The U.S. men’s rugby sevens team opened the HSBC World Rugby Seven Series season with the goal of qualifying for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, a task that would require a top-four finish in the season standings.
In achieving that Saturday — with a tournament and a half left to play — the USA Men’s Eagles Sevens also established themselves as bona fide medal contenders for next summer.
The Eagles Sevens clinched their Olympic berth by merit of reaching the quarterfinals at the London Sevens, which they did by winning two games in pool play. Now even if the U.S. loses in Sunday’s quarterfinals, it will earn no fewer than 10 points in London, guaranteeing a top-four spot regardless of how the team finishes at the final event next month in Paris.
The U.S. came into this weekend’s tournament ranked first, having medaled in six of the eight tournaments so far this season.
It’s been quite a turnaround from a team that needed to win a regional championship to qualify for Rio, where it finished ninth in the Olympic debut of the sport. Rugby union (15s) was contested at the 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924 Games but rugby sevens was added for 2016.
Even as recently as last year, the Eagles finished sixth in the World Rugby Sevens Series standings.
When this season kicked off last November in Dubai, something seemed to click. From the word go, the Eagles have been on a tear, winning silver medals in each of their first four tournaments – Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Cape Town, South Africa; Hamilton, New Zealand; Sydney, Australia – before claiming a win in the fifth, which was held in Las Vegas.
Before this season, the team had never medaled in back-to-back tournaments in the history of the 20-year-old world tour.
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After finally missing the podium in March in Vancouver, British Columbia — where the U.S. finished fourth — the Eagles took third place in April in Hong Kong and then were fourth again one week later in Singapore.
No team has medaled as often as the U.S. this season, and the Eagles entered the weekend on top of the standings leading such traditional powerhouses as Fiji, New Zealand and South Africa. The U.S. had never been ranked first in the world prior to this historic season.
All the while, U.S. players such as Madison Hughes and Carlin Isles have thrived. The 2016 Olympians are Nos. 1 and 3 in the World Rugby Seven Series in scoring. Isles, known for his blazing speed, came into London with 44 tries, which was 11 more than the next best player.
So what changed?
Earlier this season coach Mike Friday told TeamUSA.org that one of the tweaks he made this season was in how he treated his players, and how he encouraged them to treat one another. Communication and openness became key, he said, even when that meant showing emotions that players might otherwise tend to keep private and asking for help.
“Our game is traditionally played by tough men that don’t show weaknesses, so being able to express that you need support or you’re prepared to offer support is something that’s easier said than done,” Friday said.
The 12 members of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team will be selected in June or July of 2020.
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.
The U.S. men's rugby sevens team poses for a photo after securing a berth at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on May 25, 2019 in London.