Matt Hawkins, when he took the USA 7s team job, said he wanted competition for places.
When he started a bunch of new guys, he said there was no point in putting youngsters on the team, if you weren't going to play him.
When he picked Danny Barrett for Las Vegas and we asked him if Barrett started the first game on merit only, or to get him on the field early, Hawkins said merit, sure, but also, if you've got a new guy, get him on the field and play him, and see what he can do.
Agree or disagree with Hawkins, but acknowledge that he has been consistent. He plays the youngsters, and he wants them to succeed, so he can put veterans in a situation of being worried about losing their jobs.
So in the final two games of the Wellington 7s, Nick Edwards, Andrew Durutalo, Folau Niua, and Shalom Suniula joined young player Ryan Matyas on the bench. Total IRB tournaments for those five players? 103.
Starting for the Eagles in those games was Zack Test, Danny Barrett, Garrett Bender, Brett Thompson, Carlin Isles, Pono Haitsuka, and Madison Hughes. Total tournaments for those seven players? 70, and 40 of those were for Test.
And yet, the USA team played better. Why? Bender has exploded in the last few weeks, after playing really well for the USA Falcons in Vegas. He is tall, powerful, aggressive, and decided he is fine clearing out in rucks and winning balls in the air. Barrett is a bit risky at times, but he is aggressive and is not afraid to challenge defenders. Isles is learning the game (more on him later in this piece). Haitsuka is fast, and a very good support runner. Thompson is smart, aggressive, an excellent defender, and unselfish. Hughes is an extremely smart and skilled player who doesn't give up on tackles and can beat defenders.
We know Test is a great player, and in fact played better with this group than with the veterans. Meanwhile, when they came on, the older players looked a little lost. Edwards ran into way, way too much contact. Durutalo was effective in the rucks, but Niua seemed less sure of himself than Haitsuka.
And Isles ... we've been calling for it for months now - pass him the ball. The young players don't seem to have any baggage connected to passing to Isles. It could be that the older players think "it can't be that simple that we just pass to the fast guy and he scores, right?" It is, and the younger players are less likely to question it.
"I've said Carlin's a great athlete but he has to become a better rugby player, so we've tried to develop with him and he;'s put in more time. He's developing and growing in leaps and bounds and it's fantastic to see," Hawkins said.
In the Shield Final, won by the USA over Spain 28-12 (after they beat Portugal 31-10), Isles not only scored two tries, he chased down and gathered a grubber kick to save a try, making sure he delayed going into contact long enough for his support to get there. He was caught in one movement and successful passed off to a looping Test for a try. He filled in repeatedly at scrumhalf and passed just fine.
In other words, he did more than just run fast.
Perhaps that has sent the message to everyone as Isles, who started every game and played 14 minutes most of the time, scored six tries. The performance of Thompson, who may well be the team's most consistent presence, is also something to celebrate. Bender is getting there, and Hughes, whose offensive skills should not overshadow his hard work on defense, is just getting started.
This was the idea from the start.
"This was the plan all along to get more guys playing rugby and get more guys on the field
We are making progress," said Hawkins after the Wellington Shield Final. "The guys are playing some good rugby; we just need to learn to finish. We've got a lot of youngsters and we're bringing in new guys the whole time. And that's the whole plan. We need to condition more guys. We need to create more depth for our squad. It's exciting to see the young guys come through and they're finishing. We're getting to the point where we're getting to a final and actually winning it."
This is not a situation where the coach desperately threw the newbs out onto the field and lo and behold they won; Hawkins has been consistent in playing the young players, throwing them into the deep end, or to the wolves. He is prepared to trade some losses now for victories later, and it seems he is confident that the team will not be relegated.
Will it work? Well, it's a plan, and judging from Wellington, it wasn't the youngsters who were the problem.