rugby

Captain Madison Hughes reflects on best-ever season for U.S. rugby

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HARRISON, N.J. — Madison Hughes did not have much time to celebrate the best-ever finish for the U.S. at the World Rugby Sevens Series. Less than 24 hours after the season-ending tournament in London on May 21, he was back at the Chula Vista (Calif.) Olympic Training Center, preparing to join the 15-a-side program for its June matches.

“It’s been a long year with sevens and going into 15s,” said Hughes, adding that he will “hopefully” have time off in July and August.

Hughes’ season began in August 2016. He captained the U.S. to a ninth-place finish at the Rio Olympics, where rugby sevens made its Olympic debut.

By December, he was back on the pitch for the first of 10 tournaments of the 2016-17 World Rugby Sevens Series. The U.S. finished fifth, its best result in the Series’ 18 seasons, after being ranked sixth the two previous seasons.

“We showed that we are a force to be reckoned with,” Hughes said. “The top teams in the world are well within our view.”

Perry Baker became the first U.S. player to lead the Series in tries, after finishing second last season. He also paced the Series with 285 points (a try is worth five points). Hughes finished third with 279 points.

It was only the third season of top-level rugby for Baker, who played two seasons in the Arena Football League as a wide receiver.

“I really think Perry’s been the best rugby sevens player in the world this year,” Hughes said. “He’s still learning rugby, and every year he has gotten better and better. I think next season he can be even better.”

Carlin Isles, who scored more tries than any other player at the Rio Olympics, missed eight of the Series’ 10 tournaments with various injuries. Isles, who is known as the “fastest man in rugby,” and Baker, who is not far behind, are nicknamed “The Slow Bros” because they are two of the fastest players on the pitch, but two of the slowest off of it.

The speedsters have traditionally played alternating halves. But with Isles sidelined, Baker was often asked to be the focal point of the U.S. attack for the entire 14 minutes of matches.

“It’s been tough being without Carlin, because he is a unique talent,” Hughes said. “But Perry really stepped up in Carlin’s absence.”

A knee injury sidelined Hughes as the No. 17 U.S. 15-a-side program lost to No. 4 Ireland, 55-19, in the Emirates Airline Summer Series opener on Saturday at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. But he expects to be available for the Emirates Airline Summer Series finale on June 17 against Georgia, as well as the 2019 Rugby World Cup Qualifier series beginning June 24.

Hughes only made his 15s debut in November. The 24-year-old was named captain of the sevens squad in 2014, when he was the team’s youngest player, but has deferred as a leader to veteran 15s co-captains Nate Augspurger and Todd Clever.

“I’m the new guy,” Hughes said. “I like seeing what other people are doing, and how that will affect my leadership style.”

Hughes is hoping to play in the 2018 Rugby World Cup Sevens, 2019 Rugby World Cup (15s) and 2020 Olympics (Sevens). Three U.S. players—Andrew Durutalo, Folau Niua and Zack Test—competed in all three of rugby’s most prestigious quadrennial tournaments leading up to the 2016 Olympics (NOTE: the Rugby World Cup Sevens was last held in 2013).

“It’s definitely a goal of mine to pursue the 2018 World Cup Sevens and the 2020 Olympics,” Hughes said. “With 15s, I’m still seeing how it goes. It’s still very new, and I haven’t established myself at that level. If it works out to continue to be involved [for the 2019 Rugby World Cup], I would love to do that, but I am just going to enjoy the experience.”

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‘Next Olympic Hopeful’ searches for new crossover Olympians

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DENVER (AP) — America’s got talent, and the leaders at the U.S. Olympic Committee are turning on the TV cameras to find it.

The quest for gold and America’s insatiable appetite for reality television are merging this summer with an Olympic scouting camp — titled “The Next Olympic Hopeful” — that will ultimately be packaged as part of a two-hour broadcast on NBCSN in August.

Instead of earning a final rose, eight athletes from an original cast of 100 will find themselves competing for spots on future U.S. Olympic teams.

“For a few years, we’ve been thinking a lot about talent transfer. High-level athletes around the country playing one sport or another who may not make it to the top of that sport,” said Alan Ashley, the USOC’s chief of sport performance. “This is a chance for them to look at Olympic sports, to transfer over and get involved.”

Lest we all start jumping off the couch and warming up, there are a few caveats:

— In the first phase of the project, the USOC is looking only for athletes for cycling, rugby and the sliding sports of bobsled and skeleton.

— The USOC is in search of “elite” athletes, and is focusing much of its attention toward college rosters.

— The individual sports have lofty requirements to even be considered for the initial tryout roster of 50 men and 50 women: For example, a rugby hopeful would need to squat around two times his or her weight for three repetitions; a man trying out for bobsled or skeleton would need to broad jump nearly 11 feet (at most NFL scouting combines, about a dozen players reach that distance).

The idea of crossover athletes at the Olympics nothing new, of course.

Patriots special teamer Nate Ebner is one of three players to wear NFL uniforms who went on to earn a spot on the U.S. rugby team in the reintroduction of that sport to the Olympics last year.

And track stars (see Lolo Jones), football players (see Herschel Walker) and people who do both (see Willie Gault) have long been crossing from their original sports to ride bobsled in the Winter Olympics.

But where the individual sports organizations and athletes were often left to discover each other on their own in the past, now they’ll get some institutional help from the USOC, which will host the 100 candidates at the Olympic Training Center in July for a week’s worth of workouts. They’ll be searching for eight athletes — one man and one woman for each of the four sports — to become eligible for financial, training and medical services as they prepare to compete for their spot on the Olympic team in their sport.

“It’s great the USOC is jumping into this,” said Darrin Steele, the CEO of USA Bobsled and Skeleton. “From Day 1, we said, ‘Hey, we’re perfect for it.’ We know it’s not a golden ticket onto the team. It’s a screening process. It’s throwing a very wide net and trying to appeal to athletes who might not realize what the possibilities are.”

Make it or not, they will get air time.

Team USA will feature the camps on its social websites. Then, NBCSN will swoop in with a two-hour recap of the action, complete with — of course — an announcement of the eight winners.

Steele says he’s not against using a bit of showbiz in the name of success.

“I don’t see it as an issue,” he said, “because the only way you make our team is if you’re able to help us win.”

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Fiji puts Olympic champion rugby team on dollars, coins

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SUVA, Fiji (AP) — The government of Fiji is issuing two million $7 banknotes to commemorate the Pacific island nation’s Olympic gold medal victory in rugby sevens last year in Rio de Janeiro.

The banknotes, which are legal tender, were released through bank branches on Friday.

A $7 Fijian banknote is worth approximately $3.35.

Fiji’s reserve bank will also issue one million 50-cent coins with the image of England-born Ben Ryan, who coached Fiji to its first Olympic gold medal, on one side, and Fiji players hoisting the Olympic trophy on the other.

Announcing the release of the notes and coins on Friday, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said Fiji’s gold medal success showed that despite its small size, it could compete with the best in the world.

Ryan, who no longer is the Fijian sevens coach, posted a photo on Twitter of the coin with his image showing, and tweeted: “Fiji’s new 50c Coin – what a journey I’ve had.”

Ryan also tweeted a photo of the $7 note, adding “just shows you how much the Fijian people care and value its rugby. Awesome.”

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