The first-ever men’s Olympic rugby sevens tournament kicks off Tuesday, and while the United States is far from a gold medal favorite, it has a legitimate chance of leaving Rio de Janeiro with some hardware in tow.
?Our goal is to go in there and win gold,” U.S. speedster Perry Baker recently said in a phone interview with NESN.com. “We?re not trying to short-change ourselves at all. Not to be cocky at the same time, but we just have that confidence in each other, and we believe in each other. And we all have one mission, and that?s to go win gold.”
Winning Olympic gold obviously is an ambitious goal, especially for a nation that lacks a rich rugby tradition. But the Americans have better odds of doing so than one might think.
The Eagles, as the U.S. team is known, have shown remarkable improvement in recent years, placing sixth in each of the last two HSBC Sevens World Series after failing to finish higher than 10th in any of the previous 15. Within the last year, they’ve scored victories over Argentina, England, South Africa, New Zealand and two-time defending Sevens Series champion Fiji — all of whom are regarded as international rugby powers.
The win over Fiji came this past May, in the third-place match of the final Sevens Series stop, the London Sevens. The USA had won that same tournament the previous year, and while a loss to Scotland in the semifinals squashed hopes of a repeat, ending the season with a win over the world champs gave Baker & Co. plenty of reason for optimism heading into Rio.
“We were going to try to repeat, win in London again, and we fell short of that,” said Baker, who scored the second-most tries in the world during the 2015-16 Sevens Series. “So we just wanted to end it by saying, ?Hey, let?s go beat the Fijians.? We hadn?t beaten them all year. We let them get away a few times. Let?s go out there and really make a statement. And we did that. So that just helped go into camp having that confidence, knowing that we can beat anybody at any given time. We just have to believe and stay on the same path with each other.”
While New England Patriots safety Nate Ebner is the most recognizable name on the USA Olympic roster, the team is led by the likes of Baker, fellow speed demon Carlin Isles, bruiser Danny Barrett and captain Madison Hughes, all of whom have been Sevens Series staples throughout head coach Mike Friday’s tenure.
They’ll open their Olympic slate Tuesday against Argentina — whom they lost to 36-0 in the penultimate Sevens Series tournament but beat 22-14 earlier in the year — before closing out pool play with matches against host nation Brazil — which should be a relative pushover — and the fearsome Fijians.
Here’s the full U.S. schedule for the opening round:
vs. Argentina at noon ET
vs. Brazil at 5 p.m. ET
vs. Fiji at 12:30 p.m. ET
From there, the top two finishers from each of the three pools will advance to the quarterfinals, as will the two best third-place squads. The quarterfinal winners then will meet in the semifinals, and the winners and losers of the two semis will square off in the gold medal and bronze medal matches, respectively.
Thumbnail photo via Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports Images