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USA World Cup 'banana skin'

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Sevens stars and the MLR-effect - why USA could be World Cup 'banana skin'

A year ago Gary Gold guided the USA to an historic win over Scotland and now the Eagles head coach is planning to use the international success of the country’s sevens team to boost their confidence at this year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan.

Mike Friday’s USA Eagles sevens held the No.1 ranking until pipped for the title in the final tournament by Fiji and three of the players who helped secure automatic qualification for next the 2020 Olympic Games Sevens have been drafted into the 15’s training squad that assembles in Colorado this weekend for an intensive nine week period of preparation for the Pacific Nations Cup and then World Cup pool matches with England, France, Argentina and Tonga.

Gold believes the experience of sevens captain Madison Hughes, Ben Pinkelman and Martin Iosef, who beat all of the major rugby nations on a regular basis, allied to that 30-29 win over Scotland in Houston last year can help convince his players they are capable of causing real problems in one of the toughest pool in the World Cup.

Madison Hughes and Ben Pinkelman make tackle during 2019 Singapore Seven Cup quarter-final against Argentina. (Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images for Singapore Sports Hub)

Gold is planning to test his players to the limit during the training camp which will include altitude training and time at the US Airforce Academy (Colorado Springs) to improve the players’ mental toughness and believes the second season success of Major League Rugby – the professional league in the USA – will also be a positive factor. With the USA women’s sevens also securing automatic qualification for the Tokyo Olympics, this the most successful period in the history of professional rugby in the USA.

He told RugbyPass: “It is feasible that Madison, Martin and Ben could be in the final squad for the World Cup and these guys grew up playing 15’s before moving over to the sevens. These are three guys who we believe can complement what we have got our squad and have special skills that we don’t have in abundance in the group and can bring across. The other factor is that there is a very different confidence around the sevens guys because of what they have achieved on the World stage and I am hoping there will be a genuine cross over and understanding of what we can achieve.

“Mike (Friday) turned that sevens squad around in a short space of time and while I am not saying we are going to win the World Cup, I am hoping we can put up really big performances and we could be a banana skin for one of those teams. Our win over Scotland this time last year followed by the win over a full Samoa team in Spain plus the Sevens success allied to a settled squad gives us real confidence.

“Two of them (Hughes and Iosef) have already been capped in 15’s and so it isn’t uncharted waters although I recognise that the Sevens game has changed so significantly and the whole make-up of the athlete is different. Ben at best is 100kgs and we will have them in for nine weeks and get some games under their belt to get an good indication of if they are able to make the step across.

“We start our camp this weekend in Colorado and this squad of players really does know each other well having been together for 18 months and our aim is to put up some great performances at the World Cup. As much as we can, we will try and replicate the conditions in Japan during our preparations.“

The arrival of the MLR to provide a home grown professional league is another reason for Gold to be confident that the Eagles will not be making up the numbers in Japan. The league is set to expand to 12 teams with a probable top limit of 14 to be reached in the coming years. However, Gold wants to see the number of American players in each squad protected to ensure overseas players don’t dominate and restrict the progression of local talent as happened in France where new limits on foreign stars are now in place.

Gold added: “The MLR is single-handedly the biggest game changer for us. When I started at the end of 2017 in this job, I met up with the players in Germany and there were guys in the middle of their European seasons and those from America who had not picked up a ball for three or four months. Now, it is all completely different and it’s not about the level of rugby being played, it’s the fact they are in day-in, day-out rugby situations which could be a gym session, skills or video debrief. That in itself has fast-tracked the players in terms of fitness and skill levels.

“The MLR final was played at a packed stadium and was televised by CBS and people are loving it. Now, we have to make sure that financially the game is in a good place and there has been a really important decision to move the American Rugby Championship to August and September and with that one decision they have ensured they won’t be in a club v country problem. It’s a smart decision and will make a really big difference.

“The one area of concern is the amount of foreigners in the MLR and that is something that will have to be addressed.”

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Sevens stars and the MLR-effect - why USA could be World Cup 'banana skin'