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The first batch of signings under the three-headed regime of head coach Mike Friday, assistant coach Chris Brown and development director Alex Magleby is on the books, and the residency program at the Olympic Training Center just got a whole lot more athletic.
In my humble opinion, there’s never been a more dynamic pool of backs for the 7s team to draw from. Actually embedded at the OTC are four players with potential to be truly world-class try scorers – Carlin Isles, Maka Unufe, Pila Taufa and Perry Baker. Isles is already that, and as I’ve never been shy to express, he only needs more playing time to cement himself as such.
Unufe has shown flashes of being that, at the high school level, playing domestically in the club circuit, at the 2011 Pan-Am Games and on the World Series circuit. He is still green, but Friday specializes in coaching guys like him up. Taufa has shown an ability, albeit to a far smaller audience, much like Unufe’s.
Both Unufe and Taufa have a track record of questionable commitment to the cause, though. Taufa has missed some planes in his day, and Unufe has struggled with life away from his hometown of Provo, Utah and putting to rest the hope of becoming a professional football player. That’s not to say their decisions haven’t been warranted – both with families to provide and care for in places far away from Chula Vista, Calif. But they’ve been hesitant to push all their chips into the middle of the table for the Eagles and the Olympic dream.
Perry Baker is an electric talent, just like Unufe, Taufa and Isles. His combination of length, wiry strength and speed already makes him a very difficult match-up for anyone in the world. His ceiling is nonexistent.
If Isles continues on his trajectory, Baker develops his skills even further, and Unufe and Taufa close in on their potential, the Eagles will have a stellar stable of outside backs. Mix in the most decorated 7s Eagle of all time, Zack Test, who transitioned to center last season after many at hooker, and bring in guys like Mike Palefau, Peter Tiberio, Rocco Mauer and Jack Halalilo to high performance camps to keep the contracted thoroughbreds honest, and the possibilities are endless.
On the flip side, it’s unclear how many more hits the core of forwards can take. Blaine Scully and Brett Thompson have parlayed success on the 7s circuit into professional 15s contracts, and though Thretton Palamo hasn’t been a mainstay for the 7s Eagles in the era of OTC residency, there was hope he would be before he was given a trial with Saracens.
Danny Barrett is a burgeoning star, both in 7s and 15s, and you get the feeling it’s only a matter of time before an overseas club comes calling for him. For right now, he remains with the 7s team, and that’s good news for Friday and company.
Yes, the IRB’s Regulation Nine is in effect this season, but that doesn’t mean Friday is going to disrupt the budding pro careers of Thompson, Scully and Palamo to pull them into 7s duty. He’s said he would look to employ Reg. 9 more after this upcoming World Series.
It’s more likely that Hawley will be brought into high performance camps to compete for a spot, and perhaps Mike Palefau will do the same, but transition to forward as he gets older. Pat Blair will remain in the conversation, but as a remote player. Miles Craigwell’s still quietly becoming a better rugby player, and John Cullen has the attention of the coaching staff. Halalilo could also factor in as a forward if brought in for HP camps. And, of course, Test can go back to the pack if need be.
So the pool of forwards is far from barren, but where the Eagles had several players in the pipeline with elite size and power coupled with elite mobility and speed 6-16 months ago, they have fewer now.
The halfback situation is very healthy. Mike Te’o has a ton of potential, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him garner more and more playing time this season. Tai Enosa and Nese Malifa have experience, and they’re both at a point in their careers where they’re trying to get back into regular contributing roles.
Folau Niua is not with the team presently, as he’s playing for pay in Sri Lanka, but I fully expect him to be back at the OTC before the start of the season. Then training in the second-best full-time training environment is Shalom Suniula. He fell out of favor with Matt Hawkins, and his game time will have to be managed now that he’s playing with the 15s Eagles, but it’s easy to envision him making the team via a high performance camp.
Speaking of the training environment in Seattle, it’s huge for the betterment of the Eagles. Assuming Pat Blair rejoins the Serevi/Seattle Saracens gang after being released, there are seven World Series vets all training under the watchful eye of Ben Gollings and Waisale Serevi – Peter Tiberio, Rocco Mauer, Mike Palefau, Shalom Suniula, Kevin Swiryn, Pat Blair and Miles Craigwell. Throw in guys who’ve been invited to camps in John Cullen and Kellen Gordon, former 7s All American Tim Stanfill, and guys working hard to get to the next level like Shane Moore, and Seattle is fostering an extremely competitive environment.
All in all, the player pool for the 7s Eagles is wider than it has been before, largely because of Friday’s willingness to give players out of residency a vehicle to make the team. Those players are going to have to work extremely hard to get and keep their fitness up to snuff, but there is value in having them push for spots. Mix in a heralded new head coach and lots of contracted talent, and it makes for an awful lot of positivity surrounding the 7s Eagles as they prepare to make a run at the Olympics over the next 12 months.