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It was nearly two years ago at the Gold Coast that Carlin Isles scored three tries, two against Tonga and one against New Zealand, in his international rugby debut. A few months later, those tries were featured in a highlight video that would go viral and garner American rugby unprecedented attention.
Oct. 12-13, Perry Baker is set to make his World Series debut at the Gold Coast, and three tries in the tournament is a realistic goal for the latest crossover Eagle. Baker joined the National Team player pool earlier this summer, earning a full-time contract to train at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. alongside Isles.
“He’s as thick as thieves with Carlin Isles. They’re two peas in a pod, and that’s great,” said USA 7s coach Mike Friday. “That’s great for Carlin, and that’s great for Perry. It’s great competition between them, and they push each other.”
Like with Isles in 2012, it’s hard to predict how much playing time Baker will get early on. He’s got more rugby under his belt than Isles did then, but the pressure to win immediately is higher in an Olympic qualification year, which could make it harder for a greenhorn to get on the pitch. The fact that Baker was selected in Friday’s first team as the Eagles head man, though, indicates he’s ready enough to have a go at it.
“I’ve seen a massive improvement in Perry over the last couple of months since he’s become a resident,” said Friday. “He’s certainly benefitted from moving down here, and the squad has certainly benefitted from having him around down here, and that’s credit to him, not only as a rugby player, but as a man, as well.”
The adjectives Friday uses to describe Baker are similar to those his predecessor, Alex Magleby, and former National Team manager Andy Katoa, would use to describe Isles – humble, hard-working, hungry and eager to learn.
“Perry’s work ethic has been fantastic. We know he’s got raw talent, he’s got raw speed, but he’s been working immensely hard on his core skills and his tactical understanding,” said Friday.
“He studies hard in the game – he’s a real student. He’s really putting in some work off the pitch in the video work, understanding what he needs to be looking for, the pictures both defensively and offensively, and he’s been a pleasure to work with.
“He’s got a wonderful personality, is very infectious with his work ethic, but he also knows to relax and have a smile as well, which is a great thing to see. It can’t always be all work, work, work.”
Isles, under both Magleby and Matt Hawkins, struggled to find his role on the team, and those coaches struggled to define it for him. Isles could score, but his passing and defense were called into question, so he often wouldn’t start, but come on in a game that was already out of reach and run in a couple of tries, begging the question, why not let him get you a lead instead of dig you out of a hole?
After spending the spring in Europe learning in a professional environment, Isles’ game has matured, and his eye is on cementing himself as the team’s starting wing. If he can do that, if his skills have closed the gap between them and his raw talent enough to garner consistent playing time, and Baker can come on as fast as Isles did two years ago, the Eagles might finally have the dream – a fast guy who can get you a lead, and a second fast guy who can close out the win.