By Josh Walfish | June 14, 2015, 6:37 p.m. (ET)
Members of the U.S. men's and women's rugby sevens teams pose for a photo after qualifying for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games at the 2015 NACRA Sevens Championships on June 14, 2015 in Cary, N.C.


CARY, N.C. -- At this time last year, the Rio 2016 Olympic Games were the furthest thing from the minds of the United States men’s rugby sevens players.

The U.S. had barely survived relegation from the Sevens World Series, the nine-event series for the top rugby sevens countries in the world, and many doubted the U.S. could improve quickly enough to qualify for Rio 2016.

Fast forward a year, Team USA has exceeded all expectations and earned a spot at the Olympic debut of rugby sevens in Rio. Rugby union (15 a side) was last played at the 1924 Games, where the U.S. men won gold.

The U.S. beat Canada, 21-5, on Sunday at the NACRA Sevens Championships to earn the region’s automatic bid to the Rio Games.

“It was a tough assignment and I’m big on challenges,” coach Mike Friday said. “Even so, it’s the same guys that we were relegation material, everybody had written us off. ... The credit needs to go to the boys. They made the decision to come along to the party, they made the decision to consider change and they embraced all the changes that we put in place.

“They worked tirelessly for 10 months and when talent works hard, talent gets its rewards.”

The technical improvement in the U.S. squad was evident throughout the final match with Canada.

The offense was clinical in its execution from the quick transition off a turnover that set up the Americans’ second try to the perfectly executed dummied pass that led to the third. But the true show of technique came on defense.

The U.S. was down a man to start the second half when Folau Niua was assessed a yellow card at the end of the first half. Canada was unable to capitalize on its advantage thanks in large part to timely tackling from the U.S. defense. Even when the sides were at even strength, the Canadians were on the precipice of scoring, but the U.S. held its ground until there were less than four minutes remaining when Harry Jones dragged an American defender across the line for a try.

“With the yellow card or without the yellow card, we didn’t mind; we just wanted to keep them off the scoreboard,” Danny Barrett said. “We only gave up 10 points the whole tournament and that says a lot about our defense. We have a lot of pride in our defense, so we’ll back ourselves any chance we get, six men, seven men, it’s fine with us, we’re ready to play.”

Earlier in the day, the U.S. women clinched their spot in Rio with an 88-0 rout of Mexico.

The U.S. was aggressive on the attack throughout the 20-minute final, passing the ball fluidly from one side of the field to the other to create mismatches. The Americans were stout defensively, forcing the Mexicans into several turnovers that ended in points for the U.S. 

The Americans outscored the opposition, 369-5, in their six matches over the weekend.

After missing out on qualifying for Rio through the World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series on a tiebreaker with England, the U.S. knew it had to focus on this weekend.

“The really satisfying thing is that we’re now qualified to go to Rio, which was the plan at the start of the year,” coach Ric Suggitt said. “We knew we were favorites, but you never take anyone lightly in any sport. We came here, we stayed disciplined and we played very good rugby. We moved the ball well, we attacked the outside edges really well and we used our fitness.”

Both teams now have a little more than a year to prepare for Rio, and the programs have plenty of work to do as they look to medal in rugby’s return to the Olympics.

“We have to make better decisions with the ball in our hand when we’re attacking,” Suggitt said. “We have to be better structurally on our defense, picking up cutbacks on the inside. Everyone always has work to do, it’s a matter of if we’ll get our noses down and grind it for the next 15 months.”

“We’re still playing catch-up on the game understanding,” Friday added about the men’s squad. “We’re physically as good as any in the world and we got the power, but where we need to get better is our game understanding and tactical awareness and that will come with experience and that will come with time; we can’t accelerate that. If we can continue to improve at the levels that we are at the moment, then we have every chance at being contenders.”

Josh Walfish is a North Carolina-based freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.