The United States won a gold medal in rugby the last time the sport was played at the Olympics — in 1924.
Ninety-two years later, rugby is returning to the games, and so are American players. Led by two stars who have crossed over from other sports, the U.S. men’s team will be considered a dark horse for a medal at the Rio games in August.
The United States beat a heavily favored France team to win at the 1924 games in Paris. Back then, the sport was played with 15 players on each team. This year, Olympic squads will compete in sevens, the less complicated and more dynamic version of rugby union.
“We want a medal — that’s what we talk about,” said Perry Baker, who played football for Fairmont State in West Virginia and for the Pittsburgh Power in the Arena Football League. A receiver in football, he now plays wing on the U.S. rugby team.
Although New Zealand, Fiji, England and South Africa are considered more likely to medal in Rio de Janeiro, the United States has emerged as a contender because of its progress during the past 18 months under coach Mike Friday. At the end of last season, the U.S. won a world series tournament, the top competition in the sport, for the first time. The team clinched a spot in Rio by winning its regional qualifying tournament.
It has had a solid start to this season’s series, with a third-place finish in the opening round in Dubai, and it is seventh out of 17 teams after four rounds. The next matches will be in Las Vegas March 4-6.
Players are quick to credit Friday, who previously coached the English and Kenyan sevens teams.
“He’s made us believe in ourselves,” said Madison Hughes, the United States’ captain. “We’ve also worked a whole lot harder, and we’ve worked smarter. It’s basically the same set of players that were coming 13th and 14th in the world in previous years. Last year we were sixth, and this year we’re hoping to be even higher. He’s just changed every aspect of the way we approach our rugby.”
While rugby sits well below football, baseball and basketball in the American consciousness, its return to the Olympic roster has given the U.S. team new resources. Increased funding has allowed U.S. players to compete full time, and they now have access to the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California.
The team has also recruited athletic players like Baker and Carlin Isles, a former sprinter who competed in the Olympic trials in track and field.
Rugby has been given a window to gain converts in the United States, among both fans and commercial sponsors.
“The Olympics — that’s our big steppingstone,” said Danny Barrett, who has been with the team since 2014 and plays back row. “Once we get to Rio, it will put us on display for the world.”
Perhaps the two players who have benefited the most from Friday’s arrival are Baker and Isles. Isles was labeled the fastest man in rugby after his debut in 2012, and Baker’s increasingly impressive play has resulted in many clips of him on YouTube. But Friday has given them the rugby education they were missing.
“He’s been a big teacher,” Isles said. “Knowledge and understanding the mind is big for him. That mental toughness and getting past when the little voices in your head say you can’t go no more, but fighting through it.”
Friday, who played 15-a-side rugby professionally for Wasps, a club in the English Premiership, and was the captain of England’s sevens team, coaches in a style that may be unfamiliar to U.S. athletes: He asks for players’ feedback. Friday is not afraid to have his ideas or instructions questioned by his team.
“I like his approach a lot because he understands from both sides,” Baker said. “He’s been a player and a coach. He’s not just telling, ‘Do, do, do’; he’s actually receiving feedback from us.”
The steady improvement means that opponents no longer view a game against the United States as an automatic win.
“If you look at the balance of that USA squad, they’ve played sevens for a long time, they’ve been together for a while now and they’ve got a very good coach,” New Zealand coach Gordon Tietjens said. “They are a threat to any team.”
Friday acknowledged that teams were wary of the United States.
“We’re not under the radar; I’m fully aware of that,” Friday said. “Everyone is talking about us as being an exciting team. We have a great balance of power, pace and physicality, so we are able to mix it with all of those Tier 1 nations, and we’re able to play a different type of game against different teams.”
But he added: “We still have to play to the best of our ability because come the business end of the series and as we build towards the Olympics, I see the Tier 1 nations — for example, New Zealand and South Africa — will be at a new level which we haven’t seen from them yet.”
Fiji, South Africa and New Zealand are tied at the top of the standings, with 69 points. New Zealand is the hottest team, having recovered from a slow start to win the last two tournaments, in Wellington and in Sydney, Australia.
New Zealand, bolstered by the addition of the star Sonny Bill Williams and the Super Rugby players Ardie Savea, Rieko Ioane and Akira Ioane, beat the United States, 24-7, in the Sydney quarterfinals.
In that game, the U.S. missed crucial tackles and showed that it needed to recycle the ball better at the rucks, which occur when a player is tackled and players from both sides compete for the ball. The team also needs to be more potent in the middle of the field, where, despite the efforts of Hughes, Zack Test and Barrett, it has struggled to break through defenses to create room for Isles and Baker to strike.
Although Friday’s team is consistently reaching the quarterfinals of tournaments, he believes it will not beat the top nations regularly until the players improve their mental toughness.
“I think the Americans are very good at the bravado part and the whoop-whooping,” Friday said. “But we’re talking about mental resilience and the ability to make cold, clear decisions when you’re in that state of panic emotion, which you’re going to have in these high-pressurized events like the sevens, where one mistake can cost you a game and can be the difference between winning or losing. You have to be 100 percent accurate at the most important time.”
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