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BY JACKIE FINLAN
ALL PHOTOS: ALEX HO / HOIHO.NET
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED OCT 7, 2019
The USA Women 7s team ended the 2018-19 HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series with a gold medal performance in Paris, and then started the current circuit by winning the opening leg in Glendale, Colo. The Eagles certainly carried momentum from France to Colorado, but as USA 7s head coach Chris Brown explains, this year is a new chapter for the Americans.
“It is, for the growth of the team long term,” Brown said of the defeat being a blessing in disguise. “We learned a lot about that [Saturday] night. We spent 25 minutes just reflecting on what we felt we could have done differently or what possible thoughts took us away from the goal rather than toward the goal. I think we learned a lot from that moment and I think we learned a lot over this weekend. There’s a memory to anchor to, or to hold to, that we can reflect back [on], and it’ll be very, very clear to us.”
Canada finished second to Australia in Pool C, setting up a North American quarterfinal on day two. The game was back-and-forth (read more), and with less than a minute remaining, Canada looked to have won the game when Karen Paquin broke free for a lead-changing try and Breanne Nicholas conversion: 26-22. There was time for a restart – and that’s all it took, as Cheta Emba snatched the ball out of the air and beat pursuers to the try line for the game-ending score.
The Americans’ reward was New Zealand in the Cup semifinals. The two met each other in last year’s title match, and the Black Ferns won the season’s first trophy by 26 points. That tournament was Brown’s first outing as head coach, and it served as a launching point. On Sunday, the USA flustered New Zealand, forced them into uncharacteristic errors, and took advantage. Read more. The Eagles led 19-12 with no time on the clock, and the Kiwis added a final try to draw within two. Kelly Brazier’s conversion was well off, and the USA took its 19-17 win to the final.
The Eagles trailed in both the quarterfinal and semifinal, and Brown explained that those come-from-behind efforts were reflective of the change that occurred after day-one reflection.
“It is [reflective] 100% because the only way that we were going to be in those games was if we allowed ourselves to be very clear on what we needed to do and come back to the process in the sense of [being] right there in the moment,” Brown said. “Otherwise we wouldn’t have been in those games and had those opportunities. That was a big part of [Saturday] night.”
Australia awaited in the final, but the Americans never trailed in this one. Read more. The Eagles scored first and the Aussies tied it up, and then Player of the Final Ilona Maher put the home side ahead for good before the break, 12-7. Nicole Heavirland finished off another two tries in the second half for the 26-7 final and tournament win.
“I think we saw a relentlessness in these girls in this final one,” Brown said. “They were clear in what they needed to do. They got flustered at times in that first half but they responded really, really well. And that’s the ultimate goal. They’re not going to be perfect. The way the human mind works, there’s always going to be diversity and challenges that come. It’s how quickly can you recognize it and get yourself back into the present moment.”
Brown attributed the more comfortable win to fewer moments of distraction and the team’s ability to consistently stay in the process.
“It’s a new chapter,” the coach placed the Glendale win. “There’s new players in our squad, there’s new staff in our squad. We achieved a lot of milestones last year, a lot of progression, and we’re building off that, but this is a new chapter for, in some ways, a new team. And we’re excited to keep growing. We’ve got to know that every time we step onto this pitch, wherever we are in the world, the intent and the effort can’t be compromised because it’s such a tough mental game.”
There are actually 24 players at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center, and Eti Haungatau was the newcomer who earned her first 7s cap in Colorado. Kasey McCravey and Stephanie Rovetti are capped 7s players, but relatively young in the program.
“Eti, Kasey, Steph – the way that they carried themselves was outstanding over the weekend, because they didn’t get as many moments as the other girls, but what they did do was complement the group really, really well,” Brown said. “They all got opportunities in the first two games and then Eti got four minutes in the final, which I think is a great exposure opportunity for her to find comfort and belief in her ability against the current Olympic champions.”
Brown credited the work of the “home team,” or the non-traveling players back in southern California, whose attitude and application are integral to the Eagle cause. Looking toward the rest of the series, rosters will have a dual purpose of spreading international experience and building toward the Olympics.
“For us, we want we want to be in a position in February-March where we’ve got 16-17 players that we’re comfortable taking on and putting on at any moment,” Brown said. “So that is part of the goal this year but … we want to keep the momentum rolling. So we will be, for the better part, trying to choose a stronger squad with slight rotations where we need to to make sure we get slight exposure across the 15-16 players.”
There will be a couple of additional opportunities through the USA Falcons or invitationals to get more exposure, but Brown put those run-outs in perspective, indicating that nothing can replicate the emotional rollercoaster of the 7s series.
“We’ll have four times a season where we’ll bring in teams and/or a men’s side to play non-contact, but a faster-paced game to make ensure that we don’t get stale training against ourselves. There’s different stimuluses,” Brown added.
There’s been different stimulus in the coaching staff as well. Warren Abrahams from South Africa joined as an assistant coach in August, and S&C coach Matt Long became full-time back in February.
“From a coaching and detail standpoint, and from a performance standpoint in the sense of the intensity and the speed at which we can play, and the physicality – they’ve only complemented what we’ve been doing since the start of August last year,” Brown said. “As I said, it’s a new chapter with those people involved. The problem-solving, the adaptability, the game understanding have gone to a new level in the last six weeks. … [W]ith Warren there and Matt, and getting the maximum performance – they’re a lot sharper than me in those aspects so it’s the complement that you need to make sure these girls have got the best chance to keep growing as they need to.”
The 7s circuit resumes in two months in Dubai, and the Eagles will head to there as the number-one seed.