Catch me if you can
December 23, 2012
Find out what makes USA 7s sensation Carlin Isles tick%]
"I've never seen anyone that quick on a rugby field ever ever, XVs or Sevens. I don't think anyone else has either." - Nigel Starmer-Smith
There has been a long-standing debate in rugby circles concerning just who the quickest player in the world is. That question now has an indisputable answer.
While it has not attracted as many hits as Gangnam Style, you have probably seen the video of a certain USA Sevens team member in action - to date 2,233,684 have. Carlin Isles has only been playing rugby for about four months but he has already propelled himself into the public eye. And he is adamant that he can "get faster, bigger and stronger" - a worrying statement for the rest of rugby when he is already comfortably the quickest player tearing up the world stage, a stage which could have been at the Olympics had fate taken a different path.
If you hark back six months then he was focused on London 2012. The 23-year-old was preparing for the Olympic trials in the 100metres. His personal best of 10.13sec would have been enough to get him into the semi-finals of the Games but instead he surrendered any hope he had of running out in the Olympic Stadium to focus on rugby.
The impact has been immediate and rapid. He first ran out onto the field for the USA development side in the Victoria 7s tournament in Atlantis back in July. The Sevens crowd immediately embraced him as one of the new stars of the sport with Isles' pace unmatched in the short-form of the game. It has been a quick learning curve for Isles, but it is one that he is relishing after his first chance encounter with rugby.
"I was getting ready for the Olympic trials and I was on the computer watching and studying other running techniques," Isles told ESPN. "Then I clicked on rugby, it just popped up. I started watching more and more videos and I thought 'Yep, I'll be pretty good at that'.
"I had heard of XVs but did not know much about Sevens but once I had watched the videos, I knew it was for me. So then I hit up Nigel Melville (CEO of USA Rugby) - I emailed him and I did not expect a response. I was getting ready for the Olympics but then I got a phone call the next morning and I was really surprised. I had a chat with him and he called Alex Magleby (USA Sevens head coach) and four days later I went off to Colorado to train there. I then got invited to play on the US development tour to Canada and I tore it up there so I managed to get into the USA team."
And one thing that is certain with Isles, is that he is not short of confidence. He had toyed with the idea of going into NFL - he seems built to be a wide receiver and was scouted during College. "My skills are good, so it would be no problem" was his answer when questioned about whether he would have been a success in the American sport. And when asked about how far he would have gone in the 2012 Olympics, you get a similarly bullish response.
"I'd have at least made it to the semi-final or maybe the final. My best bet would have been the 2016 Olympics as I'm still young and still new to track and field so I would have peaked at 26. But the goal is now to go to those Olympics with the USA team."
While learning a new sport is hard enough, Isles also had to adapt his training pattern. He was used to track-orientated work and also breaks in-between sprints. Rugby training is an altogether different entity. "We barely rest, I'll tell you that much" is how he sums up the whole process and he continues: "It's pretty tough, there is a lot of running.
"I knew the concept of it but I did not know how I'd fit in. But my intentions are to be the fastest rugby player in the world and one of the greatest. I had vision and thought 'you know what I'm going to do it'."
And it is hard to doubt him. Isles sought council of US Eagles speedster Taku Ngwenya, along with Eagles back-row Todd Clever, when he first embarked on his rugby adventure and there are immediate comparisons with the Biarritz winger who is also blessed with electric pace. Ngwenya told Isles "man you're the fastest rugby player in the world" but with that sort of status, comes pressure.
There is no doubt that Isles is now a marked man on the Sevens circuit. Such is sport's propensity with 'tall poppy-syndrome', there will be a host of critics and potentially players, who want to put this new sensation back in his place. But Isles is not concerned by this.
Carlin Isles tries to evade the Portuguese defender while turning out in South Africa © IRB
"It is part of the learning process and it motivates me. I know that opponents will try and catch me and pummel me but I have other weapons. My coach and team-mates are there for me and I will get bigger, get faster and get stronger. People still have to catch me and if they have seen my speed before, that is only going to get quicker. I also have a step and I have more steps that people haven't yet seen.
"I can plant off the right and then go left, I can make you stop and as soon as you stop I can go right past you. I can quick right between you, pick it up and run - I can also kick deep and chase. I can spin off you and I have also got a pirouette so there is a lot yet to be used."
The rugby world is yet to see the Isles' steps that he has in his locker, but it has witnessed him scoring tries on the HSBC Sevens World Series stage. The series was first exposed to Isles in fifth match of the Gold Coast Sevens - the first meeting of the season. Isles was introduced as a second-half substitute in the USA's match with New Zealand and 46 seconds later he had his first try. And when you talk to Isles about that moment, his whole persona lights up.
"Oh man it was amazing. When I got my first try it was great - the crowd was big and making lots of noise. The stadium was bouncing and I thought 'yeah I could get used to this'."
There is no doubting that Isles still has a long way to go. He should be wary of being a one-hit wonder, he has now got the following, but with that comes the pressure to living up to expectation. But if his confidence manifests itself into form, then rugby may well have seen the birth of a new star. He admits that playing in XVs, like his hero Ngwenya, is an attractive option, but first he has to prove himself on the Sevens stage.
The current IRB Sevens Series is in its infancy, we are only three tournaments into the season, and so is Isles. But if Isles continues in a similar vein to how he has started, then there is no doubting that while he missed out on the 2012 London Games, he could be one of the stars of Rio 2016 when rugby takes centre stage.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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