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Mike Friday picked a team to win Gold. He didn’t pick a safe team. He didn’t pick a team that he knew would acquit itself well but probably didn’t have the firepower to take down Fiji or New Zealand in the knockout rounds. He is swinging for the fences.
To be fair, there’s not much difference between what would have been considered a safe team and the one he picked. A number of guys would crossover to both. Madison Hughes has been the captain and choice scrumhalf for two years. He would be on either team. Same with Folau Niua at flyhalf. Zack Test is the all-time leader in caps and tries, and by every measure, the best 7s player in USA history. He was going to be on the team.
Danny Barrett, Perry Baker, Carlin Isles and Garrett Bender have all been massive parts of the team since Friday took over two years ago, too, so they would be included in any team.
Some of the difference makers here are Andrew Durutalo, Maka Unufe, Nate Ebner and Chris Wyles. They could just as easily have been replaced by Thretton Palamo, Will Holder, Martin Iosefo and Nate Augspurger, and everyone who cared would have understood. But Friday loaded up for bear with those other guys, because their ceilings are collectively higher.
Durutalo became an absolute beast at the tail end of the 2014/2015 World Series. He was a combination of power and skill that is typically only boasted by the team from his parents' home country – Fiji. He was a game changer. But he hadn’t always been. He’s been a work in progress since Al Caravelli first brought him on board.
In 2012, he debuted for the 15s team in Canada. It was Mike Tolkin’s first game as head coach. Durutalo started at openside that day. After that tour, it would be three years before he’d get another 15s cap. And when he did, he grabbed onto it, perhaps becoming the USA’s standout player in last year's World Cup. He parlayed it into a contract with the expansion Sunwolves of Super Rugby.
So the ability’s always been there, but it hasn’t always been consistently applied.
“The thing we have the challenge to do is, ‘Dru, You’ve got to want to do it every time all the time,’” said Mike Friday, referencing conversations he’s had with Durutalo. “It’s not that he can’t do it, it’s that sometimes he switches off and chooses not to do it. That’s our challenge with Dru. We got him into that habit toward the end of the Series before he flew off to be the boy for America in the World Cup.”
So Friday could have opted for more of a sure thing in the forwards, say Will Holder, who was really humming before breaking a bone in his face in the middle of the season. But he opted for Durutalo, who, when he’s on, is a game changer.
Maka Unufe is one of the most naturally gifted athletes on the team. It’s hard to argue against Carlin Isles or Perry Baker as the true freaks of the bunch, but Unufe is right up there. Since he burst onto the scene, every coach has been in awe of his potential. The problem is, it hasn’t been realized consistently. Unufe's had spells of greatness, when he showcases his rare combination of agility, speed, aerial prowess and wiry strength. He also possesses a slipperiness that’s hard to describe – he just seems to get through holes others can’t.
But he’s had low moments, too. He’s struggled defensively. He’s been careless with the ball. He’s seemed to run without purpose. In the middle of last season, he missed a tournament for personal reasons, then got injured. When he returned fully, he struggled to regain his previous starting spot. Iosefo laid claim to it most of the time. Yet, Unufe is on the team and Iosefo is not. I’d argue it’s because of his upside. When Unufe plays to his potential, there are few people in the world in his class.
Nate Ebner. Firstly, I want to dispel any notion that Mike Friday picked him for the media attention. If you think that, you don’t know Friday very well. I implicitly trust that Friday picked Ebner and Wyles on form.
That’s exciting, because Ebner’s a legitimate NFL athlete. We all remember what an impressive specimen he was at the Collegiate Rugby Championships, and he’s a bigger, faster, stronger, more finely tuned version of that now.
I have to admit I was underwhelmed by Ebner’s play in Singapore and Paris, but he reminded me of a smart kid trying to impress scouts at an all-star basketball tournament – don’t shoot a lot, because the scout already knows you can score, or else you wouldn't be there (Friday already knew Ebner could run fast and break tackles, because he's an NFL defensive back), but instead pass a lot, play the system and be a good teammate. It seemed like Ebner was going out of his way to prove he can play a pattern and be unselfish, thus leaving the part that makes him special – elite physicality and athleticism – unshowcased.
Friday says he showed more individual brilliance in the last four weeks, imposing himself physically and getting better at determining when to break pattern to make a play. So if the coach says his rugby skills and ability are good enough, that gives the USA another elite, world-class athlete. So if you’re counting Perry Baker and Carlin Isles, as you should, Ebner gives Team USA three athletes who are truly elite, regardless of sport, in a game in which the most elite athletes, worldwide, still aren’t participating heavily.
Wyles. There’s not a lot to say about him. His resume should speak for itself. He is a proven winner. The guy just won the Aviva Premiership and the European club title in the same year. He has captained both the 15s and 7s teams. He is arguably the greatest Eagle back of all time. The only question was, can he still run with the young bucks in a young man’s sport?
“When you win a double like he’s just done, emotionally you’re in a good place. Your body feels a million dollars,” said Friday of Wyles. “He feels good at the moment, and I should say, he’s more than competing with the youthful fellas.”
Another attribute Wyles and Ebner, specifically, provide to the team is what Friday calls big game temperament. Ebner’s won a Super Bowl and Wyles has won two of the most coveted trophies in professional rugby, so they’re not going to knock-on a big pass in a big moment because of nerves.
An underrated bonus may be the surprise factor. No other contender is coming into the Olympics with a wildcard up its sleeve. Sonny Bill Williams made the New Zealand team, and he is new to 7s, but he played six tournaments on the World Series last season, so there’s a book out on him. Same with Francois Hougaard, should he get into the Blitzbokke squad via injury. All of the other wildcards – Jarryd Hayne, Quade Cooper, Bryan Habana, etc., didn’t make their respective squads.
Sure, Wyles is a Series vet, but he hasn’t really played 7s in earnest since 2009. Many of his opponents in Rio were probably in high school then. So Wyles will be a relative unknown. And Ebner is a complete wildcard. Yes, he played a little last season, but as I spelled out earlier, he was a shadow of the Ebner we should expect to see in the Olympics.
“They might see him potentially, and wrongly, as inexperienced in terms of what he’s going to be doing,” said Friday of Ebner. “He’s a fast learner. Nate’s been with us for kind of four, five months. He’s had a proper good grounding in what’s required to play the game.”
So, this team is full of “potential”, “upside” and perhaps more inconsistency than you’d like. But if throughout the competition Durutalo, Wyles, Unufe and Ebner can come good on their potential, it’s going to pay off. And if they all show out consistently together, look out. The Eagles are gunning for Gold.