▶ Fresh from win­ning a sil­ver medal at the World Sevens Se­ries, the un­likely team aim to go one bet­ter this year, writes Paul Radley

The National - News - - SPORT -

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

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