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Rugby: U.S. Rugby Sevens Team Emerges as Olympic Contender

Danny Barrett of the United States rugby sevens team passing as he was tackled by Ruaridh McConnochie of England during a world series tournament in Sydney, Australia, this month. The next tournament is March 4 to 6 in Las Vegas.

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — The United States won Olympic gold the last time in rugby. Spearheaded by two stars who have crossed over from other sports, the Eagles will be considered a dark horse to medal again in August, when rugby returns after a 92-year absence from the Games.

The United States beat a heavily favored France team to win at the 1924 Games in Paris. Back then, the 15-a-side version of the sport was played. This year, Olympic teams 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 University in West Virginia and for the Pittsburgh Power in the Arena Football League. A receiver in football, he now plays wing on the American rugby team.

While New Zealand, Fiji, England and South Africa are seen as the teams more likely to medal in Rio, the progress the United States has made during the past 18 months under Coach Mike Friday has made it a potential contender. The United States won a world series tournament, the top competition in the sport, for the first time in London at the end of last season, and it then clinched its place 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 from March 4 to 6.

Players are quick to credit Friday, who previously coached the English and Kenyan sevens teams. “He’s made us believe in ourselves. We’ve also worked a whole lot harder and we’ve worked smarter,” said Madison Hughes, the United States captain. “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 United States team new resources. Increased funding has allowed American players to go full-time, and they are now getting access to the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. It has helped the team to recruit athletic players like Baker and Carlin Isles, a former sprinter who competed in the Olympic trials in track and field.

It has also given rugby a window to gain new converts in America, among both fans and commercial sponsors.

“The Olympics — that’s our big stepping stone,” 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, while Baker’s increasingly impressive play ensures he gets his share of clips on YouTube.

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 saying you can’t go no more, but fighting through it.”

Friday, who played 15s professionally for the English Premiership club Wasps and was captain of the England sevens team, coaches in a style American athletes may not be used to: one that requires the 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 are wary of them now.

“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-one nations and we’re able to play a different type of game against different teams.

“But, 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 right now, recovering from a slow start to win the last two tournaments, in Wellington and Sydney, Australia.

New Zealand, bolstered by the addition of the code-hopping superstar Sonny Bill Williams and the Super Rugby players Ardie Savea, Rieko Ioane and Akira Ioane, beat the United States, in the Sydney quarterfinals, 24-7.

In that game, the United States missed crucial tackles, and it showed that it needed to recycle the ball better at the rucks when facing tougher opponents. It also needs to become 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 open up room for Isles and Baker to strike.

While his team is now reaching the cup quarterfinals consistently, Friday believes it will not start to beat the top nations regularly until the players toughen up mentally.

“I think the Americans are very good at the bravado part and the whoop whooping. 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,” said Friday. “You have to be 100 percent accurate at the most important time.”

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