Ahead of Vegas showpiece, Eagles coach discusses diversity, psychology and why his team has made four finals in a row
In the HSBC World Rugby Men’s Sevens Series, the USA have reached four finals in a row. Going into their home event in Las Vegas this weekend, which they won for the first time last year, they are level with New Zealand at the top of the rankings.
Such success is unprecedented and it is the result, says Mike Friday, of “a lot of hard work”. Any coach might be expected to say so but the affable Englishman, once a Wasps scrum-half and coach of England and Kenya, is a professor of the shortened game. There’s more to it.
“America is such a diverse place,” he tell the Guardian, over the phone. “Certainly within our squad we represent that diversity. And while that diversity can be your biggest strength it can also be an achilles heel, when it comes to communication, perceptions and understanding, the possibility of misunderstanding the way that people may be or are.
“Obviously we’ve worked hard on our physical, tactical and technical development, they’re givens. But we undertook a large piece of work off-pitch probably 10 months ago, working on communication and awareness of others and self-awareness.
“It’s about how you need to be prepared to compromise and comfort and mediate both with what you say and what others say, and to work hard on having that flexibility in communication.”
In short, Friday’s players come from various walks of American life, from the coasts, from north and south and in between, and they come from different social, educational, even political backgrounds. And they have learned to live and work together.
In a country riven by partisan bitterness, it’s a thought-provoking point. It’s also a point made to someone who edits political news by day, and therefore cannot resist suggesting Republicans and Democrats might learn something by watching the sevens on ESPN. Friday laughs at the notion of Donald Trump in a scrumcap, bound on to Bernie Sanders. Then he neatly sidesteps the trap.
“We’ve had teething problems,” he says, “don’t get me wrong. Like all brothers or families, you have good days and bad days. But we’ve come out the other side.
“What you’re seeing is a squad that are able to communicate efficiently and effectively under pressure, and also at times when they’re not under pressure or when they have historically not liked to communicate, perhaps. They now choose to accept one another and support one another.
“It’s not really psychology: it’s just growing as men. It’s taken time but we’re seeing the benefits now.”
Last July, the Eagles had a disappointing World Cup in San Francisco, finishing sixth. But in this World Series they have reached finals in Dubai, Cape Town, Hamilton and Sydney. They have beaten Fiji, New Zealand, England and Australia. But they lost all four finals: two to Fiji, the Olympic champions, two to New Zealand, champions of the world.
Friday admits to regrets and a determination to end that painful run. But “the reality is we’re all about Olympic qualification this year and to get that we have to finish in the top four. To break the stranglehold of the super powers, that is the challenge.”
Somewhat. Sevens is a breathless rush and as Friday says, “it comes down to moments. Some are in your control. Some are not.”
In the final in Sydney this month, the Eagles made 27 offloads in one attack, drawing two penalties from the equally relentless New Zealand defenders. It was extraordinary stuff but then, as Friday describes it, sevens worked its horrible magic.
“We ran this tap play, we tried a wrap-around and their player tackled Danny Barrett into Folau Niua. The ball bobbles clear, Folau is on the floor and replaced on an HIA [head injury assessment] and New Zealand run away and suddenly it’s 14-0.
“The game wasn’t won and lost there but the momentum shifted. The ebb and flow of sevens happened. And of course that’s why we love the game. You’ve got to see it for what it is.”
What sevens is, he says with another laugh, is “Gladiator”: a brutal arena spectacle. As such it’s well made for Vegas, which has hosted since 2010, organisers United World Sports putting on the international event alongside tournaments for schools, colleges and clubs.
In his absence the likes of Kevon Williams, a product of small-college rugby at New Mexico Highlands University, will have another chance to shine alongside Danny Barrett, Ben Pinkelman, Madison Hughes and Stephen Tomasin, world-class players all. Friday speaks glowingly of Williams and others in the squad for Vegas, among them Maceo Brown, Marcus Tupuola and Ben Broselle.
“Our challenge over the next 18 months,” the coach says, “is to identify and nurture a squad that can push us through to 2020. And as a tier-two rugby nation in a tier-one economy, that’s tough.”
In the richest country in the world, sevens offers the chance to win Olympic gold, not to make a pile of silver. In 2017, Rugby Today reported that the “highest-paid contracted sevens Eagle” made just $24,000 a year.
“It requires a lot of sacrifice to chase that dream,” Friday says. “These boys live on the poverty line, on the minimum wage. That’s the reality of this. It’s on a par with probably stacking shelves in Walmart.
“They do it because they love it and want to create role models. America is trying to play catch-up. Once you create the role models and capture imaginations, of the population and most importantly the commercial world, then you get a shot.”
“They get to play in front of their families, and that’s massive. When we won last year that was the most pleasing thing for me. The families have to sacrifice as well. Just to see them share that win and enjoy it makes up for it all a little bit.
“So no we don’t feel the pressure at home, we enjoy the positivity. If anything we just have to be careful about the distractions of Vegas. Everybody wants a piece of us. We want to be in there with the USA Rugby community, it’s what it’s all about.
“But we are there for business.”