The USA’s Perry Baker and Folau Niua will take another step forward on the comeback trail at the Quest for Gold Sevens in California this weekend.
Star playmaker Niua has not played in a competitive tournament since suffering a badly broken leg in Paris in 2019, while prolific try-scorer and two-time World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year Baker also broke his leg, although not as severely, at the Madrid Sevens in February.
The influential duo have faced a race against time to get back to fitness and be considered for the Olympic Games in Tokyo in a month’s time, but they both came through last week’s training hit-out against Argentina unscathed.
The Men’s Eagles will face Argentina again this weekend and Team GB and Korea. All four teams have qualified for the Olympics.
“Folau took to the field for the first time in two years last week and everyone was so proud and pleased for him,” said head coach Mike Friday.
“He is not perfect, of course he is not perfect. But mentally he needed to take those steps back onto the pitch.
“I don’t think people quite understand the two years that Folau has had. Without dressing it up, he nearly lost his leg.
“It is testament to him as a bloke that he is where he is now.”
Friday was also full of praise for Baker who, like Niua, played for USA when rugby sevens made its Olympic bow in Rio in 2016.
“Perry has done remarkably well on his recovery, he has worked tirelessly hard over the last three-and-a-half months to get where he is,” said Friday.
“He is 17 weeks post-surgery and is tracking nicely. Is he where he needs to be? Probably not. But he doesn’t need to be there just yet.
“Mentally it was important to take those first steps back on the pitch, and he came through that and he got some touches to build his confidence up.
“Perry and Folau have got themselves into the Olympic conversation and it is now up to them to see if they can take it a step further.”
While Friday will announce his squad next week, his counterpart with the women’s team, Chris Brown, decided to name his Olympic roster pre-tournament.
The Women’s Sevens Eagles will be co-captained by Abby Gustaitis and Kristen Thomas.
Ten of the 12 starters are first-time Olympians with the exception of Lauren Doyle and Alev Kelter who both competed in Rio.
“The main thing was to try and go through a lot of the emotional rollercoaster earlier (around selection) rather than closer to the tournament time,” said Brown, who was appointed to his current role in 2018 following a four-year stint as an assistant with the men’s team.
“It was based on the 2016 experience where a number of these players were mainly not at the Olympics but were part of that squad, and a lot of the feedback was that it took a fair while to get a lot of the consistency back in the unit, and if they could have named it earlier, they would have done.
“I get why Mike chose to go the other way; however, I felt it would be easier to manage the emotions and the intensity of training rather than having to deal with it later.”
The Women’s Sevens Eagles face fellow Olympic competitors Team GB at the Quest for Gold Sevens as well as Mexico and Jamaica, who failed to make it to Tokyo via the repechage in Monaco last week.
“I’m grateful to all three teams for being willing to come this way. GB looked pretty sharp a month ago against Ireland, and we should get a couple of hit-outs against them this weekend,” said Brown.
“I don’t think whoever wins or the performances will tell a story of where we are going to be for the Games. I think it will tell us more about where we are mentally, and it will give us a good last chance to tidy up a couple of things in the last month.”
Going for gold
The Women’s Sevens Eagles finished fifth in Rio and Brown is confident the side can improve on that performance even though, he says, standards have risen across the board.
“I think the women’s game has come a long way. If you look back at the last three years, the duration of play has gone through the roof with how long you have to work to score tries and the ability to keep hold of the ball,” he reasoned.
“Apart from the top two teams, it (the women’s competition at the Olympics) was pretty error-ridden in 2016.
“I think there'll be five teams who can legitimately win gold this time, and I think we fall into that category, and around seven teams who can be on the podium.”