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Tide turns for Americans as USA Sevens International Rugby Tournament begins

Mike Friday likes to refer to the U.S. rugby program as a sleeping giant.

The Americans are a powerhouse in many sports, but the one played with a deformed football wasn’t one of them. At least not before Friday took over.

The Eagles haven’t earned the powerhouse label from their opponents with New Zealand and South Africa still dominating. What the U.S. did gain within the past year since Friday’s arrival is fear and respect heading into the USA Sevens International Rugby Tournament at Sam Boyd Stadium beginning Friday.

Friday, an Englishman from Southeast London, was aware of the pool of athletes the U.S. produces. That’s what brought Friday to the Western hemisphere.

The former head coach of the English and Kenyan rugby national teams, Friday took the same gig with the U.S. squad in the summer of 2014, a team that finished 13th in the Sevens World Series standings that year.

“I needed something to kind of light my fires, and I was always intrigued by the potential, the athletic ability available within the USA Sevens men’s,” Friday said. “These group of guys just needed direction and focus and some understanding and some kind of tough love to help them become better players.”

Friday inherited the same 12 players from the previous regime and took off without making any tweaks.

The 2015 turnaround under Friday started in Las Vegas, where the Eagles advanced to the semifinals during the USA Sevens tournament. The U.S. went on to win in London, the program’s first-ever world series tournament victory, and ended the season with a top-six finish.

The Americans then punched their ticket to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this summer after winning their regional qualifying meet. Rugby will return to the Olympics for the first time since 1924.

“When I arrived, the USA Sevens Team was destined to relegation and given zero chance of qualifying for the Olympics,” Friday said. “It was a tall order and a tough assignment, big challenge, but those are things that interest me.

“The boys are growing confidence. They took the lessons they needed to learn and worked hard. Now they’re starting to see the fruits of their labor.”

This year, the Eagles started with a third-place finish in opening round of the world series in Dubai and are seventh (49 points) in the standings heading into the Las Vegas stage.

Friday recalled the atmosphere at Sam Boyd Stadium when the U.S. tied South Africa 19-19 in the final pool game.

“What lives long with me (from 2015) is the last pool game against South Africa where we had the fighter jet fly over and had the anthem and a screaming crowd going bonkers for this USA team,” Friday said. “Our team didn’t freeze. They fed off the energy and played well.”

South Africa, New Zealand and Fiji, last year’s USA Sevens champion, are tied atop the standings with 69 points. Along with the U.S., Australia, Argentina and England are dark-horse contenders in the 16-team tournament.

The Americans are looking to finish in the top three at Sam Boyd Stadium, but they’re also gunning for a medal in Rio.

“We feel good, and we feel we can compete with any team,” said Carlin Isles, a star wing for the Eagles. “We’ve come a long way. We’ve got a spot in the Olympics. That’s a dream come true. Not many people can say they competed in the Olympics.”

Isles, dubbed the “Fastest Man in Rugby,” hopes to participate in two Olympic Games this summer. He has aspirations to qualify in track and field as a sprinter.

Isles, a Massillon, Ohio, native, missed the cut during the 2012 Olympic Trials. That’s when he pursued rugby and became an instant star.

Isles and Perry Baker provide the scoring for the U.S., and Danny Barrett and Garrett Bender bring the power up front.

Isles has already looked at the Olympic schedule. The rugby schedule ends before track and field starts.

“It would plan out good, but it’s all about how the body feels and just planning things. I think it will work out,” he said.

Contact Gilbert Manzano at gmanzano@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0492. Follow him on Twitter:@gmanzano24.

WHO: 2016 USA Sevens International Rugby Tournament

WHEN: Today at 3:51 p.m. (16 games)

WHERE: Sam Boyd Stadium

TV: NBC, NBCSN

Game of the Day: Fiji vs. Samoa (5:19 p.m.)

Tickets: www.unlvtickets.com

Pool A: New Zealand, Kenya, Portugal, Russia

Pool B: Australia, England, Scotland, Japan

Pool C: Fiji, Argentina, Samoa, France

Pool D: South Africa, U.S.A., Wales, Canada

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