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While speedsters Perry Baker and Carlin Isles continue to be favored fodder for the announcers, Folau Niua quietly goes about his business as one of the most indispensable members of the team and Madison Hughes just kicks game-winning touch-line conversions to slay the All Blacks, the stable of capable, and even world-class, forwards gets deeper and deeper for USA’s 7s team.
“We are very fortunate that the strength of depth we’ve created, especially in the forward pack, is great,” Friday told Rugby Today. “We’ve got good options and we’ve got good depth.”
Friday has blooded 15 forwards in his season-and-a-half as Team USA’s head man. A few have appeared in just a tournament or two – Ahmad Harajly, Aladdin Schirmer and Pat Blair. A couple have been nearly automatic selections when healthy and available – Danny Barrett and Zack Test.
The rest don’t neatly fit into a category here or there. Garrett Bender’s been a regular selection, but he’s not in Wellington and won’t be in Sydney. Nick Edwards made four tournaments last year and hasn’t made any this year. Andrew Durutalo is readying for his Super Rugby debut in 15s. Martin Iosefo was picked a lot last season, but wasn’t always available as a student, and now that he is more readily available as a contracted athlete at the Olympic Training Center, isn’t being picked every time.
Brett Thompson has been in the mix since returning to the United States and health from his stint playing 15s in Scotland. He was picked for Dubai and Cape Town this season already, but not for Wellington, although he is there as part of the traveling squad.
Matai Leuta is being selected with more regularity. Will Holder is at his third-straight tournament after having not been selected once last season. And Thretton Palamo has made his first tournament under Friday not as a stand-in. He played sparingly in the team’s London Cup win at the end of last year as injury cover, and he replaced Nate Augspurger in Cape Town this season when the Minnesotan missed for his brother’s wedding.
The point is, the Eagles were for many years, at pretty much every position, a broken leg away from a big drop in quality. That’s not the case anymore, especially in the forwards, with an ever-growing pool of very talented athletes.
“I want a squad that would be on a podium, so looking across the series and if you had to pick the gold, silver, bronze player in the 12, we need to ensure that all of our 12 that end up going to Rio would be in that gold, silver or bronze teams,” said Friday. “We’re trying to create a podium squad, because if we’ve got a podium squad, then we know on form they’re competing with the best in the world.”
Friday and his staff have gone through the exercise of actually plotting out who would be in the so-called gold, silver and bronze medal teams: a mock fantasy draft of sorts. And of his forwards, only one would be in what Friday considers a podium team based on play through Dubai and Cape Town – Zack Test.
“I think all of my forwards have the capability, with the aerial skills, the handling skills, the power, the pace that we have, to make the podium, without a shadow,” the coach said.
“The holy grail is that consistency to assure we stay on task and don’t get panicked or affected by emotions which allow us to lose games.”
That cool demeanor in the tough moments is what has landed Holder in the team again.
“His ability to pick the right lines and then link one play with another play to ensure that we have continuity and we maintain momentum and pressure has been his biggest asset when we watched how he played against New Zealand,” said Friday of the former Army All-American.
“The fact that he was able to stay completely on task and focused at kickoff time and aerially when others were, shall we say, struggling with the emotions of dealing with it, was a huge asset in his favor. The conversation with Will is you’ve set your benchmark; you need to stay at that level, because you can’t afford to slip back. His consistency, you know what you get, he’s a sure thing right now at the moment, and that as a coach is a great ingredient.”
Friday will be cooking with a new ingredient this leg, debutant Ben Pinkelman. He’s been in the age-grade pipeline for years, and he’s been on the 7s radar since Friday arrived, participating in the coach’s first camp in America.
But as a full-time student at Colorado State, Pinkelman has been largely unavailable. He’s gotten himself free for Wellington and Sydney, but won’t be available much of the rest of the season. So if Friday was going to get a look at him before Rio, he needed to do it now.
“He wants to compete for the Olympics, and that is part of the plan, so it’s the right time to have a look at him in the mix with the other guys,” said Friday. “He’s certainly mixing it well enough on the training paddock. He’s a clever player, he’s got good skill sets, he’s very robust, and he’s very, very kind of industrious and has a good work ethic in the contact area. He’s technically proficient and he’s courageous as well.”
With the likes of Kevin Swiryn and Peter Tiberio returning to the OTC full-time, competition is heating up for those 13 tickets to Rio. It's no fiercer anywhere than in the forwards. When the time comes for Friday to name his Olympic squad, it’s inevitable several American forwards capable of playing on most other Olympic teams will be left back, evidenced by the names left off the roster for Wellington and Sydney.
“This camp has been a massive reset for all of the whole squad in terms of not only developing physically and tactically and technically but mentally, having that resilience to stay on task and battle it out,” said Friday.
“We’re trying to create that kind of honest competition amongst the guys where it’s collegiate, but nonetheless they’re in competition. We have to push one another to ensure that the best 12 force their way to the top to make the best 12 to go to Rio. That’s very clear in the forwards."
Team USA opens pool play Friday in Wellington against Samoa at 5:52 p.m. ET, followed by England at 8:54 p.m. ET and France at 11:54 p.m. ET.