Don’t look now, but the United States has become a rugby country.
On both the men and women’s sides, USA Rugby’s sevens programs have emerged as some of the best in the world. The men hold a No. 1 ranking in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, and have medaled at six of eight tournaments, including a win in Las Vegas in March. And the women, with two bronzes and a silver medal through four tournaments, are ranked third.
With two tournaments remaining on each side, both U.S. programs are on track for a top-four finish in the World Series, a result that would qualify them for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. The women could do so as soon as this weekend, when they take part in Canada Sevens.
The successful 2018-19 seasons mark a rapid rise for both programs. Prior to this year, the men had never finished higher than fifth, which they did in 2017, while the women’s best was fourth in 2013. Both teams had to qualify for the 2016 Olympic tournament — where the sport made its Olympic debut — through a regional tournament.
Once in Rio, the men finished ninth and the women fifth.
Now they’re heading toward Tokyo as bona fine medal contenders.
So what’s the story behind the recent success, and is there a connection between the two teams?
Start with culture.
The core of the men’s program has been together for years, led by coach Mike Friday. In October, one of his longtime assistants, Chris Brown, took over as head coach for the women’s team.
The U.S. men's rugby sevens team talks in a huddle at the HSBC Men's Rugby Sevens Singapore on April 14, 2019 in Singapore.
Brown, who bridged the gap between the men and the women, arrived with a desire to create a culture of consistency and transparency.
“We focused on environment and team unity,” he said. “From there, it’s a cliché saying, but we tried to work out what they have experienced, what they liked, what they don’t like, what they want to be remembered for; combine that with transparency and clear expectations, whether it’s on-pitch or off-pitch; and then give them the tools to get out there and do that.”
Friday had implemented a similar culture in the men’s team, and he continued to drive in those themes this season. With a focus on instilling a renewed sense of communication within the squad, the men’s team and the coaches participated in a weeklong, intensive program to help them learn how to communicate better with each other.
“We understood what our own personalities were, and how we can identify what our own personalities were,” Friday said. “And what those traits and characteristics are, and more importantly, to have that open forum about what our teammates were, so we can be more self-aware of how they need to be communicated to and vice versa.”
While their respective World Series schedules mean the U.S. teams are often competing on opposite ends of the world from each other, they share a common training base in Chula Vista, California, and the programs are supportive of each other.
“I was in that (men’s) program for four years, so it’s really cool to see how they’re doing,” Brown said. “A lot of it’s the fruits of them doing things again and again and buying into it, getting the belief, the maturity of the squad.”
Friday said of the women: “We just sent them on their way as they go up to Langford, Canada (for this weekend’s tournament). All the boys will be following and watching it this weekend, hoping they can get the results they need to get Olympic qualification, too.”
Now the challenge for both teams will be sustaining the success.
Both coaches believe their programs are positioned to do just that, in part because of the success they’re having right now. The seven-a-side version of the sport is still relatively young, at least in terms of the Olympic Games, having made its debut there in 2016, and has lots of room to grow.
“Hopefully,” Brown said, “with rugby becoming more prevalent in the colleges and universities, and with us confidently competing for medals, it’s something to get young ladies thinking, ‘Hey, this could be a viable option where I can win a medal at the Olympics.’ It’s what we want.”
After all, new fans in the U.S. now have successful teams to look up to.
“The beauty for the American sporting public at the moment is that we are recognized as No. 1 in the world, and certainly one of the best in the world,” Friday said. “We all know that the American supporters love a winner, and right now they’ve got a team they can get behind and be proud of, and are truly representing all the good values, and the good things we associate with America the country, and American sporting history and heritage.”
The players are motivated, too, the coaches said. The players want the chance to make rugby sevens the sport kids want to play, and they know winning is the best way to do it.
“These boys all want to be remembered in the sport as pioneers in the game, and win a world series, or be recognized as being one of the best teams in the world,” Friday said. “That’s the drive is to be etched in history as being the first American team to do that. Be pioneering the game for the generation that will come after them. Be a credible alternative role model to the likes of Tom Brady and Steph Curry, who these young men who are growing up today can aspire to be.”
Maggie Hendricks is based in Chicago and has covered Olympic sports for more than 10 years for USA Today and Yahoo Sports. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.