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Carlin Isles and Perry Baker have become the faces of the United States 7s team. That thought might churn the insides of some in the American rugby community, that two seemingly fly-by-night guys have been fast tracked through the ranks, surpassing so many players from the age-grade system and the typical breeding grounds of club and college rugby. But, when you watch the Eagles play in the Series, the crossover phenoms are just about all the announcers talk about.
That’s not entirely unwarranted, as Isles (7) and Baker (6) have accounted for 40-percent of the USA’s tries so far this season. Leading the team in tries is Zack Test (8), its best player and the USA’s all-time try leader. Together, Test, Isles and Baker have scored 21 of the team’s 33 tries through Gold Coast and Dubai. If they worked a little bit better together, it might be more.
One of the biggest issues the team faced in Dubai was the ball getting stuck in the middle of the field. The play in which Test got hurt is a prime example.
“Zack self-inflicted his ankle in the Kenya game. Could have been easily avoided if he’d just passed it to the outside channels, and we’d have scored a lot easier,” said head coach Mike Friday.
“Don’t get me wrong, Zack is a big part of the way we attack. But saying that, the reason he got injured is because he wasn’t doing what we want him to do, which is move the ball to the outside channels.
“When we did that against England and Australia, we controlled the game, and we were winning those games, and we did that for the first five minutes in both those games. When we deviated from that, when we started looking for ourselves individually and ended up getting isolated up the middle of the pitch, that’s where we came unstuck.”
The ball getting choked up in the middle of the field, especially inside Isles, isn’t a new problem for the Eagles, and it’s not just an issue for just Test. Folau Niua was also guilty of it in Dubai, and Alex Magleby was dealing with the same issue two years ago. It seems there’s still a lack of trust in Isles on the perimeter, despite the fact that he’s in his third go-round on the World Series.
“Probably historically, Testy especially, and Folau, they were always looked to to do something out of nothing; whereas I think the world’s changed now. You see a different player when you watch Carlin play. You see a player that very rarely loses the ball in contact. You see a player who keeps the ball alive and is starting to understand how he fits into this team, and it’s more than just a racehorse,” observed Friday.
“That requires adjustment by the likes of Zack and Folau, as well, and they’re the different growing pains that they’re going through at the moment. They have to grow to trust the players on the outside, and the players on the outside have to grow to trust Folau and Zack and tell them when they’re not getting the ball. That’s where we’re at.”
Isles isn’t a finished product, by any stretch, and the mistrust was probably warranted in 2012. Now, though, Isles is much improved. He didn’t miss a single tackle in Dubai, and he’s not coughing the ball up. Much of that is thanks to his own maturation.
“A lot of what he has to do is not necessarily to the benefit of him, which is new to him, because as a track athlete it’s all about you,” said Friday. “He’s learning that he’s got to be part of a team and what he does might not make him look the superstar, but will add benefit to the team to allow us to move forward. He’s starting to grasp that, as well as not making those individual errors he was making probably 12 months ago.”
One coaching point he applied in Dubai was to keep moving. It resulted in a pretty spectacular play, when he emerged from a sure tackle by two Kenyans to score the opening try of the USA's final pool match.
“He found a way to get through, and his leg drive allowed him to pop up the other side of the bloke with the long legs,” said Friday.
“That’s what we’ve been working on with Carlin, we say, 'Carlin you can’t stand still, then you become a sitting target and you weigh 78 kilograms wet through, so all your power, all your pace is reliant on you being on the move, so you’ve got to keep moving, or you’ve got to find a big boy and let him take it into contact.' What you’re seeing with Carlin is he’s starting to do that. He’s pulling out, he’s moving the ball away, he’s hitting onto the line and attacking people.”
Baker, who’s actually played a lot more rugby than Isles, learned some tough lessons in Dubai, too, though Friday is really happy with his taller speedster.
“I think the reality is it would have been a very different tournament for Perry had he been three inches to the left on that first run against England, because all of a sudden they were that worried about Perry, they left the space for Zack," said Friday.
“Then you watch the Australia game. First play, the Australians are worried about Perry, and Zack goes through the hole again, and we hit the hole and Martin [Iosefo] scores. The second one, they’re all worried about Zack, and he doesn’t move it to Perry, and Perry probably scores.”
Before Gold Coast, no one outside the United States knew of Perry Baker. After, the book was out on him – he was lightning quick. He’s still figuring out how to gauge whether he has a guy beat on the outside or not, a lesson Isles had to learn himself.
“There’s not a lot wrong with where Perry’s at. I think what he learned this weekend will be invaluable for him moving forward. He’s a different player to Carlin because he’s a little bit taller, a bit more rangier, he’s probably a little more strong on the fend, so he’s a different type of winger,” said Friday.
“I think Perry is going to be able to adapt a bit quicker than Carlin was able to, because he’s got a little bit more of a rugby education in him, and he’s probably a little bit older and rugby savvy.”
For now, Baker and Isles will continue to split time at wing, and Test and Niua will continue to set them up for tries and reap the benefits of defenses overplaying them, too. But, don’t be too surprised to see Baker and Isles on the field together at one point.
“I can see it happening, yes. I think Perry could do a job in the center, if need be, if we needed to something a little bit different,” said Friday. “I might work to see whether or not Carlin can do a little bit from scrumhalf as well, because Carlin coming across the pitch would be quite interesting.”
Though the process of learning how to manage unparalleled speed on the outside, and the challenges that come with it, are costing the Eagles tries and wins in the mean time, Friday says he won’t let them forever.
“We’ve just got to allow these growing pains to happen. As I said to the boys, I don’t mind you getting it wrong to get it right, but you can’t keep getting it wrong, because the 7s Series is an unforgiving place,” he said. “The margins between success and failure are so small, as we saw on the weekend, and we need to learn as we play. We will suffer those growing pains, but only for so long.”