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Two years ago, to the day, from Mike Friday being announced as head coach of the USA’s men’s 7s team, the 12-man squad that would represent America in the Rio Olympics was announced. The selections were made at the end of a four-week camp, but for Friday and his staff, the process was two years in the making. For many of the players, it was much, much longer.
“It was brutal,” said Friday of having to determine whose dreams would be realized and whose would be dashed. “It was really, really, really tough.”
The toughest decisions involved the five players who will accompany the 12-man squad to Florida at the end of the month for some scrimmages with New Zealand, from which three will be picked to go to Brazil as traveling reserves. Halfbacks Nate Augspurger and Shalom Suniula, forward Will Holder and centers Thretton Palamo and Martin Iosefo are in that group.
“It was tough conversations with all of them for different reasons, because they’ve all worked really hard and they were all close, but we were talking about small margins,” said Friday.
“The hardest one was Martin, because of that x-factor and what he can bring, but we just haven’t seen it, we just aren’t seeing what we know we can get from him, and a couple of people have edged past him. We have to be true to the environment, and we have to be true to the group, and we have to pick on what they’ve done in the past and what they’re doing right now.”
One of the more surprising omissions from the team was Augspurger. He emerged as the choice backup scrumhalf at the tail end of last season, being selected for 13 of the last 14 World Series tournaments. The only one he missed in that span was due to injury. But the Olympics are structured differently than World Series tournaments, allowing Friday some flexibility.
“Because of the nature of the tournament, because of the fact that we have a 13th man, so to speak, that we’re able to bring in at some point, it meant we could change the balance of the squad,” explained Friday. “So we don’t actually need to select in the 12 as many specialist halfbacks. That freed up the fact that we were only going to carry two specialist halfbacks in Madison and Folau, which was unfortunate for Nate and Shalom.”
On the flip side of those excruciating decisions was elation, guys who found out they’d be Olympians. Two were considered surprises – Nate Ebner and Chris Wyes, Ebner because he’d largely been out of the game of rugby since walking onto the Ohio State football team and spending four years in the NFL, and Wyles because he hadn’t played 7s regularly since 2009.
Wyles made his intentions clear to Friday early on that he wanted to make a run at the Olympics, so Friday included him in the squad for the North American qualifier last June in Cary, N.C. Wyles played sparingly, but ingratiated himself to the coaching staff and the team. He looked a little slow then, having just two weeks to train for the competition.
The timeline didn’t favor him this time, either, as he was tied up with duties for his professional club, Saracens, which won both the Aviva Premiership and European titles in May. But it wasn’t as unfavorable as a year ago.
“Don’t forget at the NACRA we had three specialist halfbacks in the squad. The balance of that squad was very different, so he was playing a very different role,” said Friday of Wyles.
“At NACRA he literally had two weeks, whereas he’s been with us in a 10-week program. He did the three weeks before he arrived, he’s done four weeks already and he’s got another three to go. So in terms of conditioning-wise and fitness he was right up there with everybody else. He’s in a far different place.”
Perhaps Wyles’ biggest asset is his flexibility. He can literally play any position on the pitch, and his ability to do that went a distance toward getting him selected. If Hughes went down with an injury in the middle of a match, Niua could slide down to scrumhalf and Wyles could step in at flyhalf. He could also start in the pack, as a center or even on the wing.
“This is a guy that’s won the European and the Premiership double on the wing, he learned his trade at center, he’s got unbelievable footballing skills in terms of his restart capability to play 10, and he’s got great distribution, but he’s also physical,” said Friday. “The big part of his game would be his physicality and his contact skills, so he also can play up front.”
Unlike Wyles, Ebner was a late comer to the race for Rio. He re-signed with the New England Patriots in February, working out an agreement with the club that he could have a leave of absence to try out for the Olympics. By mid-March he was stuck in at the Olympic Training Center.
“I will honestly say this now, I was skeptical that Nate would be able to do this, but by the same token it would be wrong of me not to give the guy the opportunity back in February when he wanted to stake his claim,” admitted Friday.
“I respect him, and I was kind of inspired that he was prepared to put what he was on the line, put his NFL career to one side with Bill Belichick’s support, to go for this. So we were always going to give him the chance, but did I think he would actually come strong and push through? I thought it was a tough ask.”
Ebner’s first taste of real competition since the Collegiate Rugby Championship was at the Hong Kong 10s in March. He played for Samurai and showed flashes of his athleticism and physicality. When Carlin Isles was ruled out for the main event in Hong Kong due to injury, Ebner was added to the squad, though he didn’t see any action.
The next week in Singapore, and the following tournament in Paris, he did get time, but looked a far cry from the man-amongst-boys who carried Ohio State at the CRC in years past. He didn’t take on tacklers the way he had in college, and seemed apprehensive to assert his physical supremacy. That’s changed.
“I have to be honest, he’s got better and better and better. These last four weeks in terms of asserting his physicality at the breakdown area, understanding his role in attack and defense, and actually being prepared to do the right thing, not the pattern – and sometimes doing the right thing is making the decision that needs to be made at that time, rather than not lose the ball at all costs – he’s starting to grasp it,” said Friday.
“We’re starting to see a lot more abrasiveness in his running and his carrying, but also in his defensive work he’s been a little bit more physical, which may mean he’ll give the odd penalty like anybody else, but that’s not a problem. That’s part of the game.”
So the team has been named, and Friday’s put forward his rationale. There’s still much rugby to be played before anyone boards a plane to Rio, so those not selected will have to bury the disappointment and stand ready in case of injury, but the 12 is set.