Nate Ebner effect in full swing for Eagles as NFL stars help drive rugby’s popularity in the US

Forward Danny Barrett hails the impact of the two-time Super Bowl winner as his side look to continue their strong form at the Hong Kong Sevens

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 April, 2017, 8:50am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 April, 2017, 8:52am

The Nate Ebner effect is in full swing for the USA Eagles, with star forward Danny Barrett hailing NFL players across the country for helping to drive up rugby’s profile.

Ebner took time out from his career with the New England Patriots, with whom he has won two Super Bowls, to play for the USA at the Olympics, kicking off his run to Rio in Hong Kong 12 months ago.

“Nate Ebner coming over was the big one and that really helped us out in getting us some publicity,” Barrett said.

“In Vegas there were a couple of NFL guys that were there to watch, they are coming in and checking us out and giving us shout outs on social media and it is definitely something that helps us out.

“People are definitely taking notice and rugby is a pretty good alternative to the NFL.”

Barrett says since the Olympics more college football players who didn’t make it at the elite level are seriously considering rugby as a second option.

“There are a couple of college football guys that have been around the camps and there are kids that are growing up playing rugby and saying ‘this is what I want to do’,” Barrett said.

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“You can’t go to the Olympics playing football so that is definitely a good stepping stone for us to have.”

It is the Olympics that dominates any conversation with Eagles coach Mike Friday, with regenerating his squad the top priority.

“It’s been a reset year, we are starting again working on the first year of the four-year quad so it’s a period of rebuilding and resetting and very much finding ourselves,” he said.

“We only had a two-year lead in [to Rio] and we were a year light if I’m honest with you so this year is about setting the foundations for the next three years.

“We need to encourage sponsors and people in the USA to recognise the value of getting behind this team and growing the game and reposition it to compliment the likes of American football and basketball.

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“If we can do that, we can coexist with those super sports and benefit from the athletes that potentially don’t quite make it in either of those sports.”

Despite the long-term view, the USA are building nicely in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, working their way into form across the Sydney, Las Vegas and Vancouver legs after a slow start.

They enter Hong Kong sitting fifth on the table and while they are still a way off being a consistent top-four team, the Eagles form should see them give it a shake this weekend.

“It was a tough start but we had a lot to compete with, we had guys playing 15s, we had a few sabbaticals and a few retirements and new players coming in, so it was always going to be a tough start to the season,” Friday said.

“But the squad has galvanised, we’ve had some real time together and we are starting to put some performances together and we are starting to again be recognised as real contenders on the circuit.”

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Young gun Mike Te’o is a chance to make his first sevens appearance since the 2013-14 season this weekend in an Eagles squad boasting mainstays Perry Baker, captain Madison Hughes and Maka Unufe.

“Mike has grown up on and off the pitch in terms of what it means to be a rugby player and is capped at 15s level now,” Friday said. “We are expecting big things from him, he has worked his socks off to give himself an opportunity.”