Tropical Sevens And USA Sevens Future
By Steve Lewis, Guest Journalist, DJCoil Rugby
I have seen the future of American Sevens, and it is bright, mostly…
After two days of frenetic competition at the Tropical Sevens in Orlando, where 110 high school and college teams gathered at the magnificent Omni Championsgate facility, hope springs eternal. Quite simply, the quality of athletes, the quality of committed coaches, and the quality of rugby were, by any standards impressive. Lots and lots of kids playing more, better sevens, just what the doctor ordered.
On the international front, 2019 has been an annus mirabilis for the United States, with Mike Friday’s Mens team deservedly sitting atop the world after 8 of 10 World Series legs, and the Women’s program under Chris Brown not far behind ranked #3 after the 4th leg of their six leg competition. Success this year has been vital, as for both genders, the World Series doubles as the Olympic Qualification process for Tokyo 2020, and both teams are now a hairsbreadth from the holy grail of securing a spot at the global games. The American rugby fan has never had it so good, and this unprecedented run of success by Madison Hughes, Perry Baker, Nicole Heavirland, Naya Tapper and their team-mates have finally put paid to the “USA, sleeping giant of World Rugby” comment, that most condescending of Tier 1 rugby put-downs.
So all is rosy in the garden, one might conclude? Well, for the Women, yes. The success of the current national team has been fueled by both a growing player pool, and a series of good coaches from Ric Suggitt through Julie McCoy, to Richie Walker, and now, the thorough taskmaster that is Brown. Women’s college rugby also continues to improve by leaps and bounds. I coached Army West Point here at Tropical 7’s in a Women’s College division that included perennial powerhouses such as Life and Lindenwood. I am more than confident there were at least ten future Eagles between those three sides on the field, minimum. Improvement in Women’s club Sevens has been more sporadic, with the real progress in the Women’s game at select side level with the emergence of Northeast Academy, Scion, ARPTC, CCIG and Stars providing that critical level of competition between college, club, and Eagles. Numbers are up, the quality is up, the player pipeline is filling nicely and medals in Tokyo and beyond are well within reach.
For the men, the future is more clouded, if not stormy. While the Eagles now soar above the rest of world, earning the respect and fear of more established rugby nations, Tokyo medals also in their sights, there are significant problems below the surface with the domestic sevens game under severe threat. The advent of Major League Rugby (MLR) and its continued, and very welcome, success in its sophomore year means the pendulum has swung back from Sevens to Fifteens in the States. With the addition of another three MLR franchises in 2020, (for a total of 12) that will mean at least another 100 players opting for the traditional longer version of the game, under contract, and therefore unavailable. The league’s plans for 2020 include an earlier start, three weeks later, squeezing the calendar yet further, and ruling out the traditional summer sevens competition for this raft of younger players.
Clearly, Men’s Club Sevens will be decimated this year and next, and one pipeline of Eagle 7’s talent will all but disappear. Where to look next then, as Mens rugby does not have the same strength in academy-style programs as the women so talent will, by necessity, have to be identified earlier, College Sevens will become the de facto nursery for the national team with players there hopefully seduced by one run at the Olympic dream before the temptation of any MLR checkbook. Providing more competitive opportunities for the Falcons and perhaps the Collegiate All-Americans should be the priority for what remains of USA Rugby’s leaderless and rudderless High-Performance department.
Finally, one can only hope that USA Rugby’s belated sanction of MLR will see some common-sense co-operation between the governing body and the nascent league, particularly around the release of younger, fringe players. Sevens has always been the best laboratory for improving core rugby skills under pressure, a fact accepted by most, but not all, MLR coaches. Six weeks of summer Sevens rugby could be the perfect antidote for riding the pine all spring. An understanding between reasonable minds could allow mutual benefits for MLR clubs, the Eagles program and the players themselves. Here’s hoping, so that the successes of 2019 become the new normal and Joe Somerville and I get tired of all this winning!
Copyright Steve Lewis 2019