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Hughes evading Wales. Martin Seras Lima photo

Since Rio, the men’s 7s team has been chasing its tail a bit. Players scattered to the four winds after the Olympics, and some returned, while others didn’t. The HSBC Sevens World Series started almost too soon, it would seem.

In Dubai and South Africa, the Olympic hangover was evident, as head coach Mike Friday spent less time with the 7s squad in the lead up thanks to his role with the 15s team. In Dubai, he took a backseat to assistant Chris Brown. He then went home and missed the South Africa stop, as did captain Madison Hughes, who played poorly in Dubai and was in desperate need of a break.

“I think I would have played that slightly differently in terms of ensuring that we were probably a bit more prepared. It was always going to be a difficult one because we wanted to give the 7s boys the opportunity to do as much as possible without compromising their health and their wellbeing. But the 7s did suffer for that,” Friday told Rugby Today.

“Madison’s a real prime example. That guy played all 10 tournaments last year and the Olympics, was non-stop, was desperate to go on the November tour, and we didn’t want to rob him of that opportunity.”

Friday and Hughes are rested and back, and the team has had as normal a preparation heading into Wellington as it can afford. What the Eagles can afford, though, has come back to bite them. Brett Thompson was set to return from injury, and Andrew Durutalo, who has left the Sunwolves, is back again, too, helping fill the personnel gap in the pack that was evident in the first two tournaments.

But Thompson went down with an injury after leaving for Wellington, leaving the team a man short. That shouldn’t happen, as World Rugby allows for a 13th man to travel to tournaments now. So Friday should have another Eagle to plug in, but even though all ground costs are covered for the 13th man, the coach said due to a union-wide belt tightening he couldn’t afford to fly one in. Now, some Kiwi named Pago Haini who has never been with the team before is stepping in.

The midfield is also a cause for concern. First, Maka Unufe was not selected. Though he’s not 100-percent healthy, Friday says Unufe was good enough to play if he’d chosen him. The young family man, said Friday, hasn’t been his explosive self for some time, and chose to go without him, expecting Unufe to respond well and be back to form in time for Las Vegas and Vancouver.

Then Kevon Williams, the up-and-coming utility back, suffered a knee injury in training, forcing the uncapped Connor Wallace-Sims into the squad.     

“Connor’s very raw, very naïve, but has good feet and is capable of playing in the center,” Friday said.

Martin Iosefo will likely start most games at center. But he’ll be spelled by committee.

“If we want to give Martin a rest or break, there’s a number of things we could do,” added Friday. “We could switch Madison to the center and play (Steven) Tomasin at nine, or we could move Danny (Barrett) to the center if we wanted to play a more direct game. So, we have got options. We can move things around. If we wanted to be really maverick, though, I think I said I’d never do this again, we could move Perry (Baker) to the center.”

Friday has tried to get his racehorses, Baker and Carlin Isles, on the field at the same time before. It didn’t go well. But with the emergence of Baker’s skillset, Friday is revisiting the idea.  

“The previous two times that we’ve tried it, they were at very different stages of their development,” he said. “Perry is recognized around the world now as a proper rugby player. He’s admired by coaches and people who have been in the game for 30-40 years.”

So the Eagles are wounded coming into Wellington and Sydney, but they still have plenty of world-class firepower and every ability to get out of a very tough pool that sees them paired with New Zealand, France and Samoa. Should make for some interesting drama.