’t done it consistently enough in the big moments, when it matters. And maybe we’re saving the best until last."