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Mike Friday likes a challenge, and he’s got more than one laid out in front of him as the new Eagles 7s coach. That’s nothing new, though, for the man who turned 12th-place Kenya into fifth-place Kenya in a matter of months.
“The reason I got involved with Kenya was I thought they had immense potential, and I look at the Americans and I look at the athletes and I see there’s an immense ability and an immense potential that could allow them to do some good things,” Friday told Rugby Today.
“The challenge of being a part of that and helping athletes become the best they can be is something that kind of floats my boat. When the opportunity was put before me, and obviously I’d had interactions with some of the players previously, I thought, you know what, this could be enjoyable.”
Since stepping down as Kenya's head coach following the 2012/2013 season, there’s been a competitive void in Friday’s existence. Sure, he coached the London Scottish’s backs in 15s, but he was no longer a globetrotting head coach scheming against the likes of Gordon Tietjens week in and week out. He will be once again come October.
“It will certainly be challenging. I’m back on the world circuit and picking my wits and my brains against some of the old boys,” said Friday. “That makes some of that all the more exciting and enjoyable.”
Of course, the main charge given to Friday is getting the USA into the Olympics. Barring a miracle top-four finish on the Series this season, the USA will look to qualify via the North American regional tournament next summer.
“Canada hold that pole position in the regional qualifier. That’s where everybody’s putting their sensible money, but that’s half the enjoyment that I like. That’s the challenge that kind of floats my boat and lights my fire,” said Friday.
“I look at the World 7s Series and see where the USA finished, and I think, 'You know what, they’re underachieving. Can I help them achieve and become a competitor, not a participator, on the World 7s Series?' And I think with the athletic ability and potential we have every chance of doing that.”
Friday and assistant coach Chris Brown got their first intimate look at some of the USA’s talent last weekend at the Olympic Training Center, where over 40 players, currently-contracted and hopefuls alike, tried to impress their new coaches. Many were crossovers. Friday is familiar with America’s favorite crossover – Carlin Isles. He coached him in the Samurai setup earlier this year.
“I am excited by players that, first and foremost, have the right personality and character but want to excel at any sport, and if they choose rugby to be that sport and they apply themselves, then yeah, that really does excite me,” said Friday.
“We’ve seen a couple of these this last weekend who are kind of former crossover athletes, and you’re thinking, ‘Wow, they’ve got good hand-eye coordination, they can play, they can catch and pass and actually they have been playing for a few years,’ and it’s can you accelerate that learning?
“What I have learned from working with Carlin from when he was working with me over in London is he is an immensely fast learner.”
Part of the challenge for Friday will be learning quickly, too, as the start of the World Series is right around the corner, and there’s no time to waste. He and Brown have already laid out expectations for the players and begun to mold a winning culture.
"Chris has been here for two weeks. The planning whilst this has all been going on and sorting out the paperwork, we’d already hit the ground running. We’ve got ourselves in order. We knew what needed to be done and we knew what we were looking for," said Friday.
"We’ve done the video work, we’ve made our mark in the sand in terms of culture, we’ve done some analyzing on core skills, because that’s a key part of where they are now, because the reality is potential is one thing, but we need some realization from day one, and we let them play. And from that we’ve been able to have a pretty good idea of who we want in that group, and what that means to those who are outside of that group and those that want to be remote but still part of that group.
"Everybody will be very, very clear about where they sit and what’s expected of them."
Over the next week or so, Friday and his staff will iron out which players will receive residential contracts, and they'll lay out a plan for those who could make the team from off site. Then it's continuing to work.
"The key to a successful team is like anything, is a strong culture and an immense work ethic. If you have those two ingredients, you can start to create things and hopefully do some special things. In Kenya it was nothing more than that, and in any successful team it’s nothing more than that," said Friday.
"People hide behind a lot of flannel and a lot of fancy words, but when you strip it back it is about executing the basics, understanding the basics, being a student of the game, and having a humility and respect for everybody that you work with and play against, and a work ethic where you want to be as successful as you can be and you’ll everything you can in order to achieve that.
"That’s what we’re trying to build here and that will take time, and we need to evolve it. My sense from three days with the boys is the attitude and the endeavor and the desire and the hunger is there. We now need to embrace it, channel it, focus it, and we need to help it grow and educate it."