Current USA 7s coach and rugby logician, Mike Friday, popped in for a chat with E4R to discuss rugby 7s, the upcoming Lions tour and the importance of a robust grassroots rugby structure.
Let’s start with Rugby 7s…Looking back at the success of the sport at the Rio Olympics, do you believe it’s provided a platform that will genuinely raise awareness of the game and grow 7s prestige?
Well, I think in different areas of the world it will have differing effects – firstly, there’s no doubt that 7s was hugely successful at the Olympics and by the end of the tournament, it was one of the most watched events, which is great!
If you look at it from a global point of view, then it can be seen as a great success. Countries that may never have even played rugby will hopefully be inspired to pick up a rugby ball and seek qualification for future Olympics.
It’s a simplified version of rugby, which makes it a lot more accessible to the world. It doesn't involve the usual technicalities that come with XV's; you know, the set pieces for the front 5 or positioning of the back 3; it’s a game that suits countries just starting out.
However, I don’t believe we will see the effects for 12-16 years at least – simply because of the demanding journey in becoming extremely good at the sport.
What are your main aims with regards to Team USA – is the game growing quickly in America?
Well, let’s first talk about the country itself – it’s bloody massive, and each state is like its own country so it’s extremely difficult to get the whole nation obsessing about anything at the same time. That said, the three team super-sports (Basketball, Baseball & American Football) enjoy their own kind of power, with everything else simply falling way underneath.
The fact is nothing else can compete – not for the time being anyway – instead other sports, like rugby have to compliment. What I mean by this is that 7s has to act as an additional practice for (in most cases) aspiring NFL players, instead of a replacement.
The thing is, in America, it’s all about high school sport, and from the ages of 12-18, they have the opportunity to learn their trade to the best of their ability, before college scouts begin to encircle.
Rugby isn’t on the school curriculum, and until it is, we don’t really have a chance. As I said earlier, 7s is a much more attractive game to learn first, mainly because it’s less complex, and requires more athleticism than understanding. In my opinion, once rugby is within the school curriculum, it will give those 98% of American Football players, who are unsuccessful in breaking through to the NFL, the chance to pursue another sporting career.
Currently, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are the heroes for these guys but I’m hoping some of our team may begin to inspire the younger generations.
Nate Ebner: This guy has won the Superbowl twice with the New England Patriots and also represented Team USA at last year's world series events, as well as at the Olympics! He’s an exception but it shows there’s crossover between the sports.
Perry Baker: Perry was on the fringes of the NFL and only took up 7s at the age of 19 – it took him about 7 years to get up to international level but now he’s been voted the most influential player within the world series. Again he’s an example that having skills in one sport can assist you in another. Hopefully this resonates with the youngsters!
So, in answer to your question – my main aim is to do the best that I can with the USA 7s team but if I’m honest, we will struggle to compete until it’s part of the school curriculum and they’re learning the ins and outs from an early age.
Just how fast is Carlin Isles?
Well, all I really need to say with regards to Carlin is that he’d have made the last Olympic 100m final with his PB…
Yet, his speed was almost his nemesis because it forced the rugby spotlight onto him at a time when he didn’t have a great understanding of the game – this meant the mistakes he made were blown out of proportion; he was simply enduring a learning curve.
However, he possesses two attributes that you cannot teach...
Sheer, out and out, pace but also an incredible desire to succeed and never give up; he’s been resolute through tough times and has now emerged a great asset for Team USA.
Your thoughts on this year’s Lions Tour; Can they win it?
Yes, I think they can – if they win that first test match I genuinely think it’s all to play for. For me, the attritional part of the tour is going to be key. Those first few matches against the provincial sides need to be navigated smartly so as to avoid injuries to key players.
I think if you look at both starting XV’s on the whole, the sides are on a rather even kilter and the battles will come down to individuals. This All Blacks side is imperious, of that I have no doubt, however I feel they may be lacking that slight X Factor.
With regards to the Lions, I really want to see a combination of Farrell and Henshaw, preferably at 10-12 but 12-13 would work to – I just think they would complement each other extremely well.
Very much looking forward to the tour but as I said the opening fixtures will prove crucial.
Ok, turning out attention to grassroots rugby…
What was your first club and do you still have affiliations with them?
I started playing for Bromley RFC when I was five years old and I’m proud to say I still have strong affiliations with the club. In fact, 3 generations of Fridays have played for the club! My dad was president of the club at one point and now my two sons play for them.
I still do coaching sessions when I can and I have to say it really is a fantastic club that successfully endorses rugby’s key values. At Bromley, it’s all about creating a sociable atmosphere and club community.
It’s a club that loves to retain players but will push individuals when they see they’ve got potential to really do something in the game – that’s what they did with me. However, once a Bromley RFC player, always a Bromley RFC player. The club makes a point of welcoming any former members back to the club with open arms – it’s fantastic.
How Important do you view the connection between the professional and grassroots game?
Rugby at a grassroots level is the essence of the game – it’s where you learn about the social aspects, the key values and what’s expected of you, not only as a player but as a person.
It’s a tough time for amateur rugby at the moment due to the huge voids in financial support etc. but that’s why companies like E4R are so important; aiding clubs strengthen their foundations, which will hopefully lead to survival and prosperity.
If you forget about the grassroots, you can forget about a fruitful future for rugby in the UK – it’s that simple.
Thanks to Mike for that extremely insightful interview! We wish him and the USA 7s team the best of luck in the future!