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In the past, quite a few players used the USA sevens program as a stepping-stone toward a professional path in fifteens. However, the landscape has changed. With the Sevens World Series, and USA’s place on it, well-established, and with another Olympic cycle looming as soon as one ends, it isn’t clear how different players with navigate options in sevens and fifteens.
Several of the USA sevens players have been listed in the Eagles Elite Training Squad. Still, until Saturday against Romania, sevens captain Madison Hughes had yet to be capped for the fifteens Eagles.
After the Eagles match against the New Zealand Maori All Blacks, I asked Hughes a few questions to understand how at least one player is weighing up his options in the two codes.
“I think right now, I’m kind of keeping an open mind. I’m very much enjoying my sevens. I’ve been loving my time on the circuit and with the sevens team. My plan right now is to continue playing with the sevens team and then be involved with the [USA] fifteens team as much as I can.
“Right now I’m not thinking overseas contract.
“The contracts that people get initially are not particularly lucrative. Once you establish yourself overseas, you can get good money there. But that initial period, I don’t think you’re going to get much more than you get now as a sevens player.
“The opportunities for growth in the US with sevens…opportunities for sponsorship are really good. I have one with Penn Mutual which has been really good for me. I have one with Deloitte which has also been really good for me. Having those companies support me means that I can concentrate on my rugby and not really have to worry about the money too much. The Olympics are a big factor behind [the sponsorship opportunities].”
Chasing a fifteens contract includes quite a bit of risk. It seems reasonable that Hughes would not rush into that risk if he is satisfied with his current rewards.
In terms of choosing between sevens, and the Olympic dream that is attached to that, and fifteens, it seems reasonably clear that quite a few American players are going to have to avoid the choice by balancing both.
One thing that must be kept in mind is that even if a sevens player goes after and gets a contract overseas in fifteens, there are still going to be competing demands for that player’s time. The balancing act between fifteens and sevens under the USA Rugby umbrella seems easier at the moment than the balancing act between clubs and nation.
“For me, it’s been great coming in. I’ve got Mike Friday and Phil Greening—they’re both guys I am very comfortable with. I did college All Americans with Rob Hoadley. These are coaches I’m quite familiar with, and that definitely makes it easy because I’m more comfortable saying, ‘Hey, this is what I’m feeling. What do you want me doing in this situation?’ Immediately I felt comfortable with the guys and could come in and be myself and not have to worry about upsetting any balance.
“It’s a management between [sevens and] fifteens. Mike [Friday] and John Mitchell have a good relationship, and they know what’s best for both programs. I think [the] conversation is how I’m doing , how my body’s doing, what each coach is thinking in different situations. I’m loving my rugby. I’m keen to play everything.”
Despite the chatter and speculation about the position Hughes will play in fifteens, he seems not to have been as unsure as the rest of us. He thinks of himself as a full back.
“I can’t really say where I’ll end up. 15 is where I feel most comfortable now. Most of my time was at 15. Age grade was always 15. There’s been a lot of talk about how I’m kind of bouncing around everywhere, but that’s where I’ve historically played.
“In speaking to the coaches, I’ve worked my skills at nine, I’ve worked my skills at 10. Depending on what happens, I am definitely open to moving around. Today [against the Maori] I was at 15. We’ll see what happens in the next few weeks.”
With the start at fullback against Romania, and with John Mitchell expressing comfort with options at scrum half, Hughes is getting a chance to prove himself at fullback.