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Team USA backed up a second-place finish in Sydney with a fourth-place performance in Las Vegas Saturday. The 14 points the Eagles take away from Sin City sees them to sixth in the season standings. Replace the 11th-place showing in the season opener in Dubai, and they’d be much higher.
The quest for the cup in Vegas ended in the semifinals against New Zealand. The Eagles went stride for stride with the Black Ferns and even had a shot to win the game at the death. They lost some players to injury in that contest and throughout the tournament, hobbling through a blowout loss to Canada in the bronze medal match.
So all things considered, the team is walking, and in some cases limping, away with a positive outlook.
“Since Dubai, since the Olympics, we’re always growing and getting better,” flyhalf Ryan Carlyle said.
“We obviously didn’t finish as well as we did in Sydney, but I think we still had a lot of growth,” added Naya Tapper, who was named to the tournament’s dream team. “We were missing things this tournament that we had last tournament, but we adjusted to those and we still pushed through to the quarterfinals to get to the semifinals. I’m very proud of that.”
Also making the dream team from Team USA was Alev Kelter, who was similarly pleased with the weekend. “We used every single person and we had a top four finish, which is always our goal,” she added, “but, we want to be higher than that. We will work next tournament to get to that place... I’m really proud of every single person and my teammates for backing me and just being an amazing team.”
In the five-year history of the World Rugby Women’s Sevens, the USA has made consecutive semifinals just three times, and never so early in the season. So there’s reason for optimism. Another is the emergence of Tapper, which coupled with the return of Kristen Thomas from injury, gives coach Richie Walker two legitimate burners to work with. He’s taken to playing them at the same time, as he did in Las Vegas.
“It takes a little pressure off me when you are kind of thought of as the only one who can score or run the long runs,” said Tapper of having Thomas on the field with her. “It helps me a lot to know that if I got jammed on one side, I know Kristen will score on the other side.”
That plan played out several times on the weekend, and for the first time ever, in front of tens of thousands of fans on home soil. The USA has hosted a stop on the Women’s series since its inception in 2012/2013, first in Houston and then in Atlanta. But the Eagles were always playing in a cavernous stadium with significantly more empty seats than filled ones.
This year marked the first time the women’s tournament was held in conjunction with the men’s competition, and the result was a fervent atmosphere, especially on Saturday, when there were upwards of 35,000 fans watching the cup semifinals and medal matches.
“I absolutely love the stops with the men. We need the men to grow our game. If people come out to see the men and just so happen to come across a women’s game and are just as excited and just as impressed, things like that are going to help us grow,” said Carlyle, who made her debut with Team USA in 2011, before the advent of the women's series, and has seen the circuit morph and grow over the years.
“Being in the stadium with the men this year is massive for us. I think we opened a lot of eyes for people in the crowd, and even just walking through Vegas, they’re like, ‘Whoa, the women are playing too?’ Those are the kinds of moments I think are going to get the game further in America.”