Ahead of the first round of the IRB Sevens in Australia this weekend I sat down with the new USA 7’s Captain Madison Hughes.
Madison is a player I have come to know very well in my capacity as Head Coach here at Dartmouth and as part of the Coaching Team of the JWRT winning USA U20s side that included Madison at Full Back for a team that went 4-0 to win the title in 2012.
He has continued to deliver on the promise that he showed in that tournament and after stand out performances at the CRCs he went on to make his debut for his country at Senior level in the later rounds of last year’s IRB Sevens, scoring 98 points. Under new Sevens Coach Mike Friday, Madison returned to Chula Vista for training camp and was announced as the new captain of the side ahead of their trip to Australia. Not bad for a 21-year old senior in College.
Before he headed off to Oz I asked Madison about balancing the demands of studying and rugby and what to expect from the USA Sevens team in Olympic qualification year.
LOC: You are a Senior at Dartmouth. How do you balance studying and playing?
There are two things I’m really focused on right now, which are progressing through my Dartmouth degree and playing high level rugby and improving as much as I can as a rugby player. That means in other areas of my life I have to make sacrifices to allow me to put the emphasis on the things I really want to focus on.
You have to be really careful with your time management and you have to be on top of things. You can’t have assignments pop up last minute that you didn’t really know about because then it could be due during training and that’s something you can’t have. You have to stay on top of things, balance your priorities and do as well as you can in both those areas.
Does having a focus away from rugby, like your academics, actually help your rugby?
It definitely does at times. There have been times when I haven’t been studying when I’ve been playing rugby and I’ve found you can get bogged down in just one thing. I very much enjoy playing rugby but there are times when it can get overwhelming and having the academics there can take your mind off of it and give you an alternative outlet. Having said that there are times when it is a bit of a distraction. Whichever one is the distraction it’s hard to say!
There are times when they come to a head at the same point, like when you have your final exams at the same time as a national-team camp or during the biggest college tournament of the year, the CRC. That can make it hard at times but for the most part having those dual priorities allows you to be very intense about one at a time without losing the edge that you have in each area.
You didn’t play against Harvard, are you confident the Dartmouth team is going to cope in your absence?
I think over the course of the season so far the team has made large strides. A number of guys have stepped up and improved a lot as players in areas that we probably needed them to. As the season goes on we’ll look for them to continue their growth and for the more experienced guys to take on more leadership roles within the team. I think the guys are very capable of putting in lots of good performances down the line without me there. I’ll be following along avidly and expecting them to continue the success they’ve had. So far they’ve been better without me!
What makes a good sevens player a great 7s player? Who do you think of and why?
Zach Test is probably the greatest sevens player I’ve played with. He’s an exceptional athlete and he reads the game very well and I think it’s about both those aspects. You can have people who are very athletic, very capable but unless you are able to read the game and use your athleticism to the best of your abilities you won’t perform on the larger stage. When you get to the Series and the higher tournaments the gaps are so small and the chances you get are so small that you really have to know when and how to make the best of those opportunities.
What did you learn from your 7s experience on the circuit last year?
The game moves a lot faster than any level I’ve played before. There are better athletes and better rugby players than I’ve played before. It really taught me I have to keep working to develop every aspect of my game, even those I consider my strengths were things I had to get better at to be where I want to be on the circuit. I want to be leading the USA and to be one of the best players on the circuit and that’s where I aim to be so I need to improve a lot as a player if I want to do that.
What are the team’s goals for the next few games on the circuit?
The team is very much focused on improving on last year. Our goal is to make cup quarter finals each round for each tournament. That has been the goal previously but I think we are really set on achieving that this year. When we have reached the quarterfinals it’s not about “Oh we’ve achieved what we wanted” it’s about progressing from there and winning those cup quarterfinals and semi-finals and really challenging. It’s not about being there to make up the numbers.
This is the Olympic qualifying year so the ultimate aim is to make the top 4 places and automatic qualification and go to the Olympics. Based on our final position last year some outsiders might think that’s not a realistic aim, we very much do and that’s what we are aiming for and that’s what we expect to achieve.
Do you have separate goals as an individual or captain of the team?
My goals are very much tied into those of the team. If the team achieves what we set out to achieve I’ll be very happy personally. Obviously I want to play a large role in that, as a rugby player you don’t want to be a side player. I believe in myself and I think I have that ability and I’m looking to be one of the key players on the USA team that can start achieving really great things.
As a player at an elite level how do you continue to develop your skills?
Every time you practice you have to go 100%, you can’t rest on your laurels. There’s always ways to improve, even taking extra reps in practice and work on that consistency. As a player I know I can make a kick from anywhere on the field but it’s doing that on a consistent basis. Rather than having 1 out of 10 going over, it’s about 9 or 10 out of 10 going over. That really extends to all parts of the game like passing, kicking, throwing into lineouts and making the right decisions. Consistency and being able to execute those skills at a very high level under intense pressure is really what the game comes down to.
Game management and reading the game is so critical for someone in my position. I’m not the biggest guy, I’m not the fastest, so I really bring to the team the ability to read the game and put the team in the right spots. Again that’s something, which comes from repetition in practice, repetition in games and understanding the game more.
— IRB Sevens (@IRBSevens) October 8, 2014
What do you see as your Team USA strengths this year?
I think over the last few years we’ve become known for our aerial ability and that’s something we stress to the team. Winning our own kick offs is down to the kicker’s putting the ball in the right spot so those guys that are very good at going up and getting the ball in the air have the chance to do so.
We’ve got a lot of very good athletes in our team like Carlin Isles, the fastest player in world rugby, so if you get him in the right spot he is going to score. We’ve got great rugby players like Danny Barrett, Garrett Bender and Zach Test and it’s about bringing them together into a team, rather than having a bunch of players who are individually very good at their own skillsets. It’s getting the blend that makes them excel as a team.
What have been the most significant changes Mike Friday has introduced?
The intensity of practice has stepped up a whole level. It wasn’t like we felt like we weren’t working hard before but the way we have been working during these camps is quite incredible. Personally I think I’ve pushed myself harder and have done things I wouldn’t have thought I was capable of. If you’d said to me before the camps this is what we’ll be doing I would have said I don’t think I will make it through that. We all did make it through that and we keep pushing and pushing.
I think we all do have these unified goals we know what we want to achieve and we know we have to make a big jump from last year and years past to do that. He’s brought a whole new level of focus and intensity but it’s not about complicated systems. When it comes down to it, it’s a simple game and it’s about seeing the whole picture and making the correct read. It’s not overly complicated but it’s much easier to say that than it is to do it so it’s really that intensity and work rate and coming together as a team.
— IRB Sevens (@IRBSevens) October 8, 2014
Here’s hoping the hard work pays off. Look out for Madison and the team as they play England, Canada, and Argentina in Pool D in the Gold Coast opening round 11-12 October.
USA squad: Garrett Bender, Andrew Durutalo, Zack Test, Nic Edwards, Pat Blair, Madison Hughes (c), Folau Niua, Peter Tiberio, Danny Barrett, Make Unufe, Carlin Isles, Perry Baker
Gavin Hickie, USA Rugby Collegiate All-Americans Forwards Coach, is a former Ireland A & 7s, Leinster and Leicester rugby player now Head Coach of Dartmouth Rugby. He writes for RugbyToday.com and other publications when not coaching and blogging on lineoutcoach.com