The biggest event on the American rugby union calendar, the USA Sevens, kicks off in Las Vegas on Friday. Last year, over three days, 67,341 spectators attended. This year, organisers think that record might be beaten. The home team's coach, however, has something rather bigger on his mind.
“Every second of every minute of every hour of every day, there has to be a plan in place,” says Matt Hawkins. “Eighteen months from now, we want to win Pan-American gold and we want to qualify for the Olympics. Everything is building towards that.”
To be fair to Hawkins – and it probably pays to be so, given that though entirely affable off the field the 30-year-old's nickname, bestowed for his blond hair and ferocious style of play, is “the Polar Bear” – he is of course aiming for success in Vegas this weekend. “A win’s a win, right?” he says. “We want a winning culture.” His focus on the Olympics, however, would be echoed by most coaches around the world.
In 2016, rugby will return to the Games. The USA men's team is a core member of the HSBC World Sevens Series, and thus always one of the 16 who contest tournaments around the globe. But only 12 can play for Olympic gold.
Qualification for Rio can be secured in three ways – by finishing top-four in the 2014-15 World Series; by winning Pan-American Games gold in Toronto in August 2015; or by winning a repechage tournament, probably in Hong Kong in the spring of 2016. The Pan-American route, which as Argentina will qualify through South America will mostly involve working out a way to beat Canada – a concept so amenable to USA Rugby that last year they tried to turn it into a meme – is the most likely.
Hawkins, who was appointed coach in August last year, after a long run in the team that he ended as captain, says:
It’s something I think about daily. How can you not? It’s the Olympic Games. It’s the pinnacle.
To aid his attempt to reach that pinnacle – and once there to re-plant the American flag, given that the Olympic title still belongs to the Americans who won it in 1924 – Hawkins has secured an expansion of his team's presence at the Olympic Training Centre, near his San Diego home. In early January, alongside 18 women, a men's squad of 25 was announced.
“First and foremost,” Hawkins says, down the phone from Chula Vista, “for a lot of national sevens programmes, their success is based around the depth of their squad. It’s been tough to build the depth when we’ve only had 14 or 15 names working full-time. So our No1 priority is to have true depth. Hopefully at some point we’ll have 30 guys who can fight for a place on that 12-man squad at each World Series event.”
Hawkins' selection for Vegas illustrates his point. Key names such as Zack Test, a former University of Oregon wide receiver who was a tournament MVP last year, the prolific try-scorer Nick Edwards and the storied “fastest man in rugby”, Carlin Isles, are present. But few others, whether named to play at the Sam Boyd Stadium or for a Falcons select in the Las Vegas Invitational, could be considered “names” anywhere outside their own households.
“We want to show progress,” says Hawkins. “I’ve been with the programme for eight years now and I can promise you, three years ago even though there were 22 guys coming into camp before we selected the squads to travel, there were a good few who at the end of the day really shouldn’t have been there.”
So should the Eagles be there or thereabouts when the reckoning arrives in Vegas on Sunday? Will they? Based on their displays in 2013-14 so far, the answer has to be a resounding “no”.
The US are 4-12 from tournaments in Australia, Dubai and South Africa. In the last two events they have won only once, against the less than mighty Spain, and Canada are five points ahead in the series table. Fortunately, in Vegas the Eagles have been drawn with Spain, Argentina and France. Progress to the cup competition – first-round losers also play on, for lesser prizes – should not be an impossibility.
Hawkins says “the players are working extremely hard”, and adds:
I guarantee that they are more frustrated than anyone in USA rugby about the way the results have gone so far. But it’s up to them, and the coaches, to make sure that they go out there now and get the job done.
Nonetheless, he says critics of the team's displays this season “have to look at the big picture”.
“If you look at the USA last year,” Hawkins continues, referring to eye-catching performances in Tokyo, Glasgow and London, “we really had a three-tournament high. We really needed to stay as a core team, we had a fight to stay alive, we knew we had to fight to finish above three other teams and avoid a relegation tournament. So for those three events we played with pressure and we built something really special.
“But then that pressure was released and we went off to the World Cup and we didn’t produce anything close to what we had produced in those three tournaments.”
The US slumped in Moscow, the last global showpiece before the Olympics, and there has been precious little encouragement since. Nonetheless, Hawkins insists:
As a programme we are where we need to be. Over the last five years we’ve shown pieces of brilliance and we’ve achieved things – we made a final [in Adelaide in 2010, losing to Samoa], we made a semi-final. So there are the bits and pieces there. But for us it’s about understanding that we’ve got a lot of young guys. The talent is getting better and it’s getting younger, and we’ve got more of an opportunity to get these guys in and work with them.
Among such talent now working at Chula Vista are five members of the military, supported by the World Class Athlete Program, and two players plucked from the college game. One of those, Dartmouth's Madison Hughes (the hard-charging Danny Barrett, a recent University of California graduate who has made the squad for Vegas, is the other), is generating some serious buzz.
“He’s produced some great stuff at the college level and he’s spent a little bit of time at the training centre over the past two years,” says Hawkins of Hughes, who was educated at Wellington College, a power in English schools sevens. “We’re working with him and working with Dartmouth – he’s taken a semester off so he’ll be with us for a couple of months. Hopefully he fights his way into the top 12.
“I think what people need to understand is that yes, he’s a great college player and an exciting talent, but taking that next step is really tough. We have to manage that process as best we can. We’ve got a lot of youngsters like him, showing real promise. What they need is the opportunity to train and develop here at the centre, and to be given guidance about what the next level is.”
One man who may continue to be given opportunities despite not being based at the OTC is the Seattle-based Miles Craigwell, a former Brown linebacker who was briefly with the Miami Dolphins. He will play in the Invitational this weekend, monitored by Eagles coaches for possible involvement in New Zealand next month. Another gridiron-raised player, the extraordinarily swift but still rugby raw Carlin Isles, is set to play in the main event, despite having generated headlines by signing a practice contract with the Detroit Lions.
“Carlin is with us, he’s full-time,” says Hawkins. “He went and did some stuff with the Lions and there is an opportunity for him to do something more with them maybe, to get involved in a rookie camp. We had a conversation when we all came back here and started training again. If he wants to go and become a football player, we will support him in that.
His going to the Lions may open doors for us and for rugby, who knows. We’re just not big enough to hold on to people like that if they want to go and look at such opportunities.
Nor, as it happens, have the Eagles been able to hold on to two other players who thrived on the world circuit last season. Luke Hulme had a trial with Gloucester and has now signed for Narbonne; the similarly quick Blaine Scully is doing well with Leicester. Again, Hawkins puts his best foot forward.
“It’s a huge positive, it really is. For a long time now we’ve been looking to get some of our guys out into European rugby, because they’re playing a lot there and that’s good for them.”
Such players may yet come back into the US rugby mix as the Olympics approach.
It's a mix that, World Sevens stutters notwithstanding, is becoming rather interesting. The 15-a-side Eagles ended 2013 with a tremendous display in defeat by the Maori All Blacks and two victories in Europe, and next face a World Cup qualifier against Uruguay in March. Their highly promising young No8, Cam Dolan, has gone to England to play for Northampton. In November, USA Rugby announced a deal with a private company, Serevi Rugby, to run talent-spotting camps across the country. The endeavour begins next month and Hawkins, who also works for Serevi, will be fully involved.
So much, one might say, for the future. The present, with sevens heavyweights like New Zealand, South Africa, Fiji and England in town, is demanding enough. But in recent seasons the Eagles have competed well with all those teams and more. The potential is undoubtedly there.
“Do we want to get wins in the World Series?” Hawkins asks. “Absolutely. A win’s a win, right? We want a winning culture and the more wins the guys can get the more confidence they can get. It all flows.
“But we have to understand that 18 months from now it will be really, really important. We have to build now, and then we can build this powerhouse and 'awaken the giant' and all the things that people like to talk about when it comes to US rugby. We have to do the hard work now.”
That hard work starts at 6.12pm Vegas time on Friday (9.12pm ET), when the Eagles face the Pumas of Argentina.