USA sevens coach Mike Friday is confident the loss of superstar Perry Baker won’t stop his side being contenders at the Sydney Sevens, taking another step towards Olympic qualification and then – just maybe – unlocking the vast potential of American rugby.
Friday, an Englishman, has been in charge of the USA men’s sevens program since 2014 and the two dreaded words that have followed him since are “sleeping giant” – a nod to the world’s fascination of what could happen if American ever became strong in rugby.
After a number of years of growth, Friday’s men are beginning to answer that question, or in the world of sevens, at least.
In the first three rounds of the World Sevens Series this season, the USA have made the final in each tournament and after sitting atop the leaderboard on their own over the Christmas break, now share the top rung with Fiji.
The Fijians won the final handsomely in Hamilton but the USA's presence was all-the-more noteworthy given they'd made it without Baker.
The speedster, who won back-to-back World Player of the Year awards in the last two seasons, broke his jaw in a nasty tackle and flew home for surgery on day one.
Asked if he felt his surging USA team could win in Sydney without Baker's strikepower, Friday said: “Without a doubt. No player is indispensable. No coach is indispensable. Nobody is indispensable in the environment and that’s how the culture has got to be.
“We were desperately disappointed for Perry and losing Perry and in the manner we lost him and for the length of time we have lost him,” Friday said.
“But unfortunately that’s part of professional sport and I thought the way the boys galvanised and came together was great, and you saw his best mate, Carlin (Isles), step up and deliver and everyone got together and put in a decent performance. That’s good to know and important.
“But if you want to be consistent and sustainable in this series, you need to be able to absorb setbacks and adversity and we did that, so we’re in good spirits.”
The USA have competed in the World Series since it began in 1999 but until 2014-15, had never finished a season inside the top ten.
Under Friday, however, the team has since finished sixth place or higher, and in 2014, the US won their first ever Cup final over Australia in London.
They claimed a second title in the 2017-18 season by winning their home tournament in Las Vegas.
The USA have never before shown the consistency on display this season, however; they've claimed three straight silver medals in Dubai, Cape Town and Hamilton.
And the best part, according to Friday, is that no-one is taking any satisfaction from those results.
“We’re desperate to get a gold and we’re desperate to win Cups,” he said.
“We’re not comfortable losing finals, that’s not enough for us any more. I am immensely proud of what we are doing and where we are going and it’s a great thing that the USA Rugby community and the boys are disappointed that we’re only getting to finals.”
USA captain Madison Hughes echoed his coach’s thouhghts.
“Over the last few years we have had odd tournaments where we have won tournaments and done well in tournaments, and I think this season so far at least we have had a bit of consistency where every tournament we are coming out and every game we are coming out and really putting in performances at the level we are capable of. Now it is about just trying to continue that,” he said.
If the USA stay consistent with their ability to make – and win – playoff matches, they’ll go a long way to finishing in the top four and automatically qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics.
It’s a far cry from the run to the Rio Games, where Friday says the US had “a 10 percent chance of qualifying”.
But as is starting to be seen with glimpses of their men on the giant US sports shows, success on the sevens stage at an Olympics would also be a huge opportunity to convince youngsters to take a look at rugby.
Friday has long preached the message of trying to get rugby to be a “complementary” sport for the elite athletes in high schools, and thus giving them the option of playing the game if their American football or basketball aspirations don’t pan out.
“To finish in the top four would mean we’ve shown not only consistency, but it would show a tier 2 rugby nation came break the stranglehold of the superpowers in rugby,” he said.
“That’s what we are trying to do. We are trying to pioneer the game, on a world stage, so we can capture the sporting eyeballs of the American public.
“America love a winner and we want to be winners, because then the imagination of the sporting public in America will wake up and they’ll watch and there will be a whole new audience who will be watching the boys in the Olympics, if we are successful in qualifying this time.
“There’s lot to go for but right now we have to focus on the next tournament, and the one after and the one after that. We are not getting ahead of ourselves.
“But we are very pleased with where we are going right now, and very pleased with what we’re doing and how we’re representing the country.”