Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Eagles Sevens Ready For Their Close-Up

Photo: Connie Hatfield
By Derek Catsam

In the “It’s a Small World” department, I stood in the security line at Las Vegas’ McCarran Airport directly in front of the US Sevens Men’s Rugby team that just won their home tournament this weekend. They were kitted out in USA Rugby gear but by and large went unnoticed by the bleary-eyed masses nursing hangovers and depleted bank accounts on a Monday afternoon after a Vegas weekend.

I engaged in small talk with some of the players – they are understandably happy after the weekend’s successes. They seemed loose and friendly, and seem to enjoy being with one another. They were getting ready to board a Delta flight for San Diego where they will stay for a few days before heading off to Vancouver, BC for the next leg of the World Series of Rugby Sevens.

Their relative anonymity is a dual-edged sword. On the one hand, they do not have to worry about being mobbed every time they go out in public, they do not have to concern themselves with paparazzi, and journalists generally are not digging deeply into their private lives (or for that matter nitpicking their professional ones). On the other hand, as we saw this weekend, these are serious, top-notch athletes. Wouldn’t it be nice to get a bit more attention?

Take the jump to read more.

I posed a version of this question to long-time US 7s captain Madison Hughes at an event held by USA Rugby for a small number of media and other invited guests on Friday at Sam Boyd Stadium. The purpose of the event was to have a debut screening of the trailer for a new documentary on the Eagles 7s ahead of this summer’s Rugby Sevens World Cup to be held in San Francisco. Called “The Pioneers” the documentary provides an all-access look at the Eagles Sevens in the spirit of a program like HBO’s popular NFL training camp show “Hard Knocks.”

World rugby sponsors HSBC are producing the documentary, the first installment of which will debut in the run-up to the World Cup and the second after the San Francisco tournament. It will air on multiple platforms, including streaming online, and it is expected that it will be broadcast over the air as well during the Cup programming. According to HSBC, “As a long-term supporter of Rugby Sevens, HSBC is committed to working alongside World Rugby to achieve their shared goal of growing the sport worldwide. HSBC has been instrumental in supporting the development of a sport which has grown its fanbase significantly in recent years since its Olympic inclusion at Rio 2016.”
In addition to the screening, four members of the sevens structure were there for a short panel and then one-on-ones with journalists and others. They included Hughes, Nate Ebner (who famously also plays for the New England Patriots – a team for which I am a die-hard fan. I hope I kept my fan-boy tendencies hidden except for a brief remark at the beginning of our conversation), Stephen Tomasin, and Men’s Sevens head coach Mike Friday.

On the issue of relative fame, both Hughes and Tomasin acknowledged that there are times when it would be nice to get a little more recognition, but generally, they both echoed that they are rugby players first and foremost, they appreciate the fans that they do have, they have noticed that their game (both the sevens version and rugby union) are garnering greater attention from fans as American fortunes have improved over the years, and that they love the atmosphere at the Sevens tournaments, Las Vegas especially. Both also seemed excited about the documentary and what it might do for USA Rugby.

I asked Ebner about the differences between his experiences with the Patriots and those with USA rugby. He was legitimately excited about both, but he gave a wry smile when I asked him if he ever expected Bill Belichick, the Patriots’ irascible head coach, to provide access to film crews like USA rugby gave the directors of “The Pioneers.” He did not have to say much more. He also talked a bit about his health – he’s been struggling with the issues that one would expect of a two-sport athlete, especially one who plays in the National Football League and as a rugby international. He also struggled with the question of whether playing in a Super Bowl or in the Olympics was more special, asserting that both were amazing experiences, but he added that it is really nice to have a Super Bowl ring.

Indeed, all three of the players available for the event Friday are dealing with varying degrees of injuries. When I saw Hughes on Sunday and asked him about the weekend he gave a huge smile, said that is was an “excellent weekend, great performance from the guys” I noted that he was propped up by a single crutch as he hobbled to the elevator in the media center. This perhaps will be no surprise given how often the games were interrupted this weekend for injuries, some of which were pretty gruesome.

Coach Friday was effusive about the growth of rugby in the United States, and especially by the sevens game, which he said is particularly well suited to American athletes who do not grow up with rugby, and therefore for whom the more technical aspects of scrimmaging and other aspects of the fifteen-man game can be elusive. He was happy to have the cameras come in and give his guys and by extension his program the attention he believes they have earned.

The four men could not have been more gracious, staying to talk with anyone who remained as the event wrapped up and media members were granted one-on-ones. Any serious fan of American rugby, rugby more generally, or just of sports will want to tune in to watch “The Pioneers” and get to know this increasingly remarkable team and program.

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