Carlin Isles

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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MORE: U.S. rugby concludes best-ever season

Nate Ebner seeks Super Bowl title months after Olympic rugby

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Super Bowl Sunday is an unofficial holiday in the United States. But members of the U.S. rugby sevens team have long had Super Bowl Monday circled on their calendars.

That is because they will be playing in a tournament in Sydney, where Super Bowl LI will kick off at 10:30 a.m. local time on Monday. They have a flight home to catch that morning, but are hoping to watch the beginning of the football game at the airport to support New England Patriots safety Nate Ebner, who played for the U.S. Olympic rugby team in Rio.

“Nate has a work ethic like no other, and I think that fits with the Patriots’ culture and philosophy,” Olympic teammate Zack Test said. “To transition from football to rugby and back to football takes such a special amount of focus and dedication.”

Ebner had the best season of his five-year NFL career in 2016, leading the league in special-team tackles and being named second-team NFL All-Pro. In an October interview with NBC Olympics, Ebner credited his rugby cardiovascular training for his success on the football field.

“It was pretty easy to get back in the swing of things,” he said.

Ebner is hoping to become the first athlete to play in the NFL, compete at a Summer Olympics and then win a Super Bowl title. Michael Carter won Super Bowl XIX with the San Francisco 49ers five months after claiming the 1984 Olympic shot put silver medal, but he had yet to make his NFL debut when he competed at the Los Angeles Games.

After suffering a concussion during the AFC Championship, Ebner has returned to practice to prepare to face the Atlanta Falcons. He spoke to reporters Monday night at the Super Bowl Opening Night media day, and discussed what it would mean to play Olympic rugby and win his second Super Bowl within a year.

“Obviously with the year that I’m having it would be like the absolute icing on the cake,” Ebner said, according to MassLive.com. “Regardless of all that, it’s so special just to be here.”

Ebner keeps in touch with rugby teammates by checking scores and participating in group texts. The U.S. squad has struggled with injuries this season, sitting in 11th place through three legs of the World Series after finishing sixth last season. Ebner can relate to adversity, playing for a Patriots squad that was without suspended quarterback Tom Brady for the first four games of the season.

“When things don’t go your way on day one, it doesn’t mean pack up and go home,” Ebner said recently to USA Rugby. “There’s a lot of opportunity to get better versus some of the best competition in the world. To miss that opportunity and not play as best you can on day two or three, you’re wasting it. It says a lot about the guys.”

Ebner has not ruled out trying to make the 2020 Olympic team. His rugby teammates have jokingly encouraged him to return to the pitch, but this week they are letting him focus on the Falcons.

“Playing with him in the Olympics, now seeing him play in the Super Bowl … he’s going back-to-back with lifetime dreams,” Olympic teammate Carlin Isles said.

MORE: Nate Ebner on transition from Olympic rugby back to NFL

Patriots safety Nate Ebner makes U.S. Olympic rugby team

Nate Ebner
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New England Patriots safety Nate Ebner has made the first U.S. Olympic rugby sevens team.

Rugby returns to the Olympics for the first time since 1924, but this time it’s a smaller sevens version.

The U.S., led by London-born captain Madison Hughes and former Detroit Lions practice-squad wide receiver Carlin Isles, is an outside medal threat after finishing sixth in the World Series standings the last two years.

Ebner, 27, 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 is expected to rejoin the Patriots after the Olympics.

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 in late May, instead being put on a development-level tournament squad that weekend. That appeared to jeopardize his chances of making the Olympic team.

Ebner and former Detroit Lions running back Jahvid Best are expected to become the first athletes with previous NFL experience to compete at a Summer Olympics.

MORE: Best named to Saint Lucia Olympic team

U.S. Olympic men’s rugby roster
Perry Baker
Danny Barrett
Garrett Bender
Andrew Durutalo
Nate Ebner
Madison Hughes
Carlin Isles
Folau Niua
Ben Pinkelman
Zack Test
Maka Unufe
Chris Wyles