U.S. rugby sevens captain Madison Hughes believes New England Patriots safety Nate Ebner has “a decent chance” of making the Olympic team of 12 from a player pool about three times that size.
Hughes praised Ebner’s development since Ebner announced his return to rugby March 15, seven years removed from his junior national team days before he focused on football at Ohio State.
“He’s developed a lot,” Hughes said last week, after U.S. coach Mike Friday reportedly said in April that Ebner had “a 50-50 chance.” “I think he had quite a lot of rugby experience from when he was younger, and I think that’s allowed him to step into this stage, because I think if he didn’t have that rugby experience, coming in now he’d be completely lost and wouldn’t be able to handle it at all. So I think he’s been doing well. I think he’s been a good addition so far. Competition’s going to be hot for those spots for Rio. I know he really, really wants it. I think he’s got as good of a shot as a lot of people. I think he’s got a decent chance of being there.”
Ebner reached the top level of international rugby sevens when he was named to the 12-man roster for World Series stops in Hong Kong, Singapore and Paris in April and May.
However, Ebner was not named to the team for the last World Series stop in London, instead being put on a development-level tournament squad that weekend.
Still, Hughes likes what he has seen. An NFL player joining an experienced national rugby team four months before the Olympics had the potential to create animosity.
“The kind of attitude Nate came in with when he joined us, it’s a credit to him,” Hughes said. “I think that’s kind of helped allay some of those concerns. If he had come in and been like, OK guys, I’m here, don’t worry, I think there definitely would have been some disquiet on the team. But he kind of came in, just said I’m going to put my head down, I’m going to work as hard as I can, anything I can do to help the team, then I’m going to do that. I think, because of that attitude, the guys were quite accepting and welcoming.”
USA Rugby is expected to cut its Olympic player pool to 30 or fewer on June 24 and select the Olympic team of 12 on July 17.
Players received a short break after the World Series finale in London ended May 22 before gathering in Chula Vista, Calif., this month.
“There’s a bit of nervous energy, but I think as long as we keep that in a positive direction can be good,” Hughes said. “I think everyone knows that the people who are going to get picked put the team first. If you’re focusing just on what you’re doing, you’re only hindering your chances of making the team.”
Hughes was more confident in Ebner’s Rio chances than those of former San Francisco 49ers running back Jarryd Hayne, who announced May 15 he was joining Fiji’s player pool.
“He’s joined at a very, very late stage,” Hughes said. “He’s months behind Nate, who joined at a pretty late stage. And joining the No. 1 ranked team in the world [in Fiji]. That’s a very tough thing to do. Fair play to him, he’s an incredible athlete. He was an incredible rugby player in the [National Rugby League in Australasia]. But having no experience rugby union, no experience of sevens, I think he’s going to have a hard time making that team.”
Hughes also said that he expected Carlin Isles‘ high-ankle sprain suffered in March, which kept him out of the last five World Series stops, to not affect the speedster going forward.
As for Rio medal predictions, Hughes called two-time reigning World Series champion Fiji the clear favorite.
“For the last two years, they’ve been the best team consistently,” Hughes said. “You can never count New Zealand out. They’ve been there, or thereabouts, for the whole time sevens has been played internationally. South Africa are obviously very good. I think those are the top three, but then we are firmly in the pack chasing those guys.”