The U.S. men’s and women’s rugby sevens teams are favored to clinch 2016 Olympic berths at a North American Caribbean Rugby Association (NACRA) qualifying tournament in Cary, N.C., this weekend.
Rugby returns to the Olympics next year for the first time since 1924. The U.S. won the last two Olympic rugby tournaments in 1920, when there were two nations competing, and 1924, when there were three.
Back then, the Olympic rugby format was 15 players per side, without a separate women’s tournament.
In Cary, only the men’s and women’s champions Sunday will earn Olympic berths. The second- and third-place teams in Cary advance to a later last-chance global Olympic qualifying tournament.
The U.S. men go into Cary with unprecedented momentum, having won their first World Series leg title in London on May 17 in the season finale. The U.S. finished sixth overall in the World Series, with the top four nations earning Olympic berths (Fiji, South Africa, New Zealand and England (Great Britain for Olympic qualifying purposes)).
“We are feeling confident, they’re a confident group, but at the same token our environment and our culture is about humility,” U.S. coach Mike Friday said in a phone interview Thursday. “We’re under no illusions of what’s at stake.”
The U.S. men will be favored in Cary, not only because of the home-field advantage but also because the next highest-ranked North American nation in the World Series was Canada, three spots below the U.S.
“We are the underdogs coming into this,” Canada coach Liam Middleton said, according to the Canadian Press. “There’s no question about that.”
“We’ve been the most consistent team, but this isn’t about consistency,” said Friday, who took over the U.S. team last year after stints with Kenya and his native England.
The U.S. defeated Canada 29-10 in their last meeting in London on May 17, after Canada routed the U.S. 40-0 in Glasgow on May 9.
“We were slightly off, and we got punished by Canada,” Friday said. “We gifted them possession, and it became a downward spiral. We made unforced error after unforced error.”
The U.S. women will be bigger favorites than the men in Cary, given top North American rival Canada is already into the Olympics via its second-place finish in this year’s World Series.
The U.S. women placed fifth, missing out on the last Olympic berth available via a tiebreaker to England.
In Cary, the U.S. women are the only team in the field that competed in this season’s World Series.
Here’s the U.S. men’s schedule in pool play in Cary:
vs. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines — Saturday, 1:22 p.m. ET
vs. Barbados — Saturday, 3:44 p.m. ET
vs. Mexico — Saturday, 6:06 p.m. ET
vs. Jamaica — Sunday, June 14, 9 a.m. ET
Here’s the U.S. women’s schedule in pool play:
vs. Jamaica — Saturday, 11:44 a.m. ET
vs. Barbados — Saturday, 2:06 p.m. ET
vs. Cayman Islands — Saturday, 4:28 p.m. ET