‘You can earn as much in Walmart’: US coach’s joy at team’s progress in face of poor pay and ‘super sports’
Americans – and try machine Perry Baker – arrive in the territory full of expectation despite facing full-strength sides in ‘blue riband’ event
USA coach Mike Friday has dismissed out of hand any notion that this year’s Cathay Pacific/HSBC Hong Kong Sevens might be somehow diminished by the fact that some of the nations involved have their minds on other matters.
“There’s been a lot of talk,” said Friday. “So do I think it will be as competitive and as cutthroat as ever? Absolutely.”
Sevens heavyweights South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and England have basically sent development squads to Hong Kong this year – what with the Commonwealth Games sevens looming on Australia’s Gold Coast next week.
But the Americans come at full strength and are still flying high after winning their home event on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, in Las Vegas at the start of March, for the very first time.
They’re pretty much underpaid and very much under-loved by a media back home that rarely finds time to squeeze the Eagles’ exploits into a roster chock-full of NFL, NBA and MLB. But the 28-0 victory over Argentina turned the spotlight on Friday and his charges.
“It was hugely satisfying,” said Friday. “A lot of the boys’ families had never even seen them play so to come and win on home soil was an absolute joy for all of them. It gives you a nice warm feeling inside.
“But we’d been threatening to do it since we did it for the first time in London in 2015. We’d just struggled to get the box office consistency over six games – and we did that in Vegas. It was a mixture of pace and power in attack but also a resilience and determination and accuracy in defence.”
The backstory – of players eking out a living on the most basic of wages (around US$15,000 a year for some) while training and playing full-time – was as irresistible as the manner of the Americans’ victories all weekend.
Perry Baker’s length-of-the-field try in the semi-final against Fiji was dubbed by those in attendance as being more Fijian that many of that team’s most magic of moments and the winger continues to add the spice to a set-up that has found strength and consistency in the past two seasons.
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But while the Eagles’ hard work captured imaginations there remained lots still to be done, said Friday.
“We’re still up against the super sports of American football, basketball and baseball,” said Friday. “We want to complement those games and show high schoolers if you can’t be Tom Brady then why not be Perry Baker.
“If you can’t be Steph Curry then be Matai Leuta. If we can be pioneers of the sport, and provide the role models, then I think rugby has a real chance in America. But we are still a long way off. You can earn as much in Walmart as you can playing for us – that’s the reality.”
As fate has it, the Americans have drawn a pool that features two full-strength teams here this week in Argentina – twice runners-up already this season – and a French outfit that welcomes the return of their talisman, Terry Bouhraoua.
Friday headed back to familiar territory when asked how he might rate his team’s chances.
“Hong Kong is the blue riband event,” said Friday. “It is the icon of the game and always will be. It would be massive for us to win this but we are under no illusions. It’s tough but it is something you never ever forget.”
What Friday does have in his arsenal, though, is the Baker scoring machine. And when this man flies, anything is possible.
The one-time college football stand-out comes to town leading the World Series in tries (32) and fourth in total points scored (162). The 31-year-old was also last season named World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year and his skills were on show at So Kon Po during a workout on Tuesday that saw the Americans looking fluid.
Asked to reflect on the season so far – one which sees the Americans sitting in sixth place on the World Series standings behind leaders South Africa – and Baker’s eyes light up at the memory of what happened in Vegas, and what he hopes it might mean.
“It was huge for us,” said Baker. “People are always talking about the giants awaking but we are here. It was huge for the game and we made some noise.
“We have the World Cup coming up [in San Francisco in July] so it was huge all around. ESPN are putting our games on television. We’ve made SportsCentre a couple of times but we need more.
“Now it’s all about improving our consistency, showing people how exciting this great game is and how exciting we can be.”