Third for the Season, Second in France ... And Now?
Third for the Season, Second in France ... And Now?
If we learned one thing this weekend in international women’s 7s, it’s that the USA is good enough to win an Olympic Gold Medal.
Don’t get us wrong, that prospect is still difficult to get, and the Eagles didn’t win in Toulouse, they came second, but despite playing without star Ilona Maher, the Americans played some of their best team rugby and had New Zealand on … OK well maybe not on the ropes plural, but on one rope anyway.
The theme of pool play was the emergence of a more confident and aggressive Alena Olsen. The USA halfback was taking the attack to the opposition and that was seen in the first try of the tournament—Olsen cut through with confidence and switched nicely with Naya Tapper.
Olsen then ran weak off a scrum and put a perfectly-times pass off to Lauren Doyle for the USA’s second. Overall, the Eagles dominated a good Canada side, and even as the Canadians scored twice late, the margin was too big for them.
Against New Zealand in the second pool game the USA were tied 12-12 at halftime. They scored a nicely-taken try off a restart when Cheta Emba offloaded to Spiff Sedrick, who went in from long range. Olsen then ran off the back of the scrum and sold a somewhat outrageous dummy and was through.
Yes, New Zealand rolled in the second half, but the Eagles didn’t seem intimidated at all.
The USA finished off a with a predictably dominant showing against Poland.
Actually, the Poles held onto the ball for quite a while and seemed to think they could do that forever. But an ill-advised grubber bounced off Emba’s foot and she gathered before sky-hooking to Sam Sullivan, and the West Point grad was off.
Kayla Cannet faked to Sedrick off a scrum but then Sedrick cut inside to take the pass anyway and was through. This was the sort of play the USA had not been showcasing early in the season. They can do this kind of misdirection stuff and it works.
Emba won the restart and set up Alev Kelter, and then Emba was at the end of a long sequence and it was 26-0 at halftime. A slower second half saw Steph Rovetti over but the USA was always in control.
Team defense and team attack work put the USA past Fiji. When the space wasn’t there the Eagles wisely brought it back to their support, and Tapper did that twice rather than force the issue. The result was Cannet setting up Sullivan for a well-taken try.
Fiji then bobbled the restart and when pressure from Tapper forced a drop Kelter was there one-on-one and from short range she’s hard to stop.
Fiji responded, scoring a try in which Cannet was blindsided off the ball. But after that the Eagles sent Emba through the middle hard and she set up Kris Thomas.
That made it 15-5 at halftime and Tapper and Doyle combined to make it 22-5 before Fiji started to creep back. Not perfect, but somehow they got out of it and kicked to touch to end the game.
So that set up a semifinal against Australia, and certainly in this game the Eagles had the run of play. They weren’t able to run in a lot of tries, but they forced the Aussies into mistakes and certainly got under their skin.
Good continuity, hard work from Olsen, and a nice charge from Sedrick set up Kirshe going through the middle. That was the scoring for the first half as both sides did silly things to kill their chances—notably Sedrick doing a bit of an Alabama dipsy-doodle while Emba was in front of her, getting an obstruction call for her efforts.
The second half was much the same as the first, but then when the Aussies took a quick lineout Olsen was guilty of tackling high. The Americans were not prepared for a quick tap and a nice switch move send Madison Levy all the way. Conversion good and Australia led 7-5.
The Aussies looked for all the world like they would score again, but a forward pass and some dogged and unflinching USA defense kept them out.
And then, with time ticking away the Americans got a scrum six meters from their own line. They worked it slowly back and forth before Tapper handed Faith Nathan off and into the ground. The path opened up and she was gone for 80 meters with the game-winner.
For the second time this season the Eagles were in the Cup Final.
And it seemed that maybe, just maybe, they might be raising that cup. With New Zealand quickly shorthanded due to a deliberate knock-on, this newly-more-confident USA team took advantage quickly. They scored two tries while up a play—Tapper just curved around and through for one. And then after a long sequence of phases that saw them retain the ball but go backwards, Kirshe dummied and saw a gap in front and off she went.
Believe it or not, it was 14-0. But a yellow card and some fortunate calls (New Zealand was consistently offside and avoided a fairly clear high-tackle call), the Black Ferns scored three, taking the last on a tap move, and won it 19-14.
But they were right there. Perhaps a little luck and they could have won it. This is in stark contrast to earlier in the season, when the Eagles were the third best team in the world, true, but a very distant third.
Several players have stepped up their game. We mention Olsen, and she certainly seems more in command now. Emba was the Emba we’re used to seeing—combative, multi-skilled, hardworking. Tapper seems to have more of a spring in her step, too. Teams are pretty circumspect about injuries these days but it did seem like Tapper wasn’t 100% earlier. This weekend she was energized.
All of this is to say that what was the makings of an Olympic medal team has become a team where Gold is still a reach, but a reach they could grasp. If you add Maher to this mix; if the trajectory continues; if someone calls New Zealand for offside once in a while; if the defense keeps going … if, if, if, but they are not unreasonable ifs. This is a team that could do something in France 2024.