US COACH FRIDAY TARGETS DUBAI FOR MORE SUCCESS
▶ Fresh from winning a silver medal at the World Sevens Series, the unlikely team aim to go one better this year, writes Paul Radley
Anyone who remembers what it was like playing on sand at the Dubai Rugby Sevens really should be showing signs of wear by now.
Grass was installed at the old Dubai Exiles ground in Al Awir in 1995, and Mike Friday had first come to the Middle East’s annual rugby festival a year earlier. The United States coach is 47 now, and yet he still looks no older than the average work experience kid.
There is not a grey hair on his head, “or fallen out, like Phil and Rocky [his trusted former assistant Phil Greening and current one Tony Roques],” he says with a laugh.
He still has the mischief of the impish scrum-half he used to be, too, judging by the team’s training session, two days out from this year’s tournament.
Friday is not the one barking the orders on Pitch 8 at The Sevens, but invests himself in some of the plays instead.
At one point, with the players stopped and listening to instruction from his assistant, he hands off one of his players in the face for his own amusement. Later, he tells Perry Baker not to waste his time heckling his opposite number – and fellow star winger – Carlin Isles.
And thereby enters into the sledging himself.
He is happy to give the players a serve if they are not on point, too. Or just a subtle pointer about the correct body position when making a scrum-half pass, or at the breakdown.
Safe to say, his methods are working. Friday is 15 years into a career that has brought him success in such disparate coaching roles as England, Kenya and now USA.
He has arrived in Dubai for the start of the new campaign on the back of what might have been his finest ever achievement. That is, taking his diverse group of players from a country with relatively little pedigree for the sport to a runners up medal in the World Sevens Series.
In doing that, they bumped rugby powers like New Zealand, South Africa and England down the standings. More importantly, they achieved their goal of a place at next year’s Tokyo Olympics.
The fact that Friday can rue the fine margins that eventually saw his side lose a shoot out for the title to the greats from Fiji goes to show just how far USA have come on his watch.
They had two players – Stephen Tomasin and Folau Niua – among the three nominees for the sevens player of the year award.
And Isles was the leading try-scorer in the series. “We know who we are going up against in terms of tradition, legacy and history that those countries have,” Friday says, ahead of their bid to go one better than last year in Dubai, where they lost out in the final to New Zealand.
“The reality is, they have got time served, but it is a relatively new sport in America.
“We are the younger brother trying to fight our way to the top table. We did that last year. We have been promising to do that in years gone past.
“But just because we did it last year, it isn’t a guarantee we will do it this year. We know how hard and how brutal the sevens series is.”
Few people have lived the extremes of that series like Friday. “I remember turning up to training where there was burnt grass, a bag of balls and some cones, and that was it,” he says of his time with Kenya.
“It made me think about the game in the purest sense, strip it back to the basics, and understand what is important.”
The challenge with USA has been shaping players from a broad range of backgrounds, some of whom have slipped through the cracks in other sports like athletics and American football, into a side with a common goal.
“Diversity can be your strength, but it also opens so many doors for misunderstanding, which can lead to inflammable conversations which you never thought would be inflammable,” he says.
He clearly loves his players, saying they “keep me young, keep me alive – although they nearly kill me on the rugby pitch”.
“I’m immensely proud of everything we have done,” he says. “We have Tier 2 financial support in a Tier 1 economy. That is in terms of our backing and how our players are meant to get by.
“Not in terms of the amount of dollars, but relatively in terms of how much things cost, and how much the cost of living is for our players.
“Our players live on a very basic wage, and have to sacrifice a lot. But they empty the tank every time, all the time.
“Rugby will only be a short part of their life, and it is a great vehicle to prepare them for life. “We don’t earn American football salaries. We don’t earn soccer salaries. The reality is we have to prepare them for the real world.
“We want them to be the best version of themselves, the best man they can be.
“If they do that, we get a better rugby player, and the country gets a better person to represent them.”
Our players live on a very basic wage, and have to sacrifice a lot. But they empty the tank every time, all the time
Mike Friday guided his United States team, above in white, to World Sevens Series runners-up in Paris in June