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The Rio Olympics begin in eight weeks. Between now and then, a pool of 30 or so players has to be whittled down to 12, and that process begins Monday June 20th, with the start of the Rio camp at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif.
While a handful of guys are currently assembled with the 15s team ahead of tests the next two weekends with Italy and Russia (Nate Augspurger, Andrew Durutalo, Will Holder, Thretton Palamo, Shalom Suniula, Peter Tiberio and Stephen Tomasin), most of the men’s 7s team is enjoying some well-earned time off.
Also in camp with the 15s team are 7s coaches Mike Friday, Phil Greening and Chris Brown, Friday as the newly named attack coach, Greening as the defense coach, and Brown as one of two strength and conditioning coaches. All three will be in Chula Vista June 20th for the beginning of Rio camp, the first week of which will be focused on conditioning. Friday and Greening will then rejoin the 15s assembly at the end of the week to prepare for Russia on the 25th.
Some of the shared players may stick with the 15s team next week, missing the initial days of the Rio camp. The coaching staff will leave those there who they feel will benefit from playing against Russia. Then from June 27th on, it will be all hands on deck for the Olympics, with just a couple of weeks to determine who’s in and who’s out, as selections for Rio have to be made by mid-July.
Friday will have to name a 12-man squad at that point, but he’ll likely tab a few traveling reserves in case of injury. He’ll have to rely on intra-squad scrimmages to pick his team for Rio, which at the end of July is all but set to meet the All Blacks for a series of scrimmages in Miami – Team USA’s final chance to sharpen the knives before the Games begin.
The Rio camp will be a large assembly. Among the contestants are 15s stalwarts Chris Wyles and Andrew Durutalo. Wyles has retired from international 15s and is already geared toward Rio, while Durutalo is in camp with the 15s team and likely to play against Italy Saturday. Blaine Scully, depending on health and conditioning, may also be brought in. He, too, is in camp with the 15s Eagles.
Coming off injury hoping to be able to compete for spots are Kevin Swiryn and Brett Thompson, both of whom tore their ACLs at the tail end of last year, as well as Matai Leuta, who fractured a bone in his foot in March. Carlin Isles is also coming back from some time off – he suffered an ankle injury in training in March, and though he was healthy enough to compete by the end of the season, Friday chose to let him rest.
While the Rio camp will be the most contentious in team history, several of the Olympic spots are in firm grasp. Barring injury, Madison Hughes, Zack Test, Folau Niua, Danny Barrett, Carlin Isles, Perry Baker and Garrett Bender seem to be locks.
Maka Unufe and Martin Iosefo have been the front line centers for most of the past two seasons and should be on the team, too, though Unufe has struggled to regain his starting spot since missing a few tournaments at the beginning of the year. If someone’s to upset that apple cart, it’ll likely be Swiryn. Nate Augspurger has been Friday’s preferred backup scrumhalf for the better part of two seasons, too, so he’s likely in. That leaves just two spots left, both of which are likely to go to forwards, or guys who can play forward.
Throughout the 2015/2016 HSBC Sevens World Series, the USA struggled to fill the void left by Durutalo, who picked up a contract with Japan’s expansion Super Rugby team. He was a monster in the tackle area, and the only hurdle for him to get back should be fitness. If he’s fit, he’ll be picked.
Under Friday, Will Holder, Ben Pinkelman, Brett Thompson and Matai Leuta have all shined as starters, but none of them have been able to lock down constant selection tournament over tournament like their aforementioned teammates. And they’ll be dueling with Wyles, Nate Ebner and perhaps Scully. Thretton Palamo was tried most at center last season, but played some prop at the end of the year, and that’s probably where he’d have to make the team, throwing another wildcard into the mix.
All those assumptions made, Friday has proven he’s not afraid of making a bold selection based on form, so anyone is going to have to be at the top of their game to get picked. And, odds are, injury will dictate some of the process. Nonetheless, it’s going to be an intense few weeks in Chula Vista starting next Monday.