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The 0-5 result for the Eagles in Dubai last week was the worst ever under Mike Friday. So in that sense, it was a historically bad tournament. But it’s certainly not unprecedented.
Before Friday, going winless through an entire tournament was practically an annual occurrence. Since the advent of full-time training contracts in 2011, the Eagles posted a winless tournament at least once a season from 2010/2011 through 2013/2014, with Al Caravelli, Alex Magleby and Matt Hawkins each presiding over one or more.
The best season the USA ever enjoyed prior to Friday was coached by Magleby in 2012/2013. The Eagles made the top-eight five times that season, comfortably a record at the time. But in Wellington that year, they went 0-4-1, with the only non-loss being a draw against England.
Friday took over two seasons later, and ever since, he’s taken the Eagles to new heights year over year. In 14/15, they reached the top-eight a record six times and finished sixth overall, their highest ever at the time, also claiming the first-ever World Series tournament win in London.
In 15/16, they made eight quarterfinals, breaking the previous year’s record. In 16/17, they made eight quarterfinals again, but finished fifth, the team’s best to date. And they made a record five semifinals.
That success rightfully heightened expectations. From the time he was hired, Friday talked about transitioning from being a participant to a contender, and the USA has by all rights done that. But last week’s result was a harsh plummet back to Earth.
"We are all bruised from last week's experience where it was just not meant to be and with a number of things out of our control," said Friday in a press release. "We all fully recognize that we did not perform to our standards and paid the price for lacking accuracy, especially in attack.”
One of those uncontrollable variables was the loss of recently anointed World Rugby 7s Player of the Year, Perry Baker, who went down with a concussion in the opening minutes of the tournament. He will miss this weekend’s tournament in South Africa, too. He’s been replaced on the roster by Kevon Williams.
"We are hugely determined as a group to 'right the wrongs' this week and will use last week's adversity as the fuel to drive us through the weekend," said Friday. "Our squad is eager for this next opportunity, and has already started working on where we need to focus. All of this is easily fixable and within our control if we apply ourselves as a collective group.”
Friday knew coming into Dubai his team was not where it needed to be. He told us as much.
“We’re massively undercooked, and the reason being we gave three months off at the end of the season. We did that on purpose, because in the four-year cycle, with what they’ve got coming up, this was the only time we could give them a proper down period to rest, recover, recuperate. We’re probably four, five weeks undercooked in terms of conditioning,” Friday said last week, hours before his team took the field in Dubai.
The World Cup is next July, extending the normal 7s season two months. Then the next World Series, which will see four teams qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, begins not long thereafter, leaving the team without a real offseason. If the Eagles don’t finish in the top four, a feat they’ve never accomplished, they’ll have to compete in the Olympic qualifier after the completion of the 2018/2019 World Series, truncating another offseason. And then there’s the Pan-Am Games the following summer and the Olympics in 2020.
So Friday looked at the next three years and decided that if his team were to get a real, significant offseason before Tokyo, it needed to be this summer. That led to a seemingly overweight Danny Barrett taking the field, Carlin Isles being leaned on heavily in his first tournament since rehabbing from knee surgery, and an overall poor tournament for veterans like Folau Niua and Madison Hughes.
The team, as a whole, underperformed in nearly every aspect. Arguably the best restart team in the world was off in that phase of the game. Everyone seemed a step slow to the tackle area, resulting in numerous penalties for not releasing. And they simply looked tired from the first game on.
If the team rebounds this week in South Africa, or more realistically after the holidays in Sydney, it will be easy to sweep the slow start, like last season’s, under the rug. But starting next season, the Olympics are on the line. Having finished fifth last season and sixth the previous two, making the top four and qualifying for Tokyo early is a worthy and realistic goal. And to accomplish it, the Eagles can’t afford to start poorly in Dubai again.
Stumbling out of the gates isn’t a new phenomenon for the USA. It’s something the Eagles have traditionally done since becoming a regular core team in 2008/2009. Only once has the team made the quarterfinals in Dubai, while they’ve made multiple trips to the top-eight at every other perennial World Series stop.
Dubai, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong and Las Vegas have hosted a circuit tournament every year the USA has been a core team. Averaging points accrued at each stop since 08/09, Dubai ties with Australia for the second-worst venue for the Eagles. The only place they’ve done worse is New Zealand. Those are traditionally three of the first four tournaments each season. The other early tournament is usually in South Africa, the fourth-worst place for the USA.
The event kindest to the Eagles, unsurprisingly, is London, the only one they’ve won. Second is the home event in Las Vegas, and third is Hong Kong, which slots into the penultimate leg each season.
So, the data points to the USA’s results traditionally getting better throughout the course of the season. The logical inference to make is that preparation is a problem. Time zone is an issue, and America is among westernmost nations on the circuit, but that’s an issue for everyone at one stop or another.
Forever, the USA has struggled to play in warm-up tournaments, resulting in only intra-squad looks in the preseason, while the other contenders routinely get at least one or two hit-outs before kicking off the Series. The Eagles have also traditionally not been able to afford to arrive as early, giving them less time to overcome jetlag.
The Eagles’ best result in Dubai was a third-place finish in 2015/2016. That year, they entered two sides in the Halloween 7s, where virtually the entire player pool got to knock the rust off against domestic all-star sides and teams from Canada and Argentina. They also arrived early in Dubai.
This year, they got the warm-up tournament in the Silicon Valley 7s, but Friday chose to rest Barrett, Hughes, Baker and Isles. They arrived a day later than in 2015, but the aforementioned conditioning issue caused by granting significant time off reared its ugly head.
A less quantifiable factor might be that each of the last two years Friday’s been preoccupied by something else headed into the season. Friday is not a full-time employee, so he doesn’t work with his players on a daily basis. His assistant, Chris Brown, does. That arrangement, as proven by the historical comparisons supplied at the beginning of the article, has worked swimmingly.
But last year Friday was serving as an assistant coach for the 15s team, leading to him not putting in his usual time with the 7s team before the start of the season. He awkwardly flipped roles with Brown for the Dubai tournament. Hughes, the captain, also spent the November Tour with the 15s team, and he had a bad start in Dubai, after which he was released from the team for a necessary break, resulting in him missing Cape Town.
Heading into the season opener this year, Friday spent some time in India, helping prepare its age-grade women’s team for an attempt to qualify for the Youth Olympics. Their Asian qualifier was held in Dubai alongside the World Series event, and Friday coached them even into the week of the main event.
It was pretty clear last year Friday’s and Hughes’s involvement with the 15s November tour was to the detriment of the 7s team, which as head coach and captain, respectively, should be their priority. Friday seemed to acknowledge the impact by recoiling from the 15s program since. It’s not clear if splitting his attention between India’s U17 team and the Eagles had a similar impact this year.
But the point to be made is that every try, every half, every result and every tournament counts from now on. Dubai counted towards World Cup seeding, along with all of last season’s results and the next six this season, but the Eagles aren’t in a position to realistically climb or fall much between now and Hong Kong, after which the seedings are set.
But Dubai next year could be the difference between qualifying for Tokyo and not. And if the Eagles do qualify, the next two Dubai tournaments could be the difference between a favorable Olympic draw or a tough one.
USA Rugby leadership needs to spend some time around a table with Friday, Brown and their staff to assure the USA’s longstanding tradition of poor World Series starts ends here.