Friday: USA Rugby’s in a good place

CHULA VISTA, Calif. - New Men's Eagles Sevens Head Coach Mike Friday, Assistant Coach Chris Brown, and Men's National Sevens Director Alex Magleby conducted the first High Performance Sevens camp last weekend at the Olympic Training Center, which featured 50 players hoping to impress the new coaching staff ahead of the 2014-15 IRB HSBC Sevens World Series.

Along with various players from across the country, Friday was setting foot on OTC facilities for the first time.

"Mike showed this weekend why he is one of the best in the business," said Magleby. "He is a quality educator who connects quickly and communicates clearly with players and staff alike. He and Coach Brown have set high standards for all."

The new head coach and his assistant put the players through basic fitness testing to gauge conditioning and skill levels.

"We had a presentation whereby I clearly laid down why I was excited to be in this job and the potential and the ability that USA Rugby has with the athletes, capabilities, and resources available," Friday said. "Nonetheless, it means nothing if they don't buy into it and they don't want it."

Past and present residency players Friday recognized from his coaching days in Kenya included the likes of Nick Edwards, Colin Hawley, Shalom Suniula, and Zack Test, while Carlin Isles, who played for Friday at Samurai International Rugby Football Club, was also in the mix.

Hear Mike Friday's thoughts on Carlin Isles:

The coaching staff will implement the new training schedule as the Series gets closer, though the high performance camp will be a staple prior to each tour stop. Even with more than 20 players in residency at the OTC, Friday will work with Magleby to identify players in Olympic Development Academies, like the Northeast ODA, Serevi Rugby, and Tiger Rugby, who could earn a spot on a tour roster.

"[The players in residency have] the benefit of Chris Brown day to day and they have the benefit of the best resources, but it does not exclude remote players," Friday said. "I anticipate of the remote players that come into high performance camps there to be a number of them that end up touring.

"Competition will be fierce; there will be no complacency if you've got a residency place. The reality is as follows: If you hit the conditioning standards, and you're fit enough, and you're playing decent rugby, and you're doing what needs to be done on the pitch, then you have every opportunity to be selected as someone who's in residency."

Stationed at the OTC or not, all of the athletes currently in the Eagles pool have their sights set on winning a medal at the Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games. Qualification for the first Games to include the sport of rugby begins during the upcoming Series, though second and third opportunities will be afforded through regional qualifiers and a repechage tournament.

A top-four finish would see the Eagles book an early trip to Brazil, but Friday is wary to put the team in that conversation just yet. The Eagles ended the 2013-14 Series in 13th with 41 points, 93 points less than fourth-place England.

"Unfortunately, nothing's a guarantee in this life," Friday said. "The boys have got to work hard, apply themselves, minimize errors, and win rugby games. We've got to give ourselves the best opportunity to do that. Conditioning's a big part, technical application is another, tactical understanding third, and mental resolve the fourth. If we exhibit all of those and we excel in all of those, then we give ourselves the best opportunity to get Olympic qualification.

"That will not be easy, and the characters of individuals will be stretched. Nothing worth having in life is easy. I think we need to get a collective belief, we need to get a clear understanding and all get on the same page on the pitch and off the pitch in the way that we conduct ourselves and the way we go about our business. Then we need to win some rugby games. If we do that, we stand every chance of getting that Olympic qualification."

Friday famously led Kenya to a 99-point, fifth-place 2012-13 season after the team came in 12th the previous year. Following Friday's departure before the most recent season, Kenya dropped two spots to seventh. The program Friday and his coaching staff had put in place in the African country had reaped the benefits of hard work and awareness. New Zealand, Series champion for four years running, uses a similar program.

"Basically, you need to prepare and build towards touring, which is what this circuit's all about," Friday said. "We will tour, come back, and the boys will rest for a week. They will then start their conditioning for two weeks, which will be heavily based together with technical skills to ensure consistency. Then we'll have a couple of days off, then have a high performance camp, which will be overloaded with rugby both in terms of technical and tactical, as well as conditioning, which will mirror what they'll experience and more on a World Series tour. They will then rest for a few days, then prepare, then fly out to tour.

"It's very much spike and rest. It allows the athletes to recover, as well, which is an important part of this Series. If you keep going harder and harder, day-in, day-out, you burn out. It's as simple as that.

"Less is more sometimes."

It would be an understatement to say the Eagles have a long road ahead to secure a spot in Rio, but the new coaching staff is already excited about the quality of player at its disposal. After the recent, inaugural Elite City Sevens and the USA Rugby Emirates Airline Club 7s National Championship in Seattle, Wash., on the horizon, the Eagles could see some new faces to get them over the proverbial Series hump.

"In terms of raw, athletic ability - and actually the skillsets of the players - USA Rugby's in a good place," Friday said. "We just need to work on improving the skillsets to ensure we get greater consistency in the end product. The conditioning is a significant part of that, as well, because the reality is you could be the best rugby player in the world, but if you can't run around the pitch for 14 minutes at top pace then you will be a passenger, which means you will not succeed.

"I am excited, because we've got some big boys, we've got some fast boys, we've got powerful boys, who are all able to get around the pitch and have fairly-decent skillsets which we can work on and improve."

It was not just work and no play for the athletes in camp, as Friday held a scrimmage to allow the players to "express themselves" and test their decision-making capabilities.

In the next two months, the Eagles will be tested thoroughly on the pitch and off of it at the OTC and around the country with the most important Series to date set to kick off in October.