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There are some remarkable similarities between the takeover of the women’s 7s team Chris Brown is currently undergoing and that which he and Mike Friday conducted with the men’s program back in 2014.
Both teams are wildly talented. Friday inherited Danny Barrett, Folau Niua, Madison Hughes, Maka Unufe and Carlin Isles, among others. All of them have been indispensable cogs in the program for five years now, and they’re world class in their own rights.
Likewise, Brown is inheriting Alev Kelter, Naya Tapper, Kris Thomas and Jordan Gray, among others. Tapper is the Jonah Lomu of the women’s 7s game. Kelter is building a resume that might make her a G.O.A.T. amongst Eagles. Thomas is a world-class finisher, and Gray and Gustaitis have the physical attributes to become a dominant force up front.
Both teams had shown promise, but underachieved. For the men, the flash of achievement happened during the 2012/2013 season, when Alex Magleby coached them to a record five cup quarterfinals. The following season under Matt Hawkins, they finished 13th, narrowly evading relegation.
For the women, the success has come intermittently. A semifinal appearance at the World Cup in July masked disappointment from a season that was feast or famine. The women finished in the top half of a tournament field three times last season, and in the bottom half twice – results hardly indicative of the team’s talent.
Like Friday and Brown did back in 2014 with the men, Brown is focusing on a couple of key areas for the women – tactical understanding and fitness. He’s spent more time on the former than the latter.
“We have a heavy focus on the rugby understanding side of things, and that’s compromised a little bit on the volume of training or the intensity of training at times, but I’m relatively comfortable with where we’re at,” Brown told Rugby Today.
He also said the team is about as cooked as it could have been given the coaching change and parameters of the preseason, but that it’ll be even more fully formed going into the second tournament.
“There’s no real excuses this weekend. Alev Kelter is back fully fit. She’s hungry. You’ve got the other strike players,” said Brown.
“I think you’ll see a fitter, stronger, more decisive team going into Sydney, because we’ll have another four weeks after this tournament, and then another good eight weeks building into Sydney. The rugby basics and frameworks will have become a lot more engrained. We won’t have had to spend as much time, and we can really increase the intensity of how we do things in training.”
An obvious similarity is timing. Friday took over two years before Rio, and Brown is taking over two years prior to Tokyo, giving them both very little lead time to qualify or contend.
There are two stark differences between what will be Brown’s rebuilding project and that he helped Friday with. One is ceiling height.
The men’s ascendancy took the team from 13th to 6th, and the program is struggling to get off that plateau. If Brown can cover as much ground with the women, who finished fifth last season, in the same time frame, medaling becomes an expectation and winning gold becomes realistic.
Another difference is confidence. Where the men had only ever lost, the women have been on the brink occasionally. American men, save for the occasional nod to Zack Test, didn’t make dream teams before Friday. The women regularly do now. As a team, they’ve reached four semifinals in their last 10 tournaments. Those deep runs, even when preceded by losing pool records, can build false confidence.
The men had to learn to win. They had to learn to believe they could achieve. Friday and Brown had to pump them full of confidence.
The women, immensely talented as they are, may need a dose of humility first, evidenced by Brown’s response to a reporter heaping praise on his star-studded lineup.
“To be fair, they don’t want to tackle,” he said, interrupting doting compliments of Tapper’s finishing ability, Gray’s potential and Kelter’s greatness.
“If you look at last season, they might have been pretty classy with ball in hand at times, but when you let in multiple first-phase tries in each tournament, you very rarely defend for more than three phases, you consistently over chase and rely on your inside defender to cover your back, for me it doesn’t matter how much strike power you have, because we won’t be controlling outcomes.
“They’ve got some brilliant attributes to them, and I admire each of them in different ways, but for each of them to show how much they really want this, they have to show it on the opposite side of the ball when they don’t have it in their hands.”
As always, grade the team first and foremost on results. When delving further into their performance this weekend, though, looking for added evidence as to whether or not they’re improving under Brown, don’t turn to tries scored. Rather, count missed tackles and defensive phases. That’s where Brown's eyes will be fixed.