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What an incredible three days that was. The hours, days and weeks of anticipation leading up to Saturday’s first kickoff seemed more like months, years and decades, but the games themselves zipped by at the speed of light. At the end of it, Team USA’s women finished 3-2-1 and in fifth place.
A medal was the goal, but the women who poured it on the line have to walk away with their heads high. Sure, the early game against Fiji was a letdown – the core skills weren’t there, the Eagles were turned over way too frequently in the tackle area, and the offense never got into a rhythm.
But they bounced back to slaughter Colombia. Then they played Australia, which had dominated the World Series and would go undefeated throughout the Olympics, to the wire. And they lost 5-0 to New Zealand, which has been proven the greatest team in the world over a larger sample size.
Man, Alev Kelter was fun to watch. Every time the American attack got too stale, there was Kelter dragging four defenders forward to jumpstart things again. Her combination of power, speed and skill is inspiring. Kathryn Johnson’s hit against Australia was big. Legal? Probably not, but it has drawn eyeballs to the sport in a positive light nonetheless. Jessica Javelet was fun to watch, as always. Richelle Stephens showed incredible poise in big moments for someone about to start her freshman year of college.
The way they lost to Australia and New Zealand was a big part of why we all feel good and should. But it’s also part of why we should have a sense of, ‘damn, we were close,’ as well. The Olympics are where winning counts the most. Yes, the women made us all proud. They played their asses off. But, as we’re all painfully aware, you don’t get a medal for that.
Against Australia, a crucial breakdown penalty went the wrong way, helping the gold medalists tie the game up. And that second try by Javelet wasn’t centered or converted when it should have been. If it were, the USA finishes second in the pool and is playing Great Britain in the quarterfinals instead of New Zealand. And if they played just as well in the hypothetical match-up as they did in the real one, they’re probably into the semifinals.
As it were, though, the Eagles drew New Zealand. And another unfavorable call went against them there. When Javelet kicked to open space and seemed away for the try, and a Kiwi tackled her late, it resulted in a yellow card and a penalty. It could just as easily have resulted in a penalty try and a point-blank conversion to put the USA on top, 7-5. Many would argue that’s what should have happened. But it didn’t.
Looking a little further at Javelet’s impact on the team, there’s another what-if worth considering, and this one’s self-inflicted. The Eagles failed to get much offense going in the whole tournament, except for when they were playing Colombia (The Tucanes were outscored 183-10 in Rio) and when Javelet was on the field.
Not counting the Colombia game, the Eagles scored eight combined tries the entire tournament. All of them were scored when Javelet was on the field, which means none of them were scored when she was on the bench. Still, Javelet didn’t start once in Rio. What if she played 14 minutes against Australia? What if she played 14 against New Zealand? What if Kelter, the team’s best player, was on the field in the second half against the All Blacks?
The previous two paragraphs may read as harsh criticism of head coach Richie Walker. That’s not untrue – the Olympics are where winning matters most. Remember, you don’t get a medal otherwise. But really, it’s a larger indictment. This team went through three coaches in the last 12 months. Walker wasn’t named head man until March, giving him just three tournaments to get his sea legs before the biggest competition in rugby history. What if USA Rugby’s big wigs got it right earlier and Walker had a longer time to mold his squad?
These what-ifs are not flowery, star-spangled, prideful bits. But they’re important bits, and when you lose twice by a frog’s hair in the Olympic Games, they should be magnified, studied and rehashed by those in power.
That said, they should not overshadow the competition as a whole. I personally, America, and the world now have a greater appreciation for the players, coaches and support staff that make up the team that finished fifth in the world and looked badass doing it. And that’s pretty awesome.