Fresh from taking USA 7s to the Olympics for the second time, Englishman abroad Mike Friday gives NEALE HARVEY his lowdown on life across ‘The Pond’, plus some World Cup pointers.
Second in the Sevens World Series behind Fiji and Olympic qualification secured, how big a breakthrough year has it been for USA 7s?
It’s been huge. Our sole goal for the season was to get Olympic qualification and although I’m not a great fan of that ‘Tier One/Tier Two’ terminology, to break the mould – and break it convincingly – and get up among the top four big boys like New Zealand, South Africa and Fiji was great. It’s just a start, though, and we didn’t get the icing on the cake we wanted by shocking the world and winning the World Series. But to finish second was good and now we need to reset for a huge Olympics year.
You finished just nine points behind the ‘Flying Fijians’ after ten rounds. How close are you to matching them?
Technically and tactically we were much better this year and we saw the fruits of our labour in that a lot of behavioural work we did off the pitch paid off.
However, we’ve still got a lot more to give and have gains to make on the mental side at times of intense pressure. If I’m honest, as much as I’d have loved the romance of winning the World Series, we can point to some very significant moments in the season where we allowed momentum to shift Fiji’s way.
We should have buried Fiji in our Hong Kong semi-final but had six scoring opportunities and didn’t take any. That defeat gave Fiji the belief they could get back into the series and then in the final game between us in Paris, we again had chances for a win but lost. We’ve come so far but there are still two or three layers to go on top of our game, although it was still a brilliant season.
You’ve been in charge of USA 7s for five years now, how has the experience been?
Eye-opening and challenging! There’ve been highs and lows, as in any results business, but it’s been great in terms of watching guys evolve from thinking they understand what it takes to be a professional on the 7s circuit to actually achieving what they are now.
It’s been a stiff challenge for me, but more in terms of the diversity of this group and diversity in America. I’ve never experienced a place like this because so much of the challenge is about how you phrase things and talk to people.
For example, you can be talking the right way to two of the group but upset the other eight of them with something you’ve said. That’s very different to England but the bandwidth between personalities in America is far tighter and is a representation of the country, with all that brings. You’ve only got to experience the diverse views around President Trump to see what happens and there are huge extremes of behaviours you need to be aware of.
How have you managed to adapt to all of that… and survive?
I wouldn’t say I’ve become more malleable but I have become more considered in that there is more than one way to do things or more than one answer to any problem.
That’s probably what I’ve picked up and run with over the last five years the most; being a little more holistic and recognising there are more ways to skin a cat because of my exposure to all the different personalities and cultures within American sport and how you have to be a flexible coach to get the best out of people.
When you’re a younger coach coming through the ranks you tend to be quite headstrong and it has to be this way or that way and everything’s black and white, whereas when you start getting the experiences I’ve had there are a lot more shades of grey when it comes to getting that last five, ten or 15 per cent of performance out of people.
At 47 now, will you return to England one day as a better coach and man-manager?
Certainly. I was always deemed to be a good people person when I coached in England, whether that was with England 7s or in 15s at Blackheath, London Welsh or London Scottish, but I’d certainly come back now as a more rounded manager, not just of players but of stakeholders, board members and third parties like World Rugby.
I still get things wrong but I’m far better at recognising when I have got it wrong, whereas the younger me would dig his heels in and stand his ground. I’m probably a bit more self-aware now and, ultimately, that benefits the team and people around me.
Who would you say have been your biggest coaching mentors?
I tend to learn a lot from outside rugby and I’ve spent time with the New England Patriots to see how their organisation operates.
I also talk to a lot of people within the United States Olympic Committee around the psychology and behaviour of athletes and we’re also looking at Mixed Martial Arts at the moment, not just around the physical side but their methods of technical and tactical combat and the mental side of that as well.
My fellow 7s coaches, Phil Greening and Tony Roques, love getting out and about looking at that stuff and we’re trying to gain all the little edges you need in one-on-one contact situations. Rugby-wise, I still like to watch Warren Gatland from afar and I have a lot of time for what Rob Baxter has done at Exeter as well.
Exeter would be an interesting cultural environment to work in because I love the consistency Rob’s created within the organisation from the kit man right up to the boss.
He has an air and manner about him that inspires.
You know Warren Gatland from your time as a No.9 at Wasps. Is he a future All Blacks head coach?
Without a shadow of a doubt. He’s the world’s best coach but I think he’s being quite smart after he finishes with Wales by going back to coach Waikato Chiefs and doing another British & Irish Lions tour first.
If Steve Hansen wins a third World Cup you wouldn’t want to be the bloke who follows him, but you’d probably want to be the bloke after that and maybe that’s how Warren is looking at it.
If he goes and wins the next Lions series in South Africa, to be the only head coach who’s never been beaten and to have done all three – Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – that would epitomise what a great man-manager he is. His ability to bring all those big personalities and egos together when it matters is unrivalled and when you think of all the big decisions he’s made, like leaving out Brian O’Driscoll or making Sam Warburton his captain, he gets so many of those huge calls right.
Do you see Wales as genuine Rugby World Cup contenders?
If Warren can keep them fit through the warm-up matches, they’ll have every chance. You saw it with Wasps and you’ve seen it with Wales and the Lions, what Warren is very good at is getting teams peaking at the right time.
But for Sam Warburton’s unfortunate sending off they’d probably have made the World Cup final in 2011 and he just has that priceless ability – as you saw in this year’s Six Nations Grand Slam – to get a pint-and-a-half out of a pint pot. He makes players believe they are gladiators in a colosseum and that’s what Wales will bring.
As an Englishman, how do you rate the Red Rose chances?
I look at the talent England have and they’ve got some phenomenal players, both in the backs and the forwards, and if the main men stay fit, they have a chance.
But watching Danny Cipriani and seeing him doing his stuff for Gloucester, I just don’t know what’s going on between him and Eddie Jones. Rugby’s all about opinions and I look at the full-back and centre selections and get what’s going on there, but I look at Cipriani, and Danny Care as well, and I’m struggling.
If it’s purely a personality thing with Cipriani and Eddie’s made a decision then fine, but let’s all be clear about that decision because at the moment it’s mystifying.
All I’ve seen of Cipriani this year is magic and I feel gutted for Care as well. These guys are game-breakers and although this might be my 7s mentality kicking in, I always feel you need some game-breakers in your squad, especially at half-back. The only opinion that matters is Eddie’s but I feel it’s hampering England’s chances.
Why are you so keen to see Danny Care in Japan?
If you look at Ben Youngs, he’s been the form guy, but I look at Ben Spencer and Willi Heinz and they’re just not game-breakers in the mould of Care or Dan Robson.
They’re much the same and it’s similar with Owen Farrell and George Ford. They do what they do but Cipriani and Care win you games, it’s as simple as that. That may not be the way Eddie likes to build his teams and you have to respect that, but it doesn’t mean I agree with it.
Back to America, how do you see the development of Major League Rugby?
MLR is exciting and could unlock the door to big things in the men’s and women’s game here. There’s still a fair bit of smoke and mirrors but there’s every chance that if we’re patient and get the infrastructure right around MLR and the modus operandi is right in terms of how it links with the national teams, there’s a huge future for it.
Sevens is massive here now and the Olympics is No.1 in the minds of the American public, but if the 15s continues its slow burn it’s influence will grow. In the commercial world of America if people start losing money it can cause issues, so the people involved in MLR need to realise that they’ve got to be prepared to invest for five to ten years before they see any return. That goes for wealthy individuals within the USA as well as organisations outside of the USA thinking they don’t want to miss the party. It’s a long-term picture rather than short-term gain that’s needed, but the result could be quite spectacular.
Ben Foden’s already playing in MLR and Dom Day, Mathieu Bastareaud and Francois Louw are set to join him. Good news for USA rugby?
I think so. I’ve heard Francois Louw is joining the New York franchise and it’s good for those guys to be thinking about life after rugby.
Francois is a very intelligent man who has a keen interest in the financial markets so where better to go than NY? There are real opportunities for boys to utilise their rugby expertise as well as a chance to move on in life and it will help to raise standards.
I’d say MLR is currently at about National One level but it will get better quite quickly and eventually you might reach a tipping point where all the top America players will play here.
Could you foresee an American franchise entering one of the world’s top leagues, as Argentina’s Jaguares have done so successfully in Super Rugby?
I can but it’s got to be done for the right reasons, not just for people from abroad trying to get access to the ‘American dream’.
It needs to be driven by the American club game and if the MLR can strive to create a flagship team that could enter the PRO14, Premiership, Super Rugby or whatever, it could be pretty special. At the moment lots of guys go overseas to play better rugby and fight in the PRO14, Premiership, Championship or wherever, but it would be an interesting evolution if they could return to the MLR.
That’s why the next few years are so important and you need a visionary like Gary Gold running the national 15s team.
Do you have much to do with Gary and the USA 15s side?
I’ve been talking to Gary a lot and we’ve got three of our 7s guys – Madison Hughes, Martin Iosefo and Ben Pinkelman – in the current World Cup training squad for Japan.
I’m confident all three will be there and the great thing about Gary is he’s a great communicator who’s very systematic in how he goes about things and gives clear direction. He’s very empathetic in the way he deals with different personalities and although they’ve been handed a ‘group of death’ against England, Argentina, France and Tonga at the World Cup, I hope they acquit themselves really well and that he stays on beyond this World Cup and does another four-year cycle.
If he does, I’m confident USA Rugby will continue to move in the right direction along with MLR.
Ex-Bath coach Toby Booth has expressed interest in working in MLR. Should other English coaches follow your example by giving the USA a try?
Toby would be brilliant and anyone getting hold of him in the USA would have a gem. I’d certainly recommend it to others and you’ve only got to see how successful (former London Irish and Wasps centre) Rob Hoadley has been at San Diego to see how rewarding it can be. The Kiwis send their coaches everywhere, so why not us?
Fancy a job back in England yourself one day?
I’m contracted with USA Rugby until the Olympics so I’ll have to start making some decisions around Christmas time. The odd Premiership club has had a look at me in the past but unfortunately you get labelled as a 7s coach, rather than someone who has actually spent quite a lot of time in 15s as well and understands a lot about rugby and managing men.
Can I build teams? Yes. Would I back myself? Yes. But it doesn’t matter if I back myself, someone’s still got to give you a chance. I think I could do a job with England and you’ve got to aim high, haven’t you? The biggest thing that drives me is making people better and my track record is pretty good.
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