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Jake's Take is a regular column from Jake Feury. A recent graduate from Middlebury College, Jake has been involved in rugby for a number of years. Some of his playing experience includes stints with the Morris Lions (NJ), the GPS Gallopers (Australia), Middlebury College (VT), Trinity College (Dublin), Atlantis, the Northeast Academy and various age-grade All-American trials and tours.
Wondering where players from the USA Falcons, the USA men’s sevens development team, end up in their rugby careers over three years down the line? Throughout this calendar year USA Rugby’s current financial situation has been well publicized. These struggles have led to budget cuts in a various areas, including the USA Falcons.
It is evident that the lack of formalized domestic player development structures is a challenge that USA Rugby has had to deal with for quite some time. Without an established professional league and a sufficient number of revenue generating events, USA Rugby is left to find ways to develop players for their national teams without the resources many tier one nations have access to.
Is the USA Falcons a team worth investing in? After looking at these players and their careers, it appears it is. Here is a case study on the USA Falcons roster from the 2014 Las Vegas Invitational (LVI), where they lost a close game in the final to the Serevi Selects. Where are they now?
Most significantly, Madison Hughes, who has captained the USA sevens squad through the team’s Olympic qualification and participation until the present, was a part of this team. He had not previously received a sevens cap, however, after his performance in the LVI and an injury to Stephen Tomasin, Hughes found his first cap at the very next tournament stop in Wellington.
After the LVI and through the present day, Hughes went on to be selected in 32 of the next 33 significant 7s tournaments, which include World Series stops, the NACRA Olympic qualifier and the Olympics. He is currently fourth in the world in points for this year’s season.
Another fantastic career that was semi-propelled by the LVI was that of Garrett Bender. To Bender’s credit, he had previously been capped in 2012 under Alex Magleby. In fact, he was one of the first 11 athletes to be granted a contract at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Chula Vista, Calif. in early 2012, but ultimately had to take some time away from the team.
After his appearance in the 2014 LVI, similar to Hughes, he went on to be selected in 24 of the next 25 tournaments, leading up through the Olympics. He has, however, elected to take some time off this year to heal up after a busy couple of seasons.
Mikey Te’o was another member of the squad who has been up to some pretty exciting things. Te’o had already been contracted at the OTC before and his experience showed, as he was selected to three of the final five tournaments of the 2013 season. Despite remaining contracted for the following year, he was absent from all selections on the World Series in 2014 and 2015. This past year he did make his resurgence, however, getting selected for Hong Kong and Singapore. Not to mention, he played for the San Diego Breakers in the recent PRO league and has been getting more and more time with the USA 15s team.
Pat Blair is another player who has been involved at the OTC for quite some time. After his appearance in the LVI he did not get picked for the Eagles during that season. He did play for San Diego in the Elite City Sevens, however, and was eventually selected for four of the 10 tournaments in the 2014 season, two of the 11 tournaments in the 2015 season and most recently was selected for Las Vegas and Vancouver on this year’s series. He continued his development during that time on the Falcons, as well, traveling on the South American tour in 2015. Moreover, he has spent some time this past year playing 15s with the San Diego Breakers, the San Diego Old Aztecs and the USA side.
Some veteran players on the roster include Jack Halalilo and Tai Enosa. Halalilo and Enosa were contracted at the OTC in 2013. Halalilo was a regular selection on the sevens circuit for a while, until he left his contract after his 2013 contract year. While he got back into the mix with the 2014 USA Falcons and played at the 2014 Elite City Sevens with San Francisco, he has not found himself another sevens cap. He has, however, continued to be a top player for San Francisco Golden Gate.
Enosa, similar to Halalilo, left his contract at the OTC after his 2013 contract year. He has been involved with the 7s program since about 2009 and has seen caps on the 15s team, as well. He was a part of the original flock of players to be signed to full-time contracts at the OTC in 2012. Despite being brought back to the OTC full-time in 2014 with Mike Friday, just months after his Falcons appearance in Vegas, he still has not found his way back onto the 7s circuit. Enosa has continued his playing with San Francisco Golden Gate, owning a key role in the team’s Pacific Rugby Premiership grand final appearance last year.
This Falcons roster also included some players who were involved with the military’s World Class Athlete Program in Marcus Satavu, Ben Leatigaga and Andrew Locke. Satavu went on to get selected for Tokyo and Singapore shortly after the LVI, which are his most-recent caps. Later that same year he played for San Diego at the Elite City Sevens and the Falcons again at Serevi RugbyTown Sevens. He has since moved on to play with the Connecticut Bulldogs and Mystic River. Moreover, he has dabbled a bit with rugby league, earning a tryout with the Toronto Wolfpack last year.
Ben Leatigaga played both basketball and rugby at West Point and was a star at the Collegiate Rugby Championship during his college days. He went on to earn a contract, trained full-time at the OTC and played for San Diego at the 2014 Elite City Sevens. Furthermore, he traveled on tour to South America with the USA Falcons in 2015. He eventually earned his two caps during the 2015 season in Vancouver and London. While he has not found his way back on the 7s circuit since, he did play 15s for the San Diego Breakers last season.
After the 2014 LVI Andrew Locke transitioned into a more coaching-related role. After playing for San Diego in the 2014 Elite City Sevens Andrew coached the men’s and women’s Armed Forces teams at the 2015 competition. Moreover, he coached the Falcons in 2016 on their tour to South America. He is now the full-time assistant coach for the women’s 7s team.
Another player who was involved at the 2014 LVI was Chris Turori. He was contracted at the OTC during that year. He played for San Diego at the Elite City Sevens later that summer and traveled to South America with the Falcons in 2015. Spending some time playing with OMBAC and the San Diego Breakers, he has been featured at the OTC as recently as this season for pre-departure sevens camp.
Mike Ziegler, a player who came through the ranks from Tiger Rugby, played for San Diego at the Elite City Sevens following the LVI and was contracted at the OTC during that time. Most recently, he played for 1823 in the 2016 national 7s championships.
Ben Nicholls, who played for the Zimbabwean 7s team, played for Utah at Halloween 7s in 2015 and recently helped coach Utah to a national sevens championship in 2016. He remains on board as the head coach of Utah’s National Development Academy.
It is certainly interesting to see the different places these players have ended up after a common origin in Vegas in 2014. The Falcons provided a platform for a few of these players to have substantial careers on the circuit, despite being such an under-resourced playing base. Madison Hughes and Garrett Bender are perfect examples of how the Falcons can aid in a player’s development. With a bit more structure and a few more resources, the Falcons have the potential to have an enormous positive impact on the 7s program.