RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Nate Ebner couldn’t really have set up more of a grandstand finish for the U.S. team at the Olympics.
The New England Patriots safety and special teams player, given special permission to play rugby sevens for the United States in Rio, ran almost half the length of the field with world champion Fijian players in pursuit and scored with a minute to go in the most crucial game of the pool stage.
The U.S. team needed to stay within four points of Fiji in the last group-stage game on Wednesday to advance to the quarterfinals at the expense of 12-time world series champion New Zealand.
At the moment Ebner scored, the difference was five points with a conversion to come — two crucial points that would have cut the difference to three.
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U.S. captain Maddison Hughes took the conversion attempt, wide on the right sideline, but couldn’t angle it between the uprights.
Seconds later, the Americans were out of contention with a 24-19 loss, and New Zealand got a backdoor pass into the quarterfinals at the expense of the United States.
“Honestly, Fiji closed me off so much the way they chase so hard, there were three of them, I had no-one to pass to, so I just put the ball down,” said Ebner, explaining why he scored in the corner and wasn’t able to touch down closer to the posts and make the kick easier for Hughes. “We had a minute left and I was confident for Maddy to kick it from anywhere on the field. He’s done it multiple times.”
Ebner said the Americans did everything they could against back-to-back world sevens series champions Fiji, and it was more disappointing that a last-minute loss to Argentina on the opening day had cost the team a spot in the playoffs.
“To just lose to the best team in the world, and a great team in Argentina like that, and to not be able to make the quarters — it’s heartbreaking,” he said. “But we’re going to finish this out strong. That’s all we can do.”
Ebner grew up playing rugby but switched to play football in college. The lure of the Olympics drew him back to rugby sevens, and he’s not disappointed with the experience.
“It’s been awesome. I wouldn’t have done anything differently,” he said. “I just wish we’d had a better day yesterday to put ourselves in a better position.
“Ultimately we gave everything we had to this — no regrets at all.”
Ebner was one of the standouts for the U.S. team which surprised many people with its speed and physical approach to the game.
Perry Baker scored in the second half against Fiji, a burst of speed that caught the defense off guard, and Carlin Isles scored three tries in the later classification match against Brazil, a 24-12 win.
The Fijians went on to edge New Zealand 12-7 in the quarterfinals and remain on course to win the country’s first ever Olympic medal. They’ll face Japan, the most surprising team at the tournament, in the semifinals.
The Japanese players say this Olympics will help them prepare for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. For Ebner, that’s too far away to think about.
After two more classification matches for 9th-12th matches on Thursday, he’ll switch gears again from being an Olympian to thinking about his day job.
“I’ll go back to camp and get into the NFL football season,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll be in better shape.”
He said he’d probably have to explain some of the finer points of rugby to his Patriots teammates who were following the Olympics closely, but thought the tournament was a good advertisement for rugby. The U.S. women placed fifth, holding the gold medal-winning Australians to a 12-12 tie in the group stage and having chances to beat silver medalist New Zealand before losing 5-0 in the quarterfinals.
“It’s been exciting to play,” he said of the extra exposure the Olympics brought to the game. “I can only imagine people who haven’t seen it, it’s got to be exciting to watch.”