CHULA VISTA, CA – USA Rugby has announced Mike Friday’s selections for the twelve men that will represent Team USA at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. While not shocking, there are a few surprises from the roster announcement. Coach Friday says that this squad “represents the country on so many level and is cosmopolitan in makeup, which is a true reflection of the country.”
This is reflected not only in the final 12 but the additional 14 that did not get named. The players come from all over the US (as well as the world) and from different stages of their development: some are still in college while others have accomplished almost everything possible in their rugby careers.
Before diving into the selections, lets name the players not selected and recognize their contribution throughout the year and during the most recent training camp (a few of them may still see the field in Rio):
Nate Augspurger, Pat Blair, Nick Edwards, Will Holder, Martin Iosefo, Matai Leuta, Thretton Palamo, ConRoy Smith, Joey Sok, Shalom Suniula, Kevin Swiryn, Brett Thompson, Peter Tiberio, Stephen Tomasin
The quality of the players staying home is a testament to the intense competitive environment created at the Olympic Training Center by Mike Friday, Chris Brown, and the rest of the coaches and staff.
The players most fans expected made the final roster, but there are definitely some surprises. After considering the format and nature of this 7s tournament to end all 7s tournaments, all 12 selections make a lot of sense.
Lets also plug this excellent bio that USA Rugby has put together on each of the men that made the final roster.
Expected Names (Not Surprises)
Madison Hughes, Folau Niua, Danny Barrett, Garrett Bender, Zach Test, Perry Baker, Carlin Isles, Maka Unufe, Ben Pinkelman
None of these selections were really in question. Madison Hughes and Folau Niua are the lynchpins that hold the squad together. Zach Test is a mainstay in the forward pack with the flexibility to play in the backs. Danny Barrett and Garrett Bender are the bash brothers that make the hard yards. And despite Carlin Isles missing the final two legs of the Sevens World Series, once healthy, he was pretty likely to join Perry Baker in Rio.
Maka Unufe disappeared a bit this year, but again, having seen him at his best, it is hard to drop him. His turn of pace and ability to step through traffic are deadly, especially for teams worrying about Isles and Baker out wide.
Ben Pinkelman only really joined the team half way through the 2015-2016 World Series, but anyone following the Eagles knew he was a lock by London. His intensity in defense and on attack is contagious. Like a not-so-little Energizer Bunny, he just keeps going (just watch his try against Fiji in the 3rd place match at London 2016).
The three remaining names are a bit more surprising and supplant some players that I thought had a chance coming into the final training camp. Considering the intensity of competition and depth of players not selected, I have the utmost faith that each of these men deserve the spot given them by Mike Friday.
Arguably not a big surprise once he announced the end of his Super Rugby season with the Sunwolves in early June. Only 11 months earlier he was vital to the Eagles 7s squad. Although Barrett and Pinkelman get their fair share of poaches, no one has replaced Durutalo this year and his importance was never more clear than the qualifier last summer against Canada. A world-class flanker like Durutalo can destroy an opponent’s spirit with a well-timed poach that halts a multi-phase attack.
Probably the biggest surprise, but do not fall for the cynical view of this being about branding or PR. It does a disservice to the hard work Nate has put into his dream. There is some “strategy” here that, in my view, is different for Rio from a typical World Series stop.
Rio will be a 3-day tournament with 2 games per day. Each team will be allowed to replace 1 injured player from the starting 12 between each day. This creates some additional flexibility for building a squad.
My theory is that Ebner is the perfect bench player. He can play in the backs and forwards. Apparently he is the 3rd fastest player on the team (behind Isles and Baker) along with one of the strongest. He will bring incredible intensity into late-game situations, but he is not expected to go 14 minutes.
With the ability to replace an injured player between days, teams can more comfortably put someone like Ebner on the roster. If for example, god forbid, Unufe got hurt on a day, we might see Iosefo come into the squad, keeping Ebner on the bench for the next day. That added flexibility means Friday can take a bit more risk in search of that X-factor in his 12-man roster.
I think this flexibility also benefits Wyles. Although he played with Team USA last summer in the North America qualifiers, he is on the wrong side of 30 and lacks recent 7s game time. But no one can argue with his season with Saracens, starting almost every game and winning the English and European Championships.
In a lot of ways, he is the insurance policy. He is a player that knows how to play under immense pressure and win. He should be a mentor to the younger guys and bring a good tactical understanding that could be vital in tight situations.
Again, similar to Ebner, I think he is a permanent bench player. But if Hughes is off the pitch and the match is coming down to a last minute drop goal, Wyles is probably the best player available to Team USA.
Potential Injury Reserve List
Nate Augspurger, Will Holder, Martin Iosefo, Thretton Palamo, and Shalom Suniula
USA 7s Eagles will travel with five additional players to Miami, Florida next week to scrimmage with the New Zealand 7s All Blacks before heading to Rio on August 1st. From the five players listed above, three will be selected to travel as injury reserves for Rio.
As I mentioned, at least one of them has a good chance of making the field if there is any injury over the first two days. This is a nice feature for Rio as it means its less likely that any team will go into the final day with a severely depleted squad.
Without knowing who will get hurt, my guess is that players that can cover in the forwards and backs will be chosen. If I had to guess, I would pick Nate Augsperger, Martin Iosefo, and Thretton Palamo as the three to travel.
My Starting Seven WAG
To continue my wild ass guesses, here are my starting 7 for lets say Fiji (maybe only 1 surprise in there):
- Danny Barrett
- Ben Pinkelman
- Andrew Durutalo
- Madison Hughes
- Folau Niua
- Maka Unufe
- Perry Baker
Bench: Garrett Bender, Zach Test, Nate Ebner, Chris Wyles, Carlin Isles
Good luck to Team USA!
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