You know the debate. Tiger and Nicklaus. Serena and Serena. Jordan versus Lebron, and if you’re within earshot of me, Bill Russell will be entering the conversation. Let’s start up front by saying we’re specifically looking for the greatest American sevens player of all time.
A Little History …
In 1920 and 1924, the United States sent 15s teams made up mostly of California college kids to compete in the Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium and Paris, France, respectively. America didn’t field an official national team again until 1976 after the formation of the sport’s national governing body.
The men’s 7s Eagles got their start in the mid ‘80s at the Hong Kong Sevens, the world’s most famous annual rugby tournament and the grand daddy of the abbreviated game. The best players in the country were selected out of the domestic club competition annually and sent East to represent the United States starting in 1986. We’ll begin our men’s search there.
It wasn’t until 1987 the first women’s national 15s team took the field, after a couple of years of an unofficial conglomeration of the country’s best players touring overseas. Just four years later, the USA would win the first-ever Women’s Rugby World Cup.
The first assembly for the women’s national 7s team wouldn’t take place until 1997, when Hong Kong 7s expanded to include an international women’s division. The first Rugby World Cup Sevens for men took place in 1993, and women were included for the first time in 2009.
The United States has fielded men’s and women’s teams in every 7s World Cup to date. For most of the 46 years America has been fielding a men’s national team and the 35 years of the women’s Eagles, our best 7s players were also largely some of our best 15s players. But that began to change in the early 2010s, with the full-time professionalization of the 7s teams.
Maybe Clever and Knight?
If we’re talking best American men, regardless of code, you would have to consider Todd Clever. Through the aughts, he was our most visible ambassador, famously appearing in The Body Issue of ESPN The Magazine in 2015.
The first American to play Super Rugby, he retired as the most-capped 15s Eagle of all-time. Largely because he played before 7s was added to the Olympics in 2016, he also appeared 24 times for the 7s national team.
Starring for the women’s Eagles in the same timeframe was Phaidra Knight, a no-brainer G.O.A.T. candidate in 15s. Named USA Rugby’s Player of the Decade in 2010, Knight appeared in three 15s World Cups and was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame in 2010.
Like Clever, she also played for the 7s national team and broke through pop culture, making a cameo in MTV’s scripted reality series Made as a rugby coach. In 2019, both Knight and Clever were inducted into the U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame.
While they’re two of American rugby’s brightest stars, and both played considerable roles with the 7s national teams, it’d be hard to make a case for either as our G.O.A.T. They were better at the 15s game, their 7s teams weren’t particularly accomplished, especially in comparison to the Olympic-era squads and the stats don’t exist to back them up.
Some stats are there to make the case for Jovesa Naivalu. He held the national record in the 110-and-400-meters as a sprinter, representing Fiji in the 1996 Olympics, and the USA’s all-time try record for 15 years. But his international career was cut short due to deportation following legal troubles.
Predating Naivalu is another hybrid, Tommy Smith, who played in 45 tournaments for the USA, captaining the side 19 times. In 1997, at the 20th Anniversary of the Hong Kong Sevens, Smith was named to the All-Time Tournament Team. Famous for using an overhand football-style pass to spread the field, he was inducted into the U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame in 2017.
The last of the great hybrids was probably Chris Wyles, who played alongside Clever in 15s and 7s for many years. He’s best known for his work in 15s, but the differentiator for Wyles in 7s is his inclusion in the team for Rio 2016. Having spent years away from the abbreviated game, winning four English and two European titles with Saracens, Wyles made the Olympic team at the age of 32.
Perhaps Test or Potter?
Eclipsing Naivalu’s record for all-time tries in 2018 was ironclad G.O.A.T. candidate Zack Test. The former University of Oregon wide receiver was the team’s unmitigated star during the pre-Olympic era. His superior aerial abilities were a key attribute during Team USA’s rise to global competitiveness in the early 2010s. Test would bridge the gap into the Olympic era by making the squad for Rio in 2016, but his playing career ended abruptly during a serious head injury in a rare 15s appearance.
Shadowing Test’s time with the men’s squad was Jillion Potter. A physically imposing rising star for the national teams, Potter suffered a broken neck while playing in 2010, recovering to help the Eagles win bronze at the 2013 7s World Cup. The following year, she was diagnosed with Stage III synovial sarcoma, which she beat to play in Rio in 2016.
While all of these deserving candidates enjoyed decorated careers and distinguished themselves from their contemporaries and the best of other generations alike, they’re no G.O.A.T.S. America’s best 7s teams, without rival, are their current ones, buoyed by its best-ever players.
In the 11 men’s World Series seasons spanning 1999/2000 through 2011/2012, the Eagles played in 63 World Series tournaments, never winning one, reaching just one final, three semifinals and four quarterfinals. In the 12 seasons and 51 tournaments since, they’ve claimed three tournament titles, appeared in eight finals, 25 semifinals and 51 quarterfinals. In other words, 100 percent of their tournament titles, 90 percent of their final and semifinal appearances and 82 percent of their all-time quarterfinal appearances have been earned since 2012.
G.O.A.T.s: Barrett, Niua and Baker
The G.O.A.T. candidates lifting these trophies go by the names of Danny Barrett, Folau Niua and Perry Baker, all of whom played in Premier Rugby Sevens’ Inaugural Championship in October, Baker leading the Experts to the title. On their talents, the Eagles ascended from participant to contender on the world stage, earning back-to-back Olympic berths.
Barrett, having moved onto the 15s game for now, goes down in the history books as the USA’s best 7s forward of all time. His bruising runs and intimidating presence on the field was a game-changer for the national team. As was the quarterbacking and lethal kicking of Niua. Having picked up the game as an adult in East Palo Alto, Niua developed his skills on the sandlot to become the world’s best restart taker. If there’s a forward pass in 7s, it’s the kickoff and Niua is Tom Brady.
That makes Perry Baker Randy Moss. Or Jerry Rice, arguably. After a short career in Arena Football, Baker debuted for the 7s national team in 2014. In his second season, he finished second in the world in tries and was named to the World Series Dream Team. The following year, he led the world in tries and was named World Rugby Player of the Year, an accolade he repeated in 2018.
G.O.A.T.s: Kelter and Tapper
Unfortunately, the women have played far fewer competitions over the years. Most of the opportunities for players to distinguish themselves have come during the Olympic era, all but one of the Women’s 7s World Cups fitting in that time frame and the Women’s World Series not starting until 2012.
Though the women won bronze at the 2013 and 2017 World Cups, perhaps their best overall performance was that of the 2018-2019 World Series. Averaging less than two semifinal appearances through their first six seasons on the World Series, the Eagles didn’t miss the semifinals once in six tournaments during the ‘18/19 campaign, claiming their first-ever tournament title.
The two best players on that team were Loonie Alev Kelter, who is taking a break from the 7s national team to star for the first-place Saracens in the English Premiership, and Headliner Naya Tapper, who has taken over as the most-feared Eagle in Kelter’s absence.
Kelter held the undebatable statistical advantage as the USA’s all-time leading try and points scorer before shifting to 15s, but Tapper has since surpassed her in one category, becoming the first American woman to ever notch 100 international tries.
By Pat Clifton