USA Sevens head coach Mike Friday believes the sky is the limit for his young, hungry and talented squad and has his sights set on Olympic gold in Tokyo 2020.
Friday’s side finished an impressive second in the 2018/19 Sevens World Series, ahead of traditional rugby nations such as New Zealand, England and South Africa, showcasing why a gold medal next summer is a realistic goal for the Eagles.
Friday said: “Gold is the aim because of the immense quality we have in our ranks and the amazing athletes that the country seems to produce year on year.”
Key men for Friday’s side, Folau Niua and Stephen Tomasin, recently finished runners up in the 2019 World Rugby Men’s Sevens player of the year awards beaten only by Fijian Jerry Tuwai.
Niua, 34, is the the country’s most capped player in the history of World Rugby Sevens, having played in his 63rd tournament in Sydney last February.
He can kick off both feet and possesses an all-time high successful restart percentage of 45 which was a key aspect of the USA’s successful season.
Friday coach added: “Niua is a maverick, the heartbeat of us and how we play. He possesses mercurial passing variations and an ability to execute the restart on either foot with no read, which sets him apart from other players.”
Tomasin, 24, was an equally important factor in USA reaching the semi-finals of all the Cups in the World Series.
He is a powerful player with plenty of pace, who scored 29 tries last season, which was bettered only by the fastest rugby player on the planet, fellow American Carlin Isles who scored 52 tries.
Friday said: “Tomasin had a stellar season for us. His engine, power and pace were at the centre of everything that worked well for us as a team and he is a born competitor.”
Friday believes that winning the gold medal would be massive as it would really allow the sport to take off because of the patriotic nature of the American people.
He said: “The big thing about the American sporting public is that they love winning. They’ll get behind anything that’s winning that’s got a USA flag.
“If we do win the gold that will suddenly allow the sporting landscape to take an interest. People will start asking ‘Why are we not doing this at our high school?’ Then the States will invest and before you know it rugby can take off in the country.”
Friday has taken his team on an incredible journey. When he took over in 2014 the team had just finished 14th in the World Series, with just 41 points and interest in the sport was low.
The Eagles then finished in the top six in each of Friday’s five campaigns and last year’s ground-breaking second place and points total of 177, shows the impressive, hard work Friday has put into the team.
As of 2016, USA rugby has 125,000 members playing in more than 2,673 clubs and there are also more than 800 colleges playing the sport. This number increases year on year.
However, Friday’s job is not easy. He says that dealing with America’s immense diversity and the different personalities, cultures and outlooks on life is the hardest thing he’s had to deal with in his 18-year professional rugby career.
He said: “When you look at an English environment, the bandwidth is actually quite narrow, it’s public school kid or state school kid. If you put them on a rugby pitch you can’t tell the difference. In Kenya there might be four main tribes and 50 sub-tribes, but nobody’s got a lot. Everybody has to work hard, first and foremost and earn to survive.
“In America, the bandwidth is huge, you will have a kid on food rations and then you’ll have a kid who’ll have a whinge if he only gets two desserts every night.
“You put them on a rugby pitch, and you know which one is which, it’s that extreme. So as a coach when you approach and interact with this person, it’ll probably offend another person and vice versa.”
Friday has dealt well with these problems to gel a team with such contrasting backgrounds into international winners.
Friday added: “We don’t get it right still and we’ve been together for six years. That’s not failure that’s just part of our DNA, so we must work extra hard on it, so it doesn’t affect performance. The more pressure we’re under the harder it gets.”
The former England and Kenya Sevens coach juggles his coaching life with a job in property development in London and he believes that dual existence is instrumental to the development of his people skills in coaching over the years.
USA will have a major challenge to achieve gold in Tokyo but, no matter the result next summer, Friday’s impact on the growth of the game in America should not go unnoticed.