The next two weeks represent a huge opportunity for women’s rugby in America. Tomorrow, the U.S.A Women’s Eagles take on France in a highly anticipated match-up that will be webstreamed and available later on Universal Sports. Next week, the U.S.A. Women’s 7’s team will be in Dubai for the first event of the inaugural IRB Women Sevens World Series. These events are massive for fans in America because they will be one of the few times that these teams will not only be playing, but will be available on television.
You may be asking yourself, why does it matter? Simply, the U.S.A. women’s national rugby teams offer the best chance for the U.S. to win a Rugby World Cup and a Gold Medal and the players that will be on these teams over the next few weeks are the nucleus of that effort.
The U.S.A Women’s Eagles are currently on a three match tour of Europe. The first match of the tour saw them take on Italy. It was a tough match and despite having little time together, the Eagles prevailed 34-20. The team then travelled to France for two matches agains that country. The first match was played last Wednesday where the Eagles lost 13-0 to an inexperienced French team. It was an unexpected result and something the team will hope to improve upon as the two play tomorrow as the curtain raiser to the France-Samoa men’s match at the Stade de France.
One of the difficulties facing U.S. national teams, especially the women’s teams, is the fact that only a handful of players are paid to play rugby, and none of those are XV’s specialists. Only two of the players on the 30-man roster are paid to play rugby full-time, and those players are members of the U.S.A. 7’s team residency program. That means that these players have to work extra hard to fit in rugby around their full-time jobs.
As such, the U.S. has difficulty holding regular test matches against other nations. The last time this team was together in 2011 where they played four matches. Coupled with the three matches they will be playing this year, they team has played seven matches in two years, that is not enough for any kind of side to come together and play well. Head coach Pete Steinberg has attempted to fix this situation by holding regional camps around the country, as well as hosting one big assembly a year in which the players are divided into teams to play a miniature tournament. This has not only allowed the players to gain significant experience against their piers, but it allows Steinberg an excellent opportunity to scout players.
Still, the heart of the overcoming time and financial difficulties has been the dedication of the players themselves and the teams they play for. The Women’s Premier League, an eight-team competition that brings together some of the best women’s players in the country. Running the competition isn’t cheap and it takes a lot of financial and time dedication from players and administrators to make it happen.
Despite all these difficulties, the women’s team can be looked at as legitimate contender for the World Cup in 2014. The U.S. has had some success at the tournament, winning the competition in 1991 (before it was an official IRB World Cup), and finishing as runners-up in 1994 and 1998. Since then the rest of the world has caught up to the U.S., including New Zealand, who have won the tournament the last four times. That being said, the parity in the women’s game is much closer than in the men’s game and with resources and effort, gaps can quickly be overcome. For the U.S., it’s about continue to trend in the right direction with increased participation and increased funding for national teams and the Women’s Premier League. Things are definitely in a positive position right now in the U.S. and it simply needs to continue for the U.S. to get to the top once again.
That is where tomorrow’s test match against France becomes so important. For the first time in year’s the women’s team will be available on television in the U.S. for fans to support. If the team plays well and entertains, it could attract even more fans and resources to the team. As such, it’s important for fans to tune into the match (9:00 a.m. et/6:00 a.m. pt). France is a tough opponent. They finished fourth in the last World Cup and finished runners-up to England in the latest Six Nations. The team has steadily been improving over the years and holds a 2-1-1 record against the U.S. all-time. The fact that France ran out an inexperience team last win and won 13-0 shows just how dangerous they can be. However, the U.S. are skilled themselves with players like Katie Daley, Amy Daniels, and Sadie Anderson. The U.S. is physical team that has the ability to push their opponents around. Their scrum is fairly strong and they have speedsters on the wing. If they are able to push the tempo, it could be a strong game for them.
The women’s 7’s team is one of the only professional women’s teams in the world. With rugby 7’s inclusion in the 2016 Olympics, the US Olympic Committee and U.S.A. Rugby have made an effort to gather the best women players together in a residency program. As such, several players have been signed to contracts that have them live and train at the Chula Vista olympic complex in Souther California. This is an advantage that few women’s teams in the world enjoy. While the residency is still relatively new, the team has seen improvements in their play. Last year they were second in the Amsterdam 7’s and this year they won a tournament in China.
That improvement is coming at the right time as the inaugural season of the IRB Women Sevens World Series begins in Dubai next week. For years their had been women’s 7’s events around the world but none involved a consistent group of teams and a regular schedule. However, with the new Series that has changed. The U.S., along with Canada, the Netherlands, England, France, Australia, and New Zealand will comprise the core teams of this new competition. These teams will be joined by six regional teams to play in four tournaments in Dubai, Houston, Guangzhou, and Amsterdam. With regular events scheduled, including the Las Vegas Invitational which the U.S. always participates in, as well as residency, the team is poised to make a push for a medal at the 2016 Olympics. Winning a medal is a legitimate possibility and they could be the America’s best hope for retaining Olympic gold in the sport.
The 7’s team is led by a young core of players that have time to develop and grow together, along with a few veterans for leadership. Bui Baravilala is a legitimate star in a few years could be the best women’s player in the world. Players like Katie Dowty, Kelly Griffin, and Vanesha McGee are also strong. Deven Owsiany is another young player that could become one of the best in the world.
The tournament in Dubai represents the beginning of the medal quest for the team. In addition to the four stops of the Series this year, the team will also take part in the Women’s World Cup next summer in Moscow. A win in that tournament could lay down a marker to the rest of the world, but it all begins with a good start in Dubai.
Women’s 7’s team for Dubai: Bui Baravilala, Emilie Bydwell, Katie Dowty, Lauren Doyle, Vix Folayan, Kelly Griffin, Nathalie Marchino, Teena Mastrangelo, Vanesha McGee, Deven Owsiany, Jill Potter, and Christy Ringgenberg.
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