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Team huddle after qualifying for Rio. Cody Schmelter photo

The 7s Eagles are enjoying unparalleled success these days. They’re qualified for the 2016 Olympics, which hadn’t seemed like much of a sure bet since 2009, when it was announced 7s would be included in the Rio Games. They’re coming off their best World Series in program history, reaching six Cup Quarterfinals, three semifinals and winning their first-ever tournament title in London. Going into the weekend, they’re the favorite to take gold at the Pan-Ams.

Save Perry Baker, who’s been a known commodity to coaches past, all the regular contributors have been in the system for years. Alex Magleby is in his second year running the personnel side of things. And we’re in the fourth year of full-time training contracts at the Olympic Training Center.

The independent variable is Mike Friday and his coaching staff. A year ago Monday, USA Rugby announced the hire of assistant coach Chris Brown. A couple of weeks later the worst kept secret in American rugby was confirmed when the national office named Mike Friday head coach. At the beginning of the 2014/2015 season, Phil Greening joined the staff.

Now, USA’s all-time try leader, Zack Test, refers to Friday as the team’s Yoda and the former England and Kenya coach is widely acclaimed for his turnaround of yet another nation in need.   

It’s not just specifically Friday’s staff that’s responsible for the surge in success, but the fact that there is a staff. Before Matt Hawkins, Alex Magleby and Al Caravelli were one-man-bands. They had managers and some medical support, but not a full-fledged staff. And it wasn’t until midway through Hawkins’ year at the helm that Magleby was brought on as the national development director for the men’s 7s team.

Now, for the first time ever, there are four people working on a pretty full-time basis with the objective of making the 7s team better on the field. That’s phenomenal in and of itself, but this kind of success couldn’t have come under the watch of just any four people. There’s a strong case to be made that it had to be these four people.

Magleby had a year as the head coach and knew all of the program’s shortcomings, needs and strengths. He’d already started developing the layer below the senior national team and working to define pathways. He’s as plugged into the American landscape as anyone, with ties to different generations of Eagles, the age-grade national teams, elite high school rugby in one of the country’s most talent-rich areas, and of course the college level. He ran a well-endowed collegiate program reliant on alumni donations, so he understands fundraising – a virtue the current team has to be grateful for as they cash their post-qualification bonus checks.

Friday was a bonafide hire. Unlike Hawkins, Magleby and Caravelli before him, Friday had international head coaching experience with a winning track record. It helped he also had a working relationship with USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville from their days with the London Wasps years prior.

The only question marks surrounding Friday’s appointment were how invested he was and timing – Hawkins had been on the job for just one season, and if Melville really wanted Friday he could have had him a year prior. Friday served as the director of rugby with the London Scottish and maintained residence in London his whole first season, but concerns over those finer details proved moot.

Brown helped Friday flip Kenya from a bottom dweller to a contender in one short season, and he came along with Friday to run the day-to-day operation at the OTC. Somewhere along the way the myth that Brown and Friday were old friends was perpetuated. Really, Brown was referred to Friday by renowned rugby strength-and-conditioning guru Craig White.

“Literally I said to [White], I need a man who can do what you can do but can do it in Africa, and he said, ‘I’ve got just the bloke.’ So I’d never met Brownie,” said Friday.

“The first time I’d met Brownie was the first day of camp in Kenya. We had a 30-minute Skype conversation, where I said, ‘mate, this is what I’m doing, are you up for it? And that’s how that relationship grew.”

Friday and Greening were old pals. Both former England 7s captains, they played together, Friday coached Greening, and he eventually brought him onto his coaching staff in the England setup.

“Phil and Friday, those two are like peas in a pod. They’re funny, very, very funny, especially Coach Friday,” said Carlin Isles, “but they can be hard-nosed. Friday’s somebody you can tell anything to, but when it comes down to business, he means business. They’re very smart, their humor is off the chain, and they bring out the best in me.”

Where Greening and Friday are similar, Brown is different.

“Brownie is cool. He’s funny, but he’s real mellow,” said Isles. “He can be a pest, I can tell you that much, always making sure that you’re eating right.”

Brown is the only coach at the OTC full-time, and he’s largely responsible for strength building and fitness, which could paint him as the disciplinarian.

“Brownie’s not the bad cop,” said Friday. “He’s the boy in the gym who’s very set in this is what we do. He’s cold, Brownie, but he’s probably the quietest out of the three of us, in terms of on-the-pitch coaching.”

“He also controls us a lot,” said Greening of Brown. “He’s constantly nagging us about timing and velocity of training. He’s probably the one that most controls the sessions.”

Greening and Friday come in for the high performance camps, and because of budgetary constraints, Greening only sparingly toured with the team last season. He’s in Toronto for the Pan-Ams and was on hand for just the London and Glasgow stops of the World Series this year. But he’s very much a part of the staff, and Friday hopes to have him around more often going forward.

Ask the players what the biggest difference has been since Friday’s takeover, and, if they can stave off flashbacks of that first Yaka Yard (the term Brown and Friday affectionately use for sessions blurring the line between conditioning and torture) long enough to form a thought, they’ll tell you it’s how fit they’ve become.

“That was brutal for them, because for people like Danny [Barrett], who really hates that aspect, it was tough. It was done to break them, but also to show them how strong they could be,” said Friday.

“And they stuck with it, to the point where it’s quite good comedy when you look back at some of the tapes and you’ve got Carlin rolling around like a baby, you’ve got Maka looking like he’s drunk, you’ve got Madison with kind of lactic arms, Danny throwing up as he’s doing it, all stuff when they look back and they say, did we do that? And then they go to 15s camps and the boys are in awe of what they achieved. But the pain’s over soon enough.” 

Ask the coaches what the hardest transition was, and you’ll get some carnation of an answer involving the word culture. Culture’s been a big one for Friday and his staff the last year, and not just team culture, a buzzword bordering on cliché in the game of rugby, but the different cultures from which the Eagles and their coaches originate.

“I think we have eight cultures in every 12. As a coach, that is tough to change how we communicate, what we communicate, when we communicate, to try and capture all of them at once without upsetting a certain one. That’s been a challenge,” said Friday.

“When I was with England, there’s two types of kids – you have a public school kid and a state school kid, but you put them on a rugby pitch and they’re rugby players. In Kenya nobody had anything, so that was easy. Here, you have a kid on a food ration and a middle class kid who thinks he’s going to get one dessert every night. You put them on the rugby pitch, and you know which one is which.”

It’s taken time for Friday, Brown and Greening to figure out the buttons to push with each player, but they seem to have a grasp on it now. They’ve also learned how to work as a trio.

“It is very much a real bespoke team effort depending on the individuals, because it has to be,” Friday said.

“We sort of jump around each other’s roles a lot. I’ll do a bit of the fitness, Brownie will do some skills stuff and tackling, and Mike does his bit, and we all sort of share,” added Greening. “In terms of roles or responsibilities it will be a case of what voice do we want them to hear now in what area. In terms of a think-tank, which can be quite a challenging think-tank when there’s three of us in a room – we might fall out to get to where we need to get to – it’s a more of a holistic approach.

“We all embody the culture and the environment and the philosophy. That’s non-negotiable, and then we’ll filter into whatever goals we need, whatever area we’re working on depending on who we want to hear who.”

Adding length to the process of determining which voice needs to be heard has been the accent attached to it. Everyone can laugh about it now, but navigating the nuanced minefield of American English versus that spoken across the pond wasn’t done without a few explosions.

“In Dubai Danny [Barrett] kicked off on it. I said, OK, you’ve told me what you think, I’m going to tell you what I think now,” recalled Friday.

“I said, if you’re going to talk about how we want to be spoken to, I’m not interested in you calling me coach or calling me yes sir, because to me that’s patronizing. To an Englishman that’s patronizing. If I said to a man, ‘yes sir, yes sir,’ it’d be, ‘are you winding me up?’ It’s all well and good, but you come to my side of the table now, and you be cognizant of how you come across.

“It’s interesting, now Danny calls me Mike, but when we get into a professional conversation and we’re talking about this is what we’re doing, he’ll then switch to yes sir, and I’m now comfortable with that because I now know where it is.”

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for Friday and his staff was that other kind of culture, that of the team variety. Under previous regimes players would leave the OTC midseason, there were rumors of cliques and favorites being played, and selections were constantly being called into question.

Now, the environment is a little more relaxed. People know the expectations and the consequences, and they’re free to be themselves as long as they’re playing by the rules.

“I think everyone’s comfortable with the coaches. We all tell jokes, we all laugh with each other. The vibe is great, actually,” said Mike Te’o, who played under Hawkins and Magleby as well as Friday. “Over the past years it was kind of shaky. It’s like business, but it’s having a good time.”

“I feel in American sport, you’re not allowed to disagree with a coach. That’s encouraged in our environment. Boys are boys – at the end of the day, if you don’t let them challenge you they won’t become men,” said Friday. “Our role is to protect them and support them and create that environment so they can become everything everybody thinks they can become.”   

Another massive piece of the puzzle was rooting out a me-first mentality. The Eagles hadn’t experienced a whole lot of success the season prior to Friday’s hire, and save a good stretch at the back end of Magleby’s tenure, ever. The void of team triumph was being filled by emphasis on individual glory.

“To make them become a selfless team has been the most pleasing thing, but it’s been the hardest thing,” Friday said.

The coaching staff was ready for that coming in, having observed selfish play from the Eagles on the circuit over the years.

“That was one of the things we noticed – they’re very individual driven. Everyone was all about look at what I’ve done, it’s all about me,” said Greening. “To break that down was tough…They had to buy into the culture, and by doing that they change. It was fit in or f--- off. It’s very simple. It’s team first, and that’s that.”

One veteran who had to make an adjustment was Test, the top try scorer, a former captain, and the man everyone on the team looked to for a big play.

“When we brought him back into the pack, he had to accept his role,” recalled Greening. “And look at him this year – he’s on the dream team for the Series, he’s been phenomenal. Sometimes the hardest thing is understanding your role and accepting it within the team.”

The team appears to have completely bought in. Isles, who admittedly had selfish thoughts when riding the pine under previous coaches, trusts Friday. When he comes off the bench now, he’s more inclined to let the game come to him. Before, he would try to make up for missing the first half all in his first touch, often resulting in a negative outcome.

Even the guys who aren’t selected each tour have good attitudes. Imagine being paid a salary that doesn’t leave much meat on the bone after bills each month for an unfathomably demanding job. That’s reality for all the contracted players, but the ones not selected each tour don’t get the payoff of international travel, the high of running out in front of tens of thousands of fans nine weekends a year and the end-of-season bonuses.

Could make for an unhappy Eagle, and it has many instances before. But even those guys are all in.

“The boys who were on the Series a lot this year, they really told all of us that we’re not just making the squad up with them. It wasn’t that they kind of neglected us and they just went and played amazing,” Stephen Tomasin said.

“When we win it’s vicarious joy either way. When we won in London, I was probably the happiest guy in the world just seeing the smile on my boys’ faces, because we worked hard, man. What we do in Chula Vista now is really hard work,” added Te’o, who like Tomasin, saw no action on the Series last season. “When they got back from London and we trained for NACRA, one of the boys mentioned to me, we’re training with the best team in the world right now, and that was just the cold, hard fact.”

That brings us to confidence. The Eagles can finally walk into a tournament knowing they can beat anyone and win the whole thing. That’s a first.

“One of the biggest things we’ve had to do is stop them believing they are a lower tier nation,” Greening said.

Mission accomplished.