“When Maka plays with the freedom and the confidence, then you see that animal… –Mike Friday
PHILADELPHIA, PA – Mike Friday has been the head coach of the USA Rugby Men’s Sevens team for almost a year now. He has steered the team through a full season of the HSBC World Series. The season ended with a tremendous high – the first-ever series win in London – but there were certainly some fluctuations in the team’s momentum. And just ahead is the chance to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio at the NACRA tournament, June 13-14.
Before the World Series started, my thinking was thus: Can the 7s Eagles finish in the top 4, thereby taking the quickest path to Olympic qualification? No! They finished 13th at the end of the 2013-2014 season. Top 4 seemed way out of reach. Can the 7s Eagles beat Canada at the NACRA tournament? Maybe. Canada finished 6th in the 2013-2014 season. Beating Canada seemed like an iffy proposition.
Things have changed. It was the USA who finished 6th this season, though they scored 18 more points over the course of the season than did Canada in their 6th place finish the year before. And they won a tournament. Canada finished 9th this season.
After this season, we know that the @Eagles7s can beat Canada. Even if they do not win in North Carolina next weekend, they would end up being the favorites in the final repechage tournament. The chatter about and around the team is much different now than 12 months ago.
When I spoke with Mike Friday, I wanted to get his sense of how the season went, and also look ahead to the NACRA tournament.
The first thing that struck me was Friday’s sense of enjoying and caring about his players.
The staff is trying to give the players the kinds of guidance and support that allows them to grow as men. “If you’ve got a better man, you’ve got a better rugby player.”
He identified as his biggest surprise from the season as just how vast the country is and how eclectic the culture. Differences in culture affect communication, and that “stretched [Friday] vastly.” The challenge of getting to know the different players and how best to communicate with them and motivate them is a challenge he enjoys.
When speaking about the team’s personnel, one term that Friday uses frequently is balance: “Everybody’s got to bring something to the party.” In London, where they won, he thought they had the most balanced side and, giving credit to Chris Brown’s leadership with the conditioning program, “we had 12 people ready to rock and roll from start to finish.”
The statement about the whole squad being ready to “rock and roll” was later contradicted somewhat when discussing Thretton Palamo. Palamo was called into the squad after Zack Test’s injury. Geography was the key factor in bringing Palamo in. “From a conditioning perspective, he wasn’t where he needed to be. He could have a serious impact on the 7s team, but he will have to commit to the 7s conditioning to get himself in a position to contribute.”
Friday does not have concerns over the fitness of Chris Wyles, who has joined the squad in preparations for NACRA. “Fitness-wise and as a player, I know he is where he needs to be, and more importantly, his personality fits our environment.” If he doesn’t make the NACRA squad, Wyles still might have the ambition to play in the Olympics. This camp will allow Wyles time to work with many players likely to be part of that Olympics team, should they qualify.
I opened the conversation about the likely match with Canada by pointing out that Canada do not have anyone who can hang with Carlin Isles or Perry Baker in terms of pace. Friday’s response was direct and succinct: “Nope. They haven’t got anybody that can handle Maka [Unufe], either.”
During the season, Unufe was not the most consistent Eagles Sevens player. At times, he has looked excellent, and at times quite tentative. Friday had this to say: “He is pure X factor as a player…He’s a young man still finding his way in rugby. He carries a lot of expectation on his own shoulders. He’s his worst critic and sometimes that can inhibit him. When Maka plays with the freedom and the confidence, then you see that animal, that X factor player that we all love to see. I’ve seen huge improvements in Maka both in terms of his rugby ability, the way he goes about it on the training pitch and the hard work he put is, but also off the pitch how he’s grown as a man.”
“The future’s bright for Maka.”
The short-term future is bright for the entire team as their chances of beating Canada are good. Having taken a close look at many of the USA v Canada Sevens matches this season, it seems to me that Canada’s chances hinge on penalties at the breakdown. When asked about the referees, Friday had clearly thought about who the referees will be in North Carolina. His understanding is that Rasta Rasivhenge is being flown in because of the magnitude of the game.
One thing that cannot be ignored is the 40-0 victory Canada had over the US in Glasgow. “We didn’t perform… If they play well and we play well, we have a lot more in our armory.”
“We’re all right is they’ve got possession, but what we can’t do is continually give them possession and make mistakes. If we deal with their kick off, we get possession and then we’ve just got to be accurate.”
Heading into NACRA, Friday is confident about what is players can do, but he is not losing sight of the possibility of a few brief moments – including things outside of the players’ control – deciding who has a ticket to Rio. Trying to give his side the best chance, Friday is lobbying to make the pitch is as wide as possible to give the pace-men more room.
Looking beyond NACRA, Friday also mentioned concern over the compensation his players are receiving. He wants to make sure the players are “in a proper place contractually to allow them to focus on trying to be the best they can be for USA Sevens and not having their heads get turned by cheap overseas contracts which could affect our program.” Championship clubs in England and PRO2 clubs in France can see how well some of the Americans are playing and know it won’t take much to compete with their compensation as a USA 7s player. As he sees it, the players need a “sustainable, comfortable lifestyle” while they represent the USA. “I don’t think they should be getting by like students. They’ve earned that right.”
These comments seem to reflect his concern over his players’ well being, but also concern over developing talent that is then easily lured away, which will hurt the side and his ability to move the side forward.
He does not see sharing fifteens players with Mike Tolkin as being a problem. If there is an American he thinks would help the 7s program, he feels like he can bring him in. He expects that 4 or 5 of his players will move from NACRA to the 15s World Cup preparations. If they win at NACRA, then they will have 14 months to plan for Olympics. Missing 4 or 5 players for the Pan-Am Games will allow Friday to “blood 4 or 5 others, because we need to strengthen the talent pool.”
A win in NACRA will secure a place in the Olympics, but it will also cement the sense that Friday’s leadership and coaching has significantly moved the USA 7s program forward.
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