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In the first week of October 2009, the IOC voted seven-a-side rugby for women and men and golf into the 2016 Rio Olympics.  On that memorable day, I visited the Italian Rugby Federation (FIR) inside Rome’s Olympic Stadium. The FIR’s media director said, “Entry into the Olympics will change rugby forever in the world.”

It would be fair to say that during the past seven-years, the possibility of gaining an Olympic spot for American men and women, launched awareness of rugby into the national consciousness for the first time.

The first five years after – No Eagle Men’s hope on the horizon

After the IOC announcement in 2009, American rugby journalists became acquainted with how many teams could qualify for Rio. The historic Olympic answer proved to be a twelve-nation event. Who would gain these twelve positions?  After examining empirical data over past seasons, it did not seem likely that the USA could qualify.

For five-years on the World Rugby Sevens circuit, the Men’s Eagles remained consistently mid pack without offering the likelihood that the team could compete with the leading sevens nations.  More disheartening for an Olympic berth, in 2013/2014, Canada finished a surprising sixth on the circuit. The Canadians would be the Eagles competitor for the North American Olympic playoff spot.

The five-year World Rugby finish placement data follow:

Year                USA                Canada                      

2009/10           10                    11

2010/11           12                    15

2011/12           11                    13

2012/13           11                    12

2013/14           13                       6

Anyone following the sevens progress of the two nations, would have concluded that the Canadians would enjoy an easy victory against the USA. The lone prospect for the USA would be to win the difficult multi-nation repechage to gain the final Rio spot. A long shot at best.

The first year turn around – Joy in the USA

At the beginning of the 2014/2015 season, the Eagles were mired in lower Bowl/Shield competition, generating but 8 points in Australia, and worse, 5 points in Dubai (NB: 22 points awarded for winning an event, then, points as follows: 19,17, 15, 13). It looked like another disappointing season with again, a probable eleventh or twelfth place result. And after these initial two tournaments, no evidence of a team that could overcome its Canadian rival.

But in the next six tournaments, the USA achieved a noteworthy reversal, scoring 13,10,15,12 8,15 points, and unveiling the fabulous Isles-Baker sprinters’ tries. In London, the final tour event, the USA shocked the rugby community by winning their first ever tournament, and amassing 22 points. The improvement - coming under Coach Mike Friday - vaulted the USA into an all-time high placement of sixth place. Meanwhile, Canada dropped to ninth.

The 2015/2016 season – The winning ways continued

The Eagles climb up the ladder the previous season - marking victories against the historic leaders - offered optimism of more competitive play and higher circuit placement. In the 2015/2016 ten city circuit, the Eagles did not dishearten fans, finishing third twice (Dubai and London), and generating enough points to finish sixth overall. Singapore and Paris represented the only two poor showings. Canada continued to spiral downward, ending in thirteenth place.

The showdown on June 14 witnessed a confident Eagle side beating Canada 21-5 to secure that Olympic trip.

What no one at one time considered possible, occurred; the USA would send a competitive side to contest for a rugby medal in Rio.  

(Tomorrow: The Eagle Women’s path to Rio.)