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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Richie Porte crashes out of Tour de France again

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Australian Richie Porte crashed out of the Tour de France on the ninth stage for a second straight year, suffering a fractured right clavicle six miles into Sunday’s stage.

“Obviously I’m devastated,” Porte said, according to Team BMC. “For the second year in a row I am ending the Tour de France like this. I was on the ground before I knew it, and straight away felt pain in my right shoulder.”

Porte, who finished fifth in the 2016 Tour de France and was an overall podium contender these last two years, was seen sitting on the side of the road, gritting his teeth and crossing his right arm over his chest.

There was a mass stoppage of riders, with at least one spectator down on the side of the narrow road. The crash came well before the Tour stage was to hit 15 arduous cobblestone sections totaling 13 miles.

Porte was in 10th place after eight stages, 57 seconds behind race leader and BMC teammate Greg Van Avermaet. Avermaet and American Tejay van Garderen, in third place, were expected to work for Porte in the mountains later this week, hoping to put him in the yellow jersey.

Now, Van Garderen is in line to be the team leader.

In 2017, Porte fractured his clavicle and pelvis on a ninth-stage crash on a descent and had to abandon the Tour.

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Chris Froome, other stars crash on Tour de France cobblestones stage

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Richie PorteTejay van GarderenRigoberto UranMikel Landa. Even Chris Froome.

Stage nine of the Tour de France promised to rattle the top riders, and the 15 sections of cobblestones totaling 13 miles delivered just that. All of the named men crashed on Sunday, with Porte abandoning the Grand Tour altogether (albeit he crashed before the first cobbles section, six miles into the stage).

In the end, German John Degenkolb got the stage win ahead of overall race leader Greg Van Avermaet and Yves Lampaert.

Van Avermaet, the Olympic road race champion from Belgium, retained the yellow jersey for a sixth straight day, extending his lead to 43 seconds over Brit Geraint Thomas. Van Avermaet rides for Team BMC, which lost its team leader in Porte.

American van Garderen presumably became the new team leader, but he crashed later in the stage and also suffered three flat tires.

Van Garderen entered the day third in the overall standings, nine seconds behind Van Avermaet. He ended it in 30th place, 6:05 behind Van Avermaet.

The best-placed favorite to finish on the podium in Paris on July 29 is now the four-time Tour winner Froome, in eighth place, 1:42 behind Van Avermaet. Froome is trying to tie the record of five Tour titles shared by Jacques AnquetilEddy MerckxBernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain.

The Tour takes its first of two rest days Monday, resuming with the first day in the Alps on Tuesday live on NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold (full broadcast schedule here). Stage 10 features a beyond-category climb and three category-one climbs.

“I’m relieved to get through today and looking forward to getting into the mountains now where the real race for GC (general classification) will start,” Froome said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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