Perry Baker: US speed merchant ready to rip up San Francisco

Perry Baker: US speed merchant ready to rip up San Francisco
SINGAPORE - APRIL 28: Perry Baker of USA challenges Alex Davis of England during the 2018 Singapore Sevens Pool B match between USA and England at National Stadium on April 28, 2018 in Singapore. (Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)

Midway through a cup semifinal at the 2018 Las Vegas Sevens, Perry Baker found himself caught on his own try line with three Fijians hovering over him.

His USA Eagles side trailed by a try — get tackled, concede possession, and the game could be out of reach. But what happened next was rugby sevens history.

Baker evaded one tackle and then tried to run around another two; he stopped, stepped, started again, before putting foot to floor and letting his blistering speed do the rest. With Fijian defenders trailing in his wake, he scorched across the turf for one of the greatest tries the game has ever seen.

The home crowd roared, and suddenly the match turned. USA won 19-7 and went on to beat Argentina in the final to lift its second ever major sevens trophy.

Four months down the line, the USA will again play a tournament on home soil, but this time the stakes are even higher. The Sevens World Cup takes place in San Francisco from July 20-22, and the Eagles are eying glory after easing past Wales 35-0 with Baker bagging a brace.

“After we won Vegas, the first thing people started saying was, ‘Are you ready for the World Cup? You guys can win the World Cup,” Baker, who’s amassed 170 tries on the Sevens World Series circuit, tells CNN Sport. “It gave us a little bit of confidence that we can do this.

“I’m very excited and so are my teammates. It’s been a long time coming, the whole entire year was based around the World Cup. It’s finally here now. It’s exciting times for the sport itself, and getting to play on home soil for the second time in a year is great.”

Speed kings

The likes of South Africa and the Fiji are amongst the favorites to take the men’s title, but they’d be wise to keep an eye on the US.

Crowds of close to 100,000 are expected at the AT&T Park this weekend and most will be cheering for the Eagles. Lining up with Baker will be Carlin Isles, often considered the fastest man the sport has ever seen.

“If you look at our team across, we have pace pretty much across the board,” says Baker.

“You have teams that have speed — you have Rosko Specman [of South Africa], you have Luke Morgan [of Wales], you have guys with pace. But name another guy that can do that for those guys?

“If you have two guys that have pace and can possibly be on the field at the same time? Then it can be an advantage, having Carlin Isles and myself on the field at the same time.”

Which leads to the obvious question — who would win in a footrace?

“We’ve never raced but Carlin would get it,” laughs Baker. “Yeah, Carlin would win — I’m an old man.”

An old man perhaps in rugby sevens terms, but at 32 there’s still plenty of running left for Baker — there are more seasons on the World Series before build-up starts for the Olympics in 2020.

Considering he penned his first contract with the Eagles in 2014, what Baker’s achieved in the past four years is hardly believable.

The man known as “speedstick” is his country’s top try scorer for sevens. He bagged more tries, 57, than anyone else in the 2016-17 season, a feat that saw him crowned world’s best sevens player.

Learning the game

Having been released by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011, Baker came to rugby the hard way. After enrolling in the Tiger Academy in Columbus, Ohio, he juggled his sporting career with a range of jobs in urinalysis, pest control, and security for a sorority.

He’s always been fast, but using his speed on a rugby field would require something else.

“I needed to learn the game,” says Baker. “I couldn’t just get out there and think I could run around because I’m fast. I wanted to learn the game first.

“I was with Tiger academy for a year, but in that year I basically did rugby every day.

“An entire summer, every weekend we were out of town playing rugby. And once the season ended I went and played a little bit of fifteens. Then when it was snowing we were playing indoor touch.”

Athletes come to rugby sevens from a range of sporting backgrounds. Baker’s teammate Isles tried to make it in the NFL before narrowly missing out on the US Olympic track and field team for the 100 meters.

Jamaican sprinter Warren Weir, who won bronze at London 2012, has recently announced he’ll be treading a similar path and play sevens for the Reggae Crocs, the Caribbean island’s national team.

For such cross-code athletes, Baker’s advice is always the same.

“Go and learn the game first, and then go and work on the skills of the game,” he says. “Rugby is more than just having speed.”

Baker could be 36 by the time the next World Cup rolls around, and you wonder if this weekend in San Francisco will also be his last.

He plans to coach at the Serevi Sevens once the tournament is over, with hopes of one day taking a permanent place on the touchline after hanging up his boots.

His students — if they can keep up — will no doubt be learning from the best.