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Many of you are probably jetlagged, hungover or otherwise still reeling from a frenetic three days of World Cup rugby in San Francisco. Like Haz, I was seemingly one of few American rugby diehards unable to attend, so the only thing still haunting me is the image seared into my brain by New Zealand’s shorts.
Those things were tighter than the try zones at AT&T Park. So tight, in fact, Kurt Baker ripped them off before being hoisted on his teammate’s shoulders for a now-famous picture making the rounds online.
While you get your sea legs back for the real world, here are some observations from afar to jog your memory on a historic weekend.
They played four games in San Francisco, beating two of the three teams they’re ranked higher than and losing once as the underdog. So nearly chalk, but thanks in large part to winning the last time they played on home turf in Las Vegas back in March, the expectations for the men have changed.
When head coach Mike Friday arrived after an abysmal 2013/2014 season during which the Eagles were legitimately in danger of being relegated from the World Series, the plan was to morph from participant to contender. Evidenced by the only two tournament wins in program history and the checking off of too many other firsts and bests to tally, mission accomplished.
But has the team plateaued? It’s a fair question. After jumping the USA’s ranking from 13th to 6th in season one, Friday’s teams have finished sixth twice more, sandwiching a program-best fifth-place finish in ‘16/17. A fifth-place seed coming into the weekend’s festivities ended in a sixth-place finish. So the data says we’re about the fifth or sixth best team in the world now, just as we were four seasons ago.
There are reasons – started the season late intentionally for periodization purposes heading into the two-year run toward Tokyo, continuity issues thanks in large part to injuries (8 Olympians still in the team haven’t played a full tournament together since Rio), no series-ready second layer of players, and maybe most obviously, other teams around the world are working just as hard to get better, too.
That said, every team has its own unique setbacks. You still have to get the results, because professional and international rugby is a results-driven business.
But to anyone with waning confidence in Mike Friday, take a couple of steps back from the ledge. Remember where you came from. Sit down, be humble. And I ask, if not him, then who? From 13th to 6th, from no cups in the cabinet to a couple.
It wasn’t that long ago we were hapless. Forget being disappointed in not making the quarterfinals in Rio, we were never supposed to be there to begin with. Without Friday performing the lifetime-contract-worthy feat of delivering the USA to the top four in his second season, qualifying for the 2016 Olympics was always going to come down to a one-off against Canada.
In the five seasons following the decision to include 7s in the Games, the USA went a collective 5-14 against Canada, never posting a winning season in the series. Since Friday’s taken over, the Eagles are 12-6 against the neighbors to the north.
Is it possible Friday’s taken us as far as he’s capable? Yes. But it’s just as possible the Eagles have gone as far as anyone is capable of taking them, be it Friday, Tietjens, Ryan, Saban or Belichick. And it’s entirely possible no one else in the world would have gotten them this far.
What if England knocked on the cross kick and the Eagles scooped it up and scored at the death to win the quarterfinal? Then they’re into the medal rounds, and all they need is a single win to get on the podium. One play separates resounding success and discussion about a coaching change? The expectations have changed, indeed.
The men will now take a much needed but brisk break to rest, recover and reload for Olympic qualification next season. They’ll enter with the same goal as the blue bloods – South Africa, Fiji, New Zealand and England – which is finish in the top four, punching their ticket to Tokyo. This time, they’ll have a realistic shot at it.
Like the men, they went 2-2. They beat two teams they should have and lost to two they should have. The differences are they were competitive in all their losses and the women’s tournament had 16 teams instead of 24, landing them in a higher standing, but also resulting in them playing better competition in earlier stages.
Considering the team’s best player, Alev Kelter, was pulled from the roster the week of the event, and her replacement, Kelsi Stockert, was lost hours before kickoff, the tournament was a resounding success and a glimpse at what the Eagles are capable of.
That fans are glowing about the women’s performance and gutted over the men’s is a lesson on expectations. The women have yet to win a tournament on the World Series. Their circuit has fewer tournaments with fewer teams in each and has only been around for six seasons.
In that time, four teams have accounted for all 31 tournament wins. 26 were won by either Australia or New Zealand. Canada won three times and England twice. In the last 31 tournaments on the men’s side, dating back to the final tournament of the ‘14/15 season, 10 different teams have hoisted a cup, despite there being a larger field.
What does that say about the difference in competitiveness from the men’s circuit to the women’s? That the women’s is more stratified, with fewer good teams capable of winning it all and more cannon fodder. So reaching the semifinals or winning a cup on the men’s side is theoretically more difficult than it is on the women’s side.
The point of splitting those hairs is to put the women’s performance in San Francisco in perspective. Even though the women didn’t win and didn’t medal, and even though it’s a worse end-result than they’ve achieved at the last two 7s World Cups, it was a really promising showing.
They didn’t just play New Zealand and Australia in medal games, they were highly competitive in both, moreso than usual on the circuit, all without Kelter and Stockert. The restart game took a step forward, with Jordan Gray and Abby Gustaitis showing flashes of what can be molded into aerial dominance. Ilona Maher proved she can run over people on the international stage much like she rampaged through collegiate competition.
Together, that forward pack can be the most physically dominant, both around the park and in the air, in the world. Naya Tapper continued to prove she can do things no one else on the planet can, looking like a female Jonah Lomu. Nicole Heavirland is still ascending, but she’s already world class.
So the performance was equal parts exciting, as the women got into the medal rounds and gave the two best teams in the world all they could handle, disappointing, because the barrier to entry into the upper echelon on the women’s side is lower than the men’s yet a championship still evades us, and promising, because without arguably the best player in the world, we showed what we’re capable of.
The challenge for Richie Walker now is going to be letting these top-shelf ingredients continue to come together in the slow cooker through 2020, without lifting the lid to fuss too much, interrupting the process. For the most part, the talent identification piece is done. Focus on the players in the pool now, because they’re capable of taking it all in Tokyo, and get them as many reps and scrimmages together as possible before opening the season in Glendale in less than 90 days. Then win that tournament, because you can.
It produced a few upsets, but none that couldn’t be had with traditional pool play. On the men's side, not a single upset in the first round, and every non-core team was eliminated in its first match, save Ireland, which drew non-core Chile in the opening round. So the argument that the knockout format creates more excitement is debunked.
The lone coherent argument for the departure is equity-based, as it allows for the men and women to play all their games on the same field. But this wasn’t the driver for the change. As reported by the New York Times, the original hosting bid, which had the event split between two stadiums an hour from each other on opposite ends of the bay, didn’t account for the cost and headache of moving 40 teams around one of the most expensive cities in America.
Putting all 40 teams in the same location alleviated many of those headaches and took a burden off the bottom line. To save face, World Rugby spun the decision as one to promote equity. World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper even tweeted about the potential to institute the straight-knockout format for the World Series going forward.
The equity issue is one that needs to be solved, but it’s not as easy as eliminating pool play. The cost of hosting, lodging and transporting teams in the World Series falls on the individual tournaments. When you add 12 women’s teams to the 16 men’s teams, you nearly double the tournament’s costs. As yet, that boost in cost hasn’t sufficiently been mitigated by a significant boost in ticket sales at any of the stops which have hosted men and women simultaneously, making the already tough-to-turn-a-buck tournaments even leaner commercial propositions.
To put it another way, the NBA subsidizes the WNBA because it can afford to. The men’s HSBC Sevens World Series and its hosts cannot afford to subsidize a 10-stop women’s circuit using just one stadium a tournament, if at all. If World Rugby wants equity, it’s about the only party in the equation capable of loosening its purse strings to make it happen.
More than 100,000 people through the turnstiles. That’s incredible. It’s monumental. The Rugby World Cup Sevens is now the best attended rugby event ever in America. Lots of work done by a small group of people to pull it off. The attendance total easily eclipsed that in Moscow in 2013. It’s better than Dubai in 2009.
Through my television and computer screens, the atmosphere looked unreal. The stadium was buzzing. The broadcast looked and felt like that worthy of a quadrennial. It was only good vibes, fun and a sense of occasion coming through on social media.
The play was superb. Save the last men’s match, the Eagles delivered performances capable of turning the uninitiated into the interested every time they took the field. The medal rounds were all compelling, attractive advertisements for the game.
American rugby made a good RWC first impression on the weekend, proving we can host a big quadrennial well, fostering optimism about what other opportunities may lie ahead, in say 2027 or 2031.