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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A little time has given me a chance to realize just what a season this was. Finishing 5th in the world means we are continuing to move forward, and this is definitely a season we can build on going into next year. Thanks to all these guys and the many others who've sacrificed so much this year for the team's success. It is a pleasure representing our country with all of you and I can't wait to do it again. Onwards and upwards. #eagles7s