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When head coach Mike Friday first sat down with a calendar in preparation for Rio 2016, he knew his players would have a long, intense run of training and playing leading into the Olympics, which would be separated from 7s’ other major quadrennial, the World Cup, by an insufficiently short couple of seasons. The World Cup would also be sandwiched on the other end by Olympic qualification and quickly approaching Tokyo 2020.
In an ideal world, the grueling lead into the Olympics and the climax of the event would have been followed by several months off for the overworked athletes and staff, but it didn’t. There was the 2016/2017 HSBC Sevens World Series to deal with. The turnaround was so short, Friday abdicated the head coaching role to assistant Chris Brown in the season-opening tournament in Dubai. Captain Madison Hughes started shockingly, and in lieu of burnout, left mid-tour for an unplanned, but much needed, break.
So last summer, Friday gave his Eagles a little extra time off after the season to catch up on recovery, leaving them well undercooked heading into the 2017/2018 campaign. The result was a winless season-opener. The sacrifice was planned so the team would still have legs for this weekend’s World Cup.
Despite several bumps along the way, it’s paid off, as Friday has selected the most talented and experienced team since the Olympics. Since Rio, eight of the 12 Olympians have been consistently playing 7s.
Nate Ebner went back to the NFL. Zack Test switched to 15s and suffered a career-ending head injury. Chris Wyles returned to Saracens and retired from international play. Andrew Durutalo focused primarily on 15s. And Garrett Bender spent most of the last two years in his hometown of Minneapolis, getting into coaching.
The other eight have made up the core of the men’s 7s national team’s golden generation. Perry Baker became the first American to win World Rugby 7s Player of the Year in ‘16/17, and he’s the USA’s all-time try leader, followed by Carlin Isles, who led the series in tries last season. Madison Hughes is the USA’s all-time points leader. He led the World Series in points three years ago.
Folau Niua is the kicker on the best restart team in the world, and he'll surpass Test as the most capped American of all time next season. Danny Barrett, Ben Pinkelman and Martin Iosefo are three of only four guys to play in all 10 tournaments last season. Iosefo was named the DHL Performance Tracker Player of the Round in Paris. The tracker, designed to recognize those who create tries versus score them, aggregates carries, tackles, breaks and offloads. Iosefo led the team in this category, followed by Pinkelman.
Pinkleman led the team in tackles and was named to two Dream Teams last season. Barrett was named to the Dream Team when the Eagles won their second tournament ever, and their first on home soil, in Las Vegas in March.
Those aforementioned bumps were literal, as the injury bug feasted on Team USA last season. Hughes missed five-straight tournaments and Stephen Tomasin three, leaving the Eagles short on halfbacks. Maka Unufe stepped up to fill the void, playing a crucial role in the famous weekend in Las Vegas.
Not since Rio have the eight Olympians still in the player pool started and finished a tournament together. It didn’t happen during the 2016/2017 campaign, where they were never selected at the same time. Twice they were all available at the same time last season, but Baker suffered a concussion in the first game of the first tournament in Dubai, missing the following tournament in South Africa.
The band was back together for the third stop in Sydney, but it was there both Tomasin and Hughes were lost. The captain went down in game one, like Baker did two stops prior. Hughes returned for the last three tournaments, but by then, Baker and Unufe had gone down.
So it’s been a while since they’ve all been on the stage together, but they’ve been on song enough in rehearsal to gain selection. This is maybe both the fastest and most physically imposing American team ever fielded. The only contender would be that which took the field in Rio.
An up-and-coming Kevon Williams versus an aging Chris Wyles who’d played very little 7s. Speed to the new, probably everything else to the old, but there’s something to be said about playing 7s consecutively for a while. Andrew Durutalo against Matai Leuta – edge to Durutalo, but not by a lot. Stephen Tomasin versus Nate Ebner – Ebner wins in bump, thump and pure speed, but I’m not sure we saw enough to give him the nod over Tomasin, who has become invaluable as a worthy starter at damn near every position. Zack Test versus Martin Iosefo – wow that’s difficult, as Test is only being nudged out of his throne by Baker, but Test wasn’t at the peak of his powers in 2016. Iosefo might only just be approaching his.
This golden generation, the Olympic eight, is truly special. It’s representative of America and American rugby.
Baker (FL) and Isles (OH) had legitimate NFL contract offers – Baker as an undrafted free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles and Isles’ a futures deal with the Detroit Lions.
Barrett (CA) is a once-in-a-generation product of the rugby pathway – high school, college, age-grade and national team – with NCAA DI-level athleticism. Pinkelman (CO) might make it twice-in-a-generation.
Unufe (UT) couldn’t qualify academically, or he would have played collegiate gridiron in a power five conference. Iosefo (HI) went to the University of Montana to walk onto the football team and found rugby. Niua (CA) is the needle who got plucked out of the haystack that is the Bay Area Polynesian rugby community.
Luckily, Madison Hughes was born an American but raised English, spending his formative playing years in the world’s densest rugby city and returning Stateside for college.
With a supporting cast including a former power five linebacker in Thompson (AZ), an NCAA DII wide receiver in Williams (TX), a Fijian freak in Leuta (CA) and the five-tool Tomasin (CA), it’s as good a team as America can field in the first-ever Rugby World Cup on American soil in one of America's pastime’s cathedrals beamed to millions of homes on national television.