Rugby News & Views From an American Perspective
As Team USA prepares to head back to camp to begin their preparation for the next two tournaments in the HSBC World Series, the squad need not look far for inspiration. Team Captain Matt Hawkins is the embodiment of an elite rugby player in the United States and leads the team by example both on and off the pitch.
As rumors of professionalization of the game of rugby abound, Hawkins still deals with the same issues that many fellow national team members and elite rugby players in America still face. The prospect of juggling a family, a job, and elite level training is not for the lighthearted.
“To be very honest it’s not something I am able to balance. I have an amazing support group that starts with my wife. She is incredible and without her there is no way I would still be on the circuit,” said Hawkins who has 18 IRB World Series Tournament appearances to his credit.
“As for work I have to say that without a doubt it has been an amazing experience being a part of the company I work for and they have been incredible with my travel and training commitments and I will forever be indebted to them.”
That is just two pieces of the puzzle for player like Hawkins. With the increased level of competition to make Team USA, slipping back on training is not acceptable, especially for the Team Captain and heart and soul of the team.
“Training is the hardest, but if you want it enough no matter what you do outside of competition, you will get it done,” continued Hawkins.
Team USA got off to a great start this season advancing to the Quarterfinals in Dubai, but mistakes paved the way to a step backwards at the tournament in George, South Africa. Regardless, there is an excitement building from inside the squad and from the growing number of fans.
“I think there is definitely some disappointment lingering from how we left things in George, but I think over and above that there is definitely some great excitement about what we can do as a squad going forward and I think each and every guy is itching to get back out there and put things right,” added Hawkins.
Part of the excitement around the team comes from the injection of some new blood into the squad. New players to the team aren’t uncommon as Head Coach Al Caravelli has become accustomed to bleeding new players throughout the course of his tenure as Head Coach.
Quite a few of players in camp over the last six months have been relative newcomers to the sport of rugby. This has placed an onus on the veterans of the squad to get more involved in bringing these new athletes into the fold and helping along their development.
“Each new year brings with it new members to the squad and I think most of the vets have been unbelievable in bringing guys up to speed because I think we’ve all realized that the stronger our squad is, the better we’re going to do and also the harder we’re pushed at each training camp, which is beneficial to everyone,” says Hawkins.
The emergence of cross-over athletes flocking to rugby and improvements made to the program as a whole has made for a much different environment from when Hawkins first broke into the squad in 2007. Through all of the massive changes, Caravelli has stuck to the same core values that he brought to the team when he took over during a very dark time period for the 7’s program.
Part of those core values includes the knowledge that no team member has his position locked up and safe. At any point in time whether by loss of form or fitness, Caravelli is prepared to make changes to the lineup if that means it give the team a better chance to succeed.
The results can speak for themselves as Team USA has gone from being a doormat on the IRB World Series to a Top 10 team that is truly disappointed if they do not reach the quarterfinals at every tournament.
“Each year it gets harder and harder as the players coming in to the squad are getting better and better and we’re getting pushed further and further from our comfort zone as a team and as individuals by the coaching staff and it shows in how we have progressed up the standings and in the way we perform in each game we play,” said the man that has come to be known as The Polar Bear.
“I mean back in 2007 when I first joined the squad the idea that we would be in the Top 8 in the World and not making the quarterfinals each and every time we played a tournament would have been considered a little foolish. But we have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go and it’s been an incredible journey.”
Putting the struggles the team faced in George behind them is a must as they prepare for Wellington and Las Vegas, but there are lessons to be learned as well. Despite their 1-4 record in George, the team was in nearly every game only to be undone late by fixable mistakes.
“Looking back is not something we like to do too often, but I think George just showed each and every one of us how small the margin between winning and losing is. One dropped ball or miss tackle and you’re five points behind,” Team USA Captain Hawkins added.
Getting more game time for the team in future is paramount if Team USA is to take the next step and become a threat at every tournament. Funding issues forced the team to miss a vital pre-World Series warm-up tournament. This time last year, Team USA was off to Fiji for an unprecedented training trip to prepare for Wellington and Las Vegas. The trip included playing in an international level 7’s tournament, the Suva 7’s. The groundwork laid during that preparation led to a great run of tournaments for the USA that culminated in reaching the Cup Final in Adelaide.
Hawkins ads, “Without a doubt I think we all wish we could be playing in more tournaments together as a team, but that’s not in our hands. We have one option moving forward and that is to learn from George and in Wellington set things right. That’s why the Series is so incredible. You always have that opportunity to put things right and hopefully get it to where you leave the Series at the end of May on your terms. I think this team is going to do something special this year.”
England, Wales, and Cook Islands stand in the USA’s way in Wellington. The days of “easy” pools are over on the World Series. Each and every opponent has stepped up their game and the end product has been an exciting and marketable brand of rugby.
Team USA has a battle on their hands to reach the quarterfinals in New Zealand, but they are up to the challenge according to Hawkins, “I think the way we need to approach it is we have three games on the first day in Wellington and we want to win them all. The way we’ll do that is by playing our game and controlling the ball, which we are more than capable of doing.”
The USA follow up their trip to New Zealand by coming home to play in the USA 7’s in Las Vegas. Record crowds are expected at Sam Boyd Stadium, but the team remains focused on the task at hand. Team USA has performed well at home in recent years, buoyed by the energy from the home crowd.
Hawkins confirms that sentiment, “I think if anything it gets us more pumped up to be home and to run out in front of our home crowd and that support drives me as a player to go further than my body ever wants to go. So no matter how my body feels the day we arrive back in the country or what my mind is telling me on that second day in Vegas, when I hear that crowd all pulling for us, it’s all forgotten.”
To add to the fervor in Las Vegas and the support for the team across the nation, NBC Sports is broadcasting live from both days of the USA 7’s. Down the road the added exposure for Team USA could lead to easing the burden placed on the players and giving them every opportunity to succeed without the limitations of budgets.
“Having NBC on board this year is huge and I know all of the players are really excited. Anything or anyone that jumps on board to help create awareness for the sport of rugby in the US is welcomed with open arms,” says Hawkins.
The excitement isn’t limited to the squad.
“We have actually been very fortunate to have spent some time with the NBC crew at our last training camp and they are just as excited as we are to be covering the event. So, I think it’s going to be a great collaboration,” finished Hawkins.
Team USA plays in the Wellington 7’s in New Zealand on February 5-6th and then comes back home to play in the USA 7’s in Las Vegas on February 12-13th. The tournaments are part of the HSBC World Series that includes eight tournaments stop all around the World. The World Series begins in December in Dubai and finishes in May in Scotland, the birthplace of Rugby 7’s.
Team USA is currently in 9th place in the World Series standings.