Team USA Men’s Olympic Post Mortem: What We Learned, What We Know & What We Think We Know
There’s no easy way to put it. After the five-point loss to Fiji, with the result meaning the team USA men would miss the quarterfinals, there could be nothing more than heartbreak and a feeling that the intense efforts of the last seven years were for naught. As I said ahead of the men’s competition, “Anything short of a quarterfinal appearance will be considered an abysmal failure.” But before we grab our handfuls of dirt and toss it on the memory of team USA’s return to the Olympics, it’s time to look back at the state of the USA Rugby men’s national sevens team and realize things aren’t as bad as they seem.
Just over two years ago, I wrote a piece entitled “Eagles 7s Steep Hill to Climb to Make Rio.” The catalyst was the announcement of the Olympic qualification process and a look at how the United States would fare in that process. At that time the Eagles were coming off their worst season since attaining core status on the Sevens World Series. In six of nine tournaments, the team finished in the shield competition. The team reached the cup quarterfinal only twice. The result followed a stretch of instability following the dismissal of Al Caravelli, the short tenure of Alex Magelby, and the turbulent season under Matt Hawkins. Perhaps more ominous was the surge of Canada, which reached a first, and to-date only, cup final in Glasgow. While the Eagles finished 13th, Canada finished 6th.
That summer, USA Rugby made the best hire in the nation’s history: Mike Friday. Friday came in and turned the program around to the point where the 2014 London Sevens shield champion became the 2015 London Sevens champion. The quality of play also led to the highest final ranking on the series (6th), replacing the prior mark of 10th. The Eagles then went to NACRA and dominated, as expected, against all competition except Canada. While it is certainly expected that the NACRA final will always be USA and Canada if both teams are in it, it merits note that in the 2011 Pan Am Games, team USA barely beat Chile (14–7), drew with Brazil (19–19), lost twice to Canada (29–21 & 21–19), and barely beat Uruguay (19–17). The only quality win was 24–12 over Guyana in the quarterfinal. In NACRA in 2015, a full strength squad scored 230 points and gave up 10, beating Canada 21–5. A short while later, a squad raided by the XVs team, went to Pan Am and again ended with bronze, but dismantled every team except for a tough loss to Canada (26–19) in the semifinal.
This year, team USA started with a third-place finish on the back of consecutive victories over New Zealand. The team never fully gelled this year with the absence of key member Andrew Durutalo, who had left the side to pursue professional fifteens rugby, and injuries breaking cohesion, the team never quite broke back through to win a second cup title. Nevertheless, the squad reached three semifinals as they had the year before. Prior to Friday’s arrival, the team had done that only three times ever.
With consecutive strong seasons and having finished the year with a win over gold medal favorite and ultimate gold medal champion Fiji, there were extremely high expectations for the men at Rio. The pool draw certainly seemed to make the quarterfinals easily attainable. Before we dive into what happened, let us look for a second just why the quarterfinals seemed like a cinch. The expectation was always that team USA would lose to Fiji. There is no doubt that the Americans could beat Fiji. Really, there is no team that the United States cannot beat. But the safe bet was for Fiji to win. The match against Argentina was always going to be a fifty-fifty proposition, based on the bounce of the ball and the rub of the calls (more on that in a minute). The key was Brazil. This is probably the only time Brazil will ever compete in rugby at the Olympics. Argentina will dominate South American qualification. Brazil is miles behind Argentina and also finished behind Uruguay and Chile at Pan Am in 2015. Team USA was expected to keep at least keep it close against Fiji, Argentina, and hammer Brazil. In the end, that is exactly what happened. Where things went off the rails was in Pool C.
No one outside of Japan foresaw Japan beating New Zealand. You have to hand it to Japan. Within the span of a year, Japan has claimed the biggest upset in the history of the fifteens World Cup and maybe the most major upset in sevens, at the very least in sevens at the Olympics. That changed everything. The expectation was always that New Zealand would win Pool C, with team Great Britain a wildcard and Kenya a possibility to pull an upset. But the hope was always that New Zealand and Britain would dominate the other two, leaving the third-place team in a major whole on points differential. Absolutely no one thought that third-place team would be the All Blacks Sevens. If you think the American post mortem is painful, just imagine what is going on in New Zealand.
Before we look at how it played out, let’s look at the player selection. This has become a hot topic for debate. Frankly, I think the debate is largely an excuse to register a simple argument: blame the selection because in hindsight the players didn’t get it done. Certainly, there were some upset with the selections even before the team got on the flight to Rio. One pundit railed against the selection of Carlin Isles and Nate Ebner. It is impossible to say what would have happened if these two men were not on the team. But what we can do is look at what they did. Isles paced the team with six tries. Ebner scored the try against Fiji to give team USA a chance. If Madison Hughes makes that conversion, the United States sets up a rematch with Fiji and New Zealand, who has never missed the quarterfinal on the World Series, is left playing for ninth. To me, Ebner conclusively proved that he was a proper selection for what Coach Friday was looking to do with the squad.
Another selection, which has drawn flack, is Chris Wyles. Aside from joining the side for NACRA, Wyles has not been a sevens player for some time. That said, the addition of Wyles made perfect sense to me. First, he fit a niche in the team. He could be an instant spot fill in or sub at basically any position. More importantly, he is really the only player on the team with experience of being under the intense pressure and spotlight that something like the Olympics brings. Certainly Danny Barrett, Andrew Durutalo, and Zack Test each had the experience of being in the Rugby World Cup this past fall. And Nate Ebner has been under the scrutiny rank and file NFL and big time NCAA program players receive. But the Eagles were not under great scrutiny from outside of a modest domestic fan base in the World Cup and Ebner isn’t Tom Brady. Wyles, on the other hand, is coming off being a core contributor to the Saracens double with the Premiership and European titles. He’s a true veteran and leader who could help keep the team focused. Did it work? There’s no way to say. The team lost two close matches to tough opponents. It happens all the time on the circuit, but here it was a bigger stage.
One of the biggest points when people complain about selections is the simple point of who would you have rather had? Four regulars from the series come to mind: Will Holder, Nate Augspurger, Martin Iosefo, and Thretton Palamo. Each is a great player and has served the Eagles extremely well, but Coach Friday wasn’t looking to “medal,” he was looking to win gold. That is the weight and legacy of American rugby at the Olympics and that’s the challenge he faced. He could have picked a safer side, but how can we fault him for picking the team he thought best suited to win gold instead of a team that rewards loyal contributors. For years, one of the main criticisms of the fifteens national team has been a practice of rewarding players with caps instead of picking the best squad. If Coach Friday thought this was his best squad, then I cannot fathom anyone well suited to disagree.
Now let’s look at what happened on the pitch. The two most interesting decisions from a personnel standpoint were the choices to play Test and Durutalo sparingly. Durutalo’s ability to force turnovers and a physicality, largely only matched by Danny Barrett, were sorely lacking from this season’s World Series team. Obviously, Durutalo was coming off a season of playing fifteens and might have been behind the curve on getting back to sevens form. It is unfortunate that he was not poised to be his old self. Especially against Fiji.
The starting side against Argentina was Danny Barrett, Garret Bender, Ben Pinkelman, Madison Hughes, Folau Niua, Maka Unufe, and Perry Baker. The first half was fairly sloppy for team USA. Hughes, who is usually an excellent tackler was not in great form and was bull rushed over for Argentina’s first try. Despite having a yellow card advantage, the Americans couldn’t capitalize and were lucky to not concede a second try before the half. In the second half, Argentina got an early try that was ludicrous for two reasons. The most obvious is that the ball was clearly a knock-on. How Craig Joubert could say that “there was no obvious knock-on” is beyond me. More easily overlooked is what happened right before that. Hughes tried an up and under with Joubert yelling “let him [Hughes] run,” only to yell “play on” after Hughes was taken out late following the kick. Each was atrocious and, perhaps foolishly assuming all things otherwise equal, was determinative to the outcome.
With the try, Ebner came in for Unufe and Test in for Pinkelman. Almost instantly both Test and Ebner made an impact. Test took the kickoff and Ebner was key in getting the ball inside the Argentine twenty-two and winning a penalty. Test then earned a penalty try. Ebner was also the one who regained possession for the United States after Baker knocked-on at the restart. Bender and Barrett combined for the try. Durutalo then came in for Barrett. Perhaps the biggest mistake of the match was Niua’s restart kick at the end. All season long, Niua has been the most consistent and generally the best restart man in the game. In the Olympics his kicks were just not quite on. The final restart against Argentina squibbed into touch shy of the ten. Throughout the competition, his kicks tended to be a hair too far, preventing a good opportunity for the steal. In the end, it was a defensive break down that allowed Argentina to pull the American line into a clump in midfield, which opened the gap on the left wing for the try to win.
Against Argentina, the starting lineup largely seemed right, but the focus was lacking. Unufe’s form throughout the tournament was not where he would have hoped. In hindsight, I understand the decision to go with Unufe over Iosefo, with the recognition that at his best Unufe offers more, but given the form, Iosefo would likely have been the better option.
Against Brazil, the starting lineup was the same except Ebner started over Barrett and Wyles over Unufe. It was always to be expected that the lineup would be a bit different against Brazil. The story against Brazil was too many knock-ons to really build consistent momentum and Brazil largely getting away with slowing the game down alongside official Matthew O’Brien’s fastidious attention to the scrum at a level, which might be pedantic even for fifteens. In the second half, Isles came in for Baker, Barrett for Bender, and Unufe for Wyles. Ebner was also sent to the sin bin for a high tackle. Although the United States certainly benefitted from high tackle calls as often as they were penalized, perhaps even winning the benefit on balance, the emphasis on high tackles was higher at the Olympics than usual in sevens and acted to contribute to a much slower pace of play across the board. In the end, after a sluggish half, team USA added two more tries and a conversion to win 26–0, which is about what they had hoped. Had the match been allowed to flow and had the Americans cut the errors, it could have easily been a much more lopsided affair.
Entering day 2, the path to the quarterfinal seemed clear. All team USA really needed was for South Africa to hold serve over Australia. An Australian loss would have left a more than twenty-point gap in points differential. Instead, Australia pulled the 12–5 victory, leaving New Zealand’s shocking loss to Great Britain as the only remaining door for team USA to sneak into the quarterfinals despite a loss to Fiji. For that to work, the United States needed to lose by no more than three points.
The starting lineup against Fiji was basically the exact same as Argentina, except Unufe was out and Ebner was in. The way Ebner was playing, the choice made sense. Fiji came with a very physical game plan and Ebner was brining more power than Unufe. If Durutalo could’ve gone fourteen minutes, I think he would’ve started instead. The match could not have started much better, with a try from Barrett and conversion from Hughes giving a 7–0 lead five minutes into the match. The biggest problem of the match soon manifested itself. Fiji won the restart, but a Pinkelman tackle forced a turnover. The problem arose when shortly after, Fiji committed four men to a counter ruck and were able to turn the ball over and get off down the field without being punished for overcommitting. Each time Fiji committed numbers at the break down, the Fijians either came away with the ball or prevented team USA from getting quick ball. Fiji tied it up. Right before the half, the Americans were awarded a yellow card. With the match level, it probably would have been best to kick to touch and carry the card to start the second half. Instead, the Americans turned over the ball, Fiji scored, and the yellow card was burned before the second half even started.
The second half started well again for the United States when Pinkelman grabbed an interception and Perry Baker ultimately crossed for his lone try of the Olympics. Hughes added the conversion, placing the quarterfinal within grasp. But, as Fiji is prone to do, it answered back quickly with a try in the far left corner. A strong chase by Baker left the score in the corner, and looked like a real chance to keep the margin at 3. Instead, Osea Kolinisau hit the huge conversion to push the lead to 19–14. Durutalo then came in for Bender and Test for Pinkelman. After the restart, Fiji again dominated at the break down and forced a second try to put the match out of reach at 24–14. Undaunted, Wyles stole the restart and sent Ebner across for the try in the left corner.
Here is a moment where I’m going to point out a decision I would have made in the moment, but I entirely understand why it did not go this way. If the conversion had been made, it would have meant team USA reached the quarterfinal, losing the match by 3 with New Zealand missing the cut. Instead, the miss meant a loss by 5. Although Hughes is an excellent kicker, and I have seen him make that kick from the right side, he is a right-footed kicker. With that angle, a right-footed kicker is prone to pull the kick just as Hughes did. It is a tough call to make in the moment, but the decision I would have preferred was for Wyles to take that kick. If you want to see what it could have looked like, pull up Wyles’s conversion against Barbados to push the match to 40–0 in the opening 2015 NACRA match. It was the exact same spot, with the left boot, and struck perfectly. Regardless of who kicked it, it was a tough conversion. No doubt. There is no certainty that passing it to Wyles for the shot would have changed the outcome. But, as baseball fans are accustomed to, there are times to play the odds with the righty-left switch.
The match did not, however, end there. The important restart kick from Niua was too far to contest and Fiji took it cleanly. With no time left, team USA still had a chance to salvage Olympic dreams with a lineout throw. Test took the throw cleanly, but landed with Fiji instantly forcing him to the ground and Durutalo rucking over. Fiji slammed in with a hard counter ruck and forced yet another turnover. Many have complained about the decision to go for a maul. Looking at what happened, it does not look like a maul was intended. It looks like Test landed with his back to Fiji and Durutalo in front of him. With Test instantly being tackled, Durutalo drove over him to try and engage the ruck. If I had one major complaint it was Hughes calling off Ebner who looked to be coming in to assist in the ruck. Typically, Hughes’s call was the right one; don’t over engage when you need players in the line to move the ball, but with Fiji’s dominance at the breakdown, Ebner was needed.
In the end, we all know what happened. Team USA lost to Fiji by 5 and ended up playing for and winning ninth. The United States again beat Brazil despite being on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum: Brazil looked excited to be playing and team USA looked understandably devastated. While it is a shame, given the high hopes, it is far from a disastrous result. Two years ago, it did not look like the United States would even be in the games. What happened was basically something that happened twice this year on the series, the United States missed the top eight. The great run of team Great Britain and the shocking surge of Japan were at the core of the result. The Eagles can beat any team in the world, but, at this point, they are still consistent underdogs in many matches. They are feared but there is much more work today.
Importantly, despite a history of making poor decisions on future of coaches following a poor showing at a single major event, let us all remember where this team was and easily could fall back to without Mike Friday. It’s not the result we wanted, but the men who wore the jersey fought hard and served this nation well and Coach Friday was at the core of building a team in which we could even have hope, let alone expectations, of defending the gold. To put things into perspective, team USA was one blown call in the Argentina match away from reaching the Olympic quarterfinals with New Zealand missing out. Team USA was also one Australian upset over South Africa away. If it can happen to New Zealand and Australia, it can happen to the United States.
If USA Rugby can keep Mike Friday at the helm, maintain the financial support structure in place, and keep the core of the team together, there is no reason team USA can’t win gold in 2020 or even the World Cup on home soil in 2018. The future is bright even if it’s hard to see through today’s tears.