By Greg Stutchbury
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - The stakes are high for the United States as they head into their home round of the rugby sevens world series under pressure to perform, men's team coach Alex Magleby has said.
The Las Vegas tournament from February 8-10 is the fifth leg of the nine-stop series, and rankings points at its conclusion will determining seedings for the sevens World Cup in Moscow in June.
The Americans are tied for 14th in the standings with 18 points and a better placing in the Nevada tournament will help improve their position ahead of the tour's first promotion/relegation playoffs in May.
On top of that, the U.S. team has just received support from the United States Olympic Committee for the sport's debut at the 2016 Rio Games, and given the expectations from the world's most successful Olympic nation, the pressure is on Magleby's side.
"I think the first thing is, we have to win," Magleby told Reuters after the Wellington leg of the series. "We have guys who can compete, so we are tasked with winning.
"And if we win then more commercial opportunities will come and that's the start of greater things."
The Eagles only accrued one point from the Wellington tournament, losing 17-15 to Wales in the Shield semi-final.
Despite the poor final result, they showed glimpses of how strong they could be. They drew with eventual winners England 12-12 and pushed world series leaders New Zealand before losing 17-10 in pool play.
"We felt that we were competitive in every game," Magleby added. "It would be one thing if the guys weren't in it.
"If you're playing yourself into a position to do that, then that's the next step. That's the important thing now. If you have a two on one then you take advantage of it.
"We're now at that stage."
The U.S. enters Las Vegas with arguably the most exciting player in recent years in former track sprinter Carlin Isles, who only began playing rugby last year in an attempt to make the Olympics.
Isles has a fastest 100 meters time of 10.13 seconds and he lit up social media with his performances at the Gold Coast tournament last October when he scored against the All Blacks Sevens within a minute of coming on the field.
Magleby said Isles, who also played American football, needed to keep learning the game, something other crossover athletes had had difficulty with in the past.
"There are plenty of American football players who haven't made it," Magleby said. "Carlin has made it because of his speed. If he didn't have that then he wouldn't be here.
"A lot of crossover athletes we have had are fast, but not that type of fast. They're big bodied, have good feet and are strong but are not dominant in terms of the circuit, whereas Carlin's speed is dominant."
Magleby, who coached at Dartmouth College for 11 years before taking a sabbatical to take on the Eagles job, said 85 percent of his collegiate players had come from other sports, a reason why U.S. rugby had struggled, lacking players with the skills learned from a young age.
The U.S. has twice made the semi-finals of world series tournaments, but rugby sevens remains a niche sport.
However, its adoption by small colleges, greater commercial opportunities, the broadcast of the Las Vegas tournament on NBC and sevens' inclusion into the Olympics were providing impetus for growth, Magleby said.
"Small schools are recognizing that rugby is not expensive. and that it can be played by men and women," Magleby said.
"These are not the 'brands' (big-name universities) but they're cropping up with varsity-level rugby programs and kids are getting scholarships so it's changing things.
"Parents are investing in rugby so their kids can get scholarships and you're getting a lot more talent coming through.
"You're now getting guys coming out of university programs, who with a little bit of help can compete at this level ... and the landscape we're talking about will be dramatically different in four years."
(Editing by Ian Ransom)