A win without Perry Baker and Danny Barrett will alarm the traditional powers: the Americans are starting to find some depth
In Las Vegas on Sunday, the USA mens Eagles beat Samoa 27-0 to win a second USA Sevens title in a row. It was their first gold medal on this seasons HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series but they took all four silvers before it and they are now clear at the top of the world rankings, five points up on New Zealand, the World Cup winners the Eagles beat in the semi-final.
In the shortened form of mens rugby union, the USA are the best in the world. They also have the best sevens player in the world, so named twice in a row. But in Vegas, Perry Baker wasnt playing.
The Speedstick broke his jaw in Sydney in January and will most likely not return until London in late May. But therein, in part, lies the rub. In Nevada, head coach Mike Friday was able to win without his star and other key players.
Some British politician or other famously said some rival or other was the future once. So was Carlin Isles, a crossover sprinter who in 2012-13 started leaving defenders in a blur as the fastest man in rugby but then saw his star dim a little as Baker shot to glory. But Isles has developed steadily and in Vegas he seized his moment, scoring three tries against New Zealand including a rapturously celebrated short-range winner right on the final buzzer. His second, from 60 meters, provided a more familiar thrill.
Friday would have been equally pleased by what happened after one of his star men, the bullocking Californian forward Danny Barrett, was injured and pulled from the fray. In days past, on top of the absence of Baker, that would have been a hammer blow. Not this time. In sevens maybe more so than in 15s, where the Eagles lost at home to Uruguay on Saturday the US is developing depth.
Before Vegas, Friday spoke to the Guardian about those four final defeats and the main aim of the season: a top-four finish and automatic qualification for the Tokyo Olympics. Bless the brutality of word counts: some of the chat didnt make the cut. Now it can.
Were not blessed with numbers like Fiji, Friday said, referring to the champions of Rio. Youd think we would be with a population and athletic ability like we have in the US. But unfortunately we have this issue of a lack of rugby IQ between 14 and 18 in the high schools.
In short, rugby union is not part of Americas sporting DNA as it is Fijis and with money scarce, finding and shaping top-level talent is tricky. But Friday and his coaches, among them the former England hooker Phil Greening, have been at it for six years and the results are now on show.
Weve identified and picked up and nurtured two or three players each year and weve grown the group so weve got more strength in depth, Friday said.
Prompted, he discussed Kevon Williams, a back who shone at New Mexico Highlands University, not a college power, and who played his part in Vegas.
Kevon came to us as a winger but has developed his game and his understanding to the point where he can play halfback as well, Friday said. Having that flexibility matched to the fact hes quick and powerful has allowed him to really break through. Like all men he needs opportunities and confidence and commitment to stay the task. Thats what youve seen from Kevon, both defensively and offensively, starting at the back end of last season.
It does take time. The latest two or three that are starting to push on through now, theres Maceo Brown, Marcus Tupuola and Ben Broselle. These boys are 21, 22.
Brown, a former football player out of Grand Canyon University, scored the capping try in the Vegas final. Broselle, a high school wrestling champion and football star who chose rugby at UCLA, stepped up when Barrett went down.
Were working hard to develop the next crew, Friday said, because were aware that come 2020 this group will have been together as long as Ive been here, and maybe after that theyll be looking to do something new. We need the conveyor belt.
Danny Barrett, Perry Baker, Ben Pinkelman, Madison Hughes, Maka Unufe, Martin Iosefo, Folau Niua, Matai Leuta, Stephen Tomasin all of these boys are hot property on the world circuit. They may not be known that well in the American sporting landscape, which isnt surprising given what theyre competing with, but they are well positioned as a group of men to succeed and compliment those super sports. Its credit to them.
The gaps got bigger between them and the group trying to keep up. Our challenge over the next 18 months is to try to identify and nurture a squad that can catch up to where these guys are pushing us, to push us through to 2020.
He has something to work with. After five events the Eagles have beaten each of the other 14 core world series teams, a quarter-final victory over South Africa in Vegas completing the set of what Friday calls the super powers: the Blitzbokke, the All Blacks, Fiji, Australia and England. Argentina, tricky blighters who beat the Eagles in pool play this weekend, were dealt with in December in Cape Town.
There is talent coming up behind, too: the mens second string, the Falcons, emulated the American women in winning their event in the Las Vegas Invitational, a grass roots sevens smorgasbord that runs alongside the main event each year.
Next year, it might not: World Rugby is seeking to move the USA Sevens. This may have been the last showdown in Sin City. If so, Americas new world leaders chose a hell of a way to say goodbye.
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