SINGAPORE – The sporting world got a sneak preview of what could well develop into the new power-base for Sevens Rugby when the United States and Canada upset the sport’s traditional giants by advancing to the first all-American final on the World Series circuit.
The likes of New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England and Fiji were all reduced to playing for minor places as the two North American neighbours blew away their more established opponents to meet in the championship decider.
Canada won a thrilling final 26-19 on a steamy night at Singapore’s National Stadium, but the result was a win for all of North America, which has been investing heavily in Sevens after the sport was included in the Olympics.
“This is a huge achievement that will resonate across all... North America,” Canada coach Damian McGrath told AFP.
“The more exposure we get, the more people are interested, and the more people are interested, the bigger the game grows.”
Canada, better known for producing ice hockey players than rugby stars, had never won a World Series title before while the US had played in just one, when they won the 2015 London title.
The Eagles coach Mike Friday, who worked with McGrath in England, said it was only a matter of time before North America became a powerhouse in the sport.
“We’re not as fortunate as some of the top-tier countries that have the big budgets and the rugby IQ, but we’ve got the athletic ability in North America, that’s not in doubt,” Friday told AFP.
“But there’s a big difference between athletic ability and rugby intelligence, and that’s something that our boys are desperately having to play catch up on, and that’s the long term, bigger challenge for North America.”
After struggling for years on the global circuit, the US and Canada are now among the most consistent teams in the world, both ranked inside the top 10.
The US have made the semi-finals in each of the past four World Series events, while Canada has made the quarter-finals in five of the last six tournaments.
If any one player epitomises the rise of North American rugby, it would be Perry Baker, the lightning-fast US winger who has developed a cult following on the circuit and is the leading try-scorer this season.
The 30-year-old was a late-comer to rugby after playing American Football in his youth. He was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, but a knee injury prevented him from making it to the NFL.
He took up rugby as an afterthought, but has become one of the biggest stars in the game, using his electric speed to score tries at will.
“I’m enjoying every minute of it,” Baker said. “I’m just trying to entertain people and hopefully inspire others to take up the sport because it’s a great game.
“Hopefully having two North American teams in a final will give the sport a boost.”
For the players and coaches from the established nations in the Sevens series, the success of the North American teams was no surprise.
“As far as I’m concerned, these teams are already powerhouses,” New Zealand captain DJ Forbes told AFP. “I guess it’s credit to being an Olympic sport now because it’s definitely far more competitive than it ever was.”
Australian coach Andy Friend told AFP the rise of North America in Rugby Sevens might only be the start of a much bigger global shift. “I think it’s great for world rugby, but wait till you get China playing too, that’s another one that’s going to come on in leaps and bounds,” he said.
“And countries like Germany and Chile are also growing fast so for me, this is just the real growth game at the moment, so you can’t underestimate anyone.”