Rugby enthusiasts in the United States are celebrating a major achievement for their national men's and women's Sevens teams, which qualified Sunday for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The U.S. Eagles, as the men's and women's players are known, secured their places in Rio by winning their respective finals in the North America and Caribbean (NACRA) Olympic qualification tournament in Cary, North Carolina.
The U.S. men defeated Canada, 21-5, scoring three first-half tries through Perry Baker, Danny Barrett and Maka Unufe, with captain Madison Hughes successfully kicking the conversions after the tries. In the preceding match, the U.S. women routed Mexico, 88-0.
Rugby is returning to the Olympics next year for the first time since the 1924 Summer Games in Paris, when there was no women's competition, and the U.S. men won gold in the 15-a-side version of the sport. Seven-a-side rubgy is typically a higher scoring game that is popular with fans around the world.
In good company
The U.S. men join six other teams that already have qualified for Rio: Argentina, host Brazil, Britain, Fiji, New Zealand and South Africa. The U.S. women will compete in the Olympics alongside Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Colombia and New Zealand.
Five more teams still can qualify for both the men's and women's Olympic Sevens tournaments through a series of upcoming continental and global repechage competitions.
The U.S. men headed into their regional finals brimming with confidence after winning a Sevens World Series tournament for the first time with a Cup victory in London on May 17. The London triumph lifted the U.S. men to a best-ever sixth place out of 22 nations in the end-of-year Sevens standings. The U.S. women finished their Sevens season as the world's fifth-ranked team.
The strong performances of both the men's and women's Eagles in the past season have led many U.S. rugby fans to believe their teams have a realistic chance of winning a medal in Rio with a top-three finish.
Call to action
In an interview with VOA last month, U.S. men's Sevens head coach Mike Friday, an Englishman, said Olympic qualification should mark the start of a process of upgrading national investment in the sport.
"We need infrastructure to ensure that American high schools are picking up the game," Friday said. "We also need to create coaches who are able to coach the game to all these potential American rugby athletes who chase the dream of playing for the National Football League and the National Basketball Association, as well as those that want to be an Olympian at rugby."
Friday also called for more foreign coaching talent to be brought to America. "If we do well and we get a medal in 2016, it will be in spite, not because, of the existing rugby infrastructure."
On Sunday, Friday took to Twitter to hail his team's latest success.
One helluva of a journey..Part 1 done 😬🇺🇸 So proud of the boys grown so much as players & men..Hat Tip to you all pic.twitter.com/pnYm2tO4AM— Mike Friday (@MikeFriday09) June 14, 2015
U.S. men's player Barrett, one of Sunday's try-scorers, cast his sight on the next challenge for USA Rugby, the nation's governing body for the sport.
The U.S. men will compete in the 15-a-side Rugby World Cup in England this coming September and October.