The Eagles look well set for an automatic Olympic place. Rugby’s sleeping giant is most definitely stirring
The USA men’s sevens team has found a way to win – or at least to lead – while losing.
On Sunday, they lost the final of the Cape Town Sevens to the Olympic champions, Fiji, by 29-15. A week before, they lost the final of the Dubai Sevens to the World Cup champions, New Zealand, by 21-5.
But the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series works cumulatively, awarding points based on finishes at each of 10 tournaments, and thus those two second places are enough to put the Eagles on top of the ladder.
This is not usual. The Eagles have won tournaments, in London in 2015 and in Las Vegas earlier this year, but they have never reached two successive finals and their highest finish on the table is fifth. What their current position says about the progress of rugby union in America should not be diminished in the slightest.
At the top level, for men and women, rugby is on the up. The national sevens squads are full-time and competitive and the club scene is richly stocked with talent. In 15s, a men’s pro competition, Major League Rugby, is about to kick-off its second season and the men’s national team has reached No12 in the world, also an all-time high.
There, a caveat: in their last international of the year the Eagles were walloped 57-14 by the second string of Ireland, the world No2. In 15s, the gap between the super powers and those who would join them is still a yawning chasm.
Not so in sevens. The USA men are up with the very best, each of which they can beat and often do.
Take Cape Town. Mike Friday’s men got past Japan, Spain and Argentina on day one, a feat which not too long ago would not have been expected. Then they got past England, World Cup finalists in San Francisco in July, in the quarter-finals. The score was 19-12 and it was a win as thrilling as the try by their English-born captain, Madison Hughes, that levelled the game 7-7.
That meant a semi-final against the All Blacks and a chance for revenge for Dubai. The Americans took it, 31-12. The big Californian forward Danny Barrett scored an absolutely fearsome five-pointer, at pace, dropping his concrete slab of a left shoulder to batter two All Blacks aside, a modern Lomu crashing across the white line. The wondrously brutal thing – it hardly seemed right to use the earthly term “try” – spread quickly on social media, fodder no doubt for a million “imagine if America took rugby seriously” conversations. Imagine if it did. It does.
Barrett, 6ft 3in and 220lbs, is 28 and in his athletic prime. He discovered rugby at high school and went to college at Cal Berkeley, Jack Clark’s hothouse of elite American talent. If one version of rugby’s future is American, as many of the world game’s money men undoubtedly hope it is, one model for the American pro of the future was on show in South Africa, galloping about like a buffalo.
Of course, Great Britain’s Olympic silver medallists know all about the horrors that can happen against Fiji in any final and in Cape Town they happened to the Americans, who were quickly 29-0 down and gasping. Making things respectable took a couple of tries from Ben Pinkelman – another homegrown player, out of Colorado and the provider of an elastic, ecstatic pass for that Barrett score – and one from Carlin Isles. Yes, him, the fabled crossover from track and football, like double world player of the year Perry Baker proof that other sports hold rugby riches too.
As there is no shame in losing to Fiji in a game of sevens, a sport the islanders have turned into an art, there is plenty to be proud about when you’re sitting on top of the world, however it was you got there. There the USA are, a point clear of New Zealand, three up on Fiji, five ahead of England, nine clear of South Africa. The gap to Canada, 12th of 16 teams, is a whopping 28 points.
Rugby returned to the Olympics two years ago, in Rio. For the USA, qualification was not a simple task: they had to improve rapidly and get past the Canadians when it counted. At the Games, they placed a disappointing ninth.
Should a place at Tokyo 2020 come down to a similar play-off the US would never consider it a given. Sevens is seven minutes each way, the bounce of a funny shaped ball often the imponderable that decides the result. Nonetheless, the Americans would now expect to win.
If they continue to win on the circuit, they won’t have to. The top four teams on the world series ladder will go to Japan automatically.
There are eight events to go. Lots can yet go wrong. So far, a lot is going right.