When he was juggling classes at Dartmouth with duties as captain of the USA Rugby Men’s Eagles Sevens, Madison Hughes might find himself knocking off a 2,500-word essay between tournament games, or buried in a book on a 10,000-mile flight halfway around the world with class looming the next day.
So completing his history degree last summer opened up a whole new world for Hughes — one concept in particular.
“Sleep,” he joked.
It’s not overrated, he’s found.
“In the run-up to the Olympics,” Hughes said, “it’s nice to sit back and take a deep breath and just focus on rugby and putting myself in the best position to succeed.”
That mirrors the approach of the Eagles, who last year took a big competitive leap on the international stage and are now trying to take the step to medal contender when rugby sevens makes its Olympic debut in Rio de Janeiro this summer.
It’s been fitful. The Eagles had a sensational start on the HSBC Sevens World Series with a third-place finish in Dubai in December — including their first-ever wins over New Zealand. Since then, they’ve continued to reach the cup semifinals in each event, but they keep bumping their heads on the ceiling there and sit seventh in the world standings.
That’s something they’d like to change when the series moves to American soil in Las Vegas this weekend.
“I think we hoped to be higher than that,” Hughes said. “We’re targeting kind of those top four spots. On balance, it’s a reflection of how we’ve played so far. We’ve had games where we’ve been at the level needed to break into that top four, but on balance we’ve been inconsistent and chasing those top teams.”
A taste of success can make a guy hungry for more.
The Eagles jumped from 13th in the 2013-14 series standings to an unprecedented sixth a year ago under new coach Mike Friday — and at the heart of it was Hughes, who in his first full season with the Eagles and then just 22 years old, was a surprise choice as team captain.
“When I was first selected, I was a bit nervous,” he admitted. “I was the youngest on the team, and there were guys who had played on the series for seven or eight years and 50-plus tournaments. It was something I was concerned about.
“But I was also pretty motivated to show I could take the team forward. I wasn’t sure I needed to be captain to do that. When I was selected, we had a group of guys who felt the same way, and it wasn’t so much about who was the captain but how we can make the team as successful as we can.”
That mission was fulfilled in spectacular fashion last May in London when the Eagles won their first series tournament, including knockout-round victories over Canada, England and Australia. Hughes led the Americans in tries and points — he was the season points leader, as well — but that wasn’t the only reason it was special to the Eagles scrum half.
Hughes was born and raised in the London suburbs, his father English and his mother American. He took up rugby at age 7 and became part of the sport’s high school pipeline at Wellington College before choosing to pursue college in the states at Dartmouth.
“I remember going to the London Sevens when I was young and dream of playing in it one day,” he said. “To go back and not only play in the tournament but win it was awesome — the most incredible feeling.”
The Eagles followed up with a strong effort the next month at the NACRA Sevens Championships, ripping through the field and beating Canada 21-5 to book their trip to Rio. That only raises the stakes for Hughes and a team already trying to build on last year’s momentum.
“Growing up, I never even dreamed rugby could be included in the Olympics,” he said. “It’s one of those things you see and think, ‘Wow, I’d love to be a part of that’ but never really think you will.
“It’s the pinnacle of world sport, and I think that’s elevated rugby sevens to a whole new level. For a long time, it seems like rugby has looked down on seven-a-side rugby as something of a developmental sport. Now it’s something to aim for — even an international 15-side superstar saying, ‘Yeah, I want to try my hand at sevens.’ We’ve seen some incredible growth in the sport the last several years.”
And Hughes sees the upshot of that every training camp.
“New guys coming into camp now seem much more prepared to compete on the international level than when I first joined the team,” he said. “Now, instead of 10-15 guys who may be ready to compete to make the team, there are 20-25 who have a fair chance. The competition is that much higher, and that’s made us better as a team.”
They’d like to show it again at home in Las Vegas, where they were fourth last year — especially with a live television slot on NBC on Sunday.
“That would be huge,” Hughes said. “The support in Vegas spurred us on last year, and if people can see an American team competing at the end of that last day with the established nations, it will grab their attention — and establish us as a team to be reckoned with.”