#AnswerTheChallenge – Men’s Eagles Sevens

On Nov. 1, the USA Eagles will take on the most successful team in sports history, the New Zealand All Blacks. As a team, as a sport, as a nation—we must answer the challenge. How are you going to #AnswerTheChallenge and support the Eagles and rugby in America?

In 90 tournaments and 477 matches on the IRB HSBC Sevens World Series circuit, the Men’s Eagles Sevens have won just 169 matches against the world’s best rugby sevens teams. With that sort of form, a spot on an Olympic podium seems a distant pipe dream.

Enter Mike Friday. The former England Sevens captain has had many triumphs in both his playing and coaching career in the newest Olympic Summer Games sport, including four consecutive Hong Kong Sevens Cups and a Commonwealth Games medal.

As coach of the Kenyan sevens national team for the 2012-13 season, Friday oversaw an incredible turnaround of a program featuring talented athletes who may not have had the resources to compete against the circuit’s top nations. Taking 32 points from the first two stops (in comparison, the Eagles earned seven), Kenya compiled five top-four finishes on the way to a fifth-place spot in the Series standings.

Breaking it down, Kenya lost three of four third-place matches and its only trip to a Cup Final. On the flip side, Kenya finished in the bottom seven four times and trailed fourth-place Samoa by five points at the end of the Series. In an Olympic qualification year, Kenya would have missed out by the tiniest of margins.

Following Friday’s departure from the program at the end of the season, Kenya regressed slightly in earning 84 points for a seventh-place finish in 2013-14.

The Eagles have not broken into the Series’ top 10 since the 2009-10 season, their second as a core team on the circuit. During that season, the Eagles lost one Cup Final and earned points in only three of the Series’ eight legs (points were only awarded to nine of the 16 competitors at any given stop) to finish 10th.

It was in 2009 Rugby Sevens was added to the Olympic Program for the Summer Games. Three years later, USA Rugby and the United States Olympic Committee announced a partnership that allowed the national governing body to give full-time training contracts to athletes at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif.

While that initial partnership helped give athletes like Andrew Durutalo, Carlin Isles, Shalom Suniula, and Zack Test a platform for success on the circuit, it has taken time for the program to bear fruit. The Eagles faced a relegation battle at the bottom of the Series table during the 2012-13 season and finished 13th in 2013-14.

Among some of the more impressive performances for the Eagles were two wins against South Africa at the 2013 Marriott London Sevens. Later that year, at the 2013 IRB Rugby World Cup Sevens in Moscow, the Eagles were less than seven minutes from handing a defeat to eventual world champion New Zealand.

Inconsistency has plagued the Eagles, who need to finish in the top four of the 2014-15 Series to qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games, be it in game-day performances or results tournament to tournament. With a new coaching staff and improved player identification pathway to the national team, there is optimism in the Eagles camp.

“I think the culture shift we’ve seen this summer has been significant,” USA Rugby National Sevens Director Alex Magleby said. “It was very clear the standards needed to rise, and Coach Friday and Coach [Chris] Brown have made those clear to the athletes. They’ve pushed the boys further than they thought they could go and it’s been nice to see the boys respond to that.”

Three high performance camps at the Olympic Training Center have pitted the Resident athletes against other athletes identified from Elite City Sevens, the USA Rugby Emirates Airline Club 7s National Championship, and development academies like Serevi Rugby, Tiger Rugby, and the Northeast Rugby Olympic Development Academy.

While the camps have instilled competition within the ranks of Resident and off-site athletes, it is the work being done outside of the Olympic Training Center that is preparing the Eagles for a run to the Olympic podium.

“The National Development Academies have done a really nice job of connecting the dots between club rugby and the national team,” Magleby said. “It’s still a huge chasm, but from where Club 7s was three years ago – it’s a dramatic difference.”

Perry Baker, a former indoor football league player who spent time training at Tiger, was contracted following his performance at the first Men’s Eagles Sevens High Performance Camp. Other players, like Derek Lipscomb from NRODA, have also earned consideration for future tournaments with outstanding play at the club level and at camps.

As the competition for roster spots continues domestically, the play of the 12 Eagles selected for each Series leg will determine whether or not the U.S. is represented in Rio. As seen with the results of Kenya in 2012-13, all it takes is a few top-four finishes and consistent results.

“When I used to watch the USA on the circuit, I’d see great athletes with great potential, but never fulfilling that potential; never operating in a true collegiate team ethic,” Friday said. “They seemed to be good individually at times, with no consistency in the way they went about their work.

“That selfless work ethic is something I’m strong on. Nobody’s bigger than the team. I’m after seven guys who are going to be on that pitch willing to die for one another. Then, if the result goes your way, the result goes your way. In sevens, sometimes it comes down to a bounce of the ball, but you need to minimize the element of luck.”

The match against New Zealand at the most recent Rugby World Cup Sevens was the epitome of the Eagles’ season up to that point. With a 19-5 lead and just five minutes remaining, the Eagles failed to close out the match just as they had done on multiple occasions on the circuit.

At the 2014 Serevi RugbyTown Sevens in Glendale, Colo., earlier this summer, the Eagles’ development side, the Falcons, won the Cup with six wins and, more importantly, six complete, 14-minute matches. In only one match did the Falcons – which featured both contracted players and players searching for spot on the Eagles’ roster – trail at halftime.

Playing the system coaches Friday and Brown have implemented, the Falcons were able to showcase both the individual abilities of the athletes and the team play that wins matches.

At Gold Coast Sevens, which kicks off Friday, Oct. 10, the Eagles are faced with a difficult group in Argentina, Canada, and England, each of whom have hopes of Olympic qualification. A sputtering start to the season would not end the Eagles’ own qualification hopes, but entrance into the Cup competition is a minimum.

“I think reaching the Cup Final’s has to be the attitude,” Magleby said. “That’s what we’re aiming for. We’ve been on the cusp of that for a long time. We’re in a pool with good teams, but even if it’s New Zealand, South Africa, and Fiji – let’s just pretend – you could still say there’s a chance in that pool.

“If we fail to win the Cup, is it a failure? No, that’s not what I’m saying. The expectation is that we should be in that game, but over time we’re working to make sure we get towards that and we consistently get there.”

“You don’t necessarily need to win the Cup Final, though we’d love to,” Friday said. “We’re going all out to try to win that, but we need to see positive improvement in attitude, approach, and outcome in our performance. If we start to see that, then we’ll see the signs. Consistency will come, and with consistency comes results.

“It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon. We’re going to need resolve and resilience to stay the course, and that’s going to require a committed group both of remote and Residency players to stay on course.”

The Eagles are ready to answer the challenge of Olympic qualification, whether it is on the Series this year or next year in a regional qualification tournament. How will you #AnswerTheChallenge?