For rugby veterans like Perry Baker, competing in the Olympics can involve a fragile balance between gaming spirit and ingenuity.
The art of games because his American team is packed of talented sports players, and he took first place in the ranking. 2 in the World Sevens Series and entered the Tokyo Games as a contender for an Olympic medal. Show spirit because they still need to market the sport in America.
American players, including two-time World Sevens Series best player Perry, and Karleen Ailes, the fastest man in the game, said an Olympic medal at the Tokyo Olympics would put rugby more firmly on the American sports map.
They were very close to making the medal rounds.
The Americans took a 21-0 lead over Britain on Tuesday, with Baker relegated twice, until the 2016 Olympic silver medalists piled in four unanswered attempts for a place in the semifinals.
“We’re devastated. Hugely devastated. Sevens are tough – little moments, little referee calls go your way, don’t go as you want,” US coach Mike Friday said. “That’s the difference between being in the medal rounds tomorrow or not. Unfortunately, we just fell on the mistaken side this evening.”
Defending champions Fiji, New Zealand, Britain and Argentina, all well-established rugby regions, will compete in the Olympic semi-finals on Wednesday.
The best American men can finish now is fifth. It’s an improvement over Rio de Janeiro five years ago, where they finished ninth when the Rugby Sevens made their Olympic program debut.
“We’ve come from being still in 2014, to being involved in 2016, to being contenders in Tokyo,” said Friday, who coached the England and Kenya national teams prior joining the US program in 2014, following the narrow loss. Britain. “But for a decision or two, or the rebound of the ball, we might be in the medal rounds.”
Friday agreed that the Olympic medal would donate the game more oomph in America.
“We have succeeded and we have moved forward, but let us not hide from the truth: in America they are interested in gold, silver and bronze – mostly gold,” he said. “This is where they wanted to see us tomorrow (so)…I’m so sorry.”
The US team opened the Tokyo Olympics by defeating Kenya and Ireland on Monday. The Americans scored the first attempt against South Africa on Tuesday morning and went within inches of the attempt that could have put them ahead by 10 points, but lost 19-12 to the 2016 Olympic bronze medalists to finish second in Group C.
The rapid pace of the game, the begin spaces on the field and the intense time frame – each game consists of two halves of seven minutes, and there are multiple matches in each session – made sevens a popular alternative for 15 players.
There will be a renewal of the American program following Tokyo with the retirement of some players and the search for unused talent continues.
The 35-year-old Baker came through the NFL system, signing with the Philadelphia Eagles prior an injury cut his NFL prospects. He switched to rugby and became the world’s best sevens player in successive seasons in 2017 and 18.
He said prior the Olympics that the big attraction of the Sevens was the speed of the game which, unlike the traditional 15-player version of rugby, never stops. It’s also the format of the game where the US team has proven that it can mix with the best in the world.
“I feel like we’ve put that mark now where people know we’re a threat,” Baker said. “I feel like we’re up there with those lofty-level teams.
“Once we start winning, everyone wants to be part of the winning team.”
Madison Hughes, the team’s co-captain and now a two-time Olympian, remains confident about the coming. He was asked following he finished his final minute triumph bid against Kenya to explain the appeal of the game.
“The rugby sevens is just a very spectacular sight. It is very visual. The free-flowing elements of volleyball are very exciting,” he said. “Especially in the Olympics, one of the best parts is that you don’t really need to understand what’s going on in order to like it and benefit from it that much.
“Rugby Sevens, you just sit, the ball is moving, there are big hits, big collisions. It’s pleasing to watch.”
For Hughes, building the US team’s brand goes both ways. He understands that they need to convince people in traditional sports strongholds that America can be a force in the game.
“We know we are rivals and we know we can defeat anyone,” he said. “But every time we go on the pitch we have to prove it not only to ourselves, but to the rest of the world.