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The Chris Brown era began with a bang over the weekend, as his Eagles won silver in the season opener in Glendale, Colo. The feat sets the team up with an unexpectedly good start to Olympic qualification.
It comes as a surprise because it was the team’s first-ever tournament under the rookie head coach. Brown took over for the jettisoned Richie Walker this summer, and while he has a track record of helping turnaround programs, a silver medal wasn’t expected in his debut.
The weekend didn’t start flawlessly. The Eagles opened with a 1-2 record Saturday, losses to New Zealand and England sandwiching a narrow victory over China.
Coming into the tournament, Brown’s biggest focus was defense. All weekend, he urged his team to make opponents work as hard as possible for every score. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. In their 35-12 pool win over the USA, the Black Ferns scored four first-half tries through 11 phases.
Sunday, the defense was markedly better, evidenced by a 26-5 walloping of Australia, winners of two of the last three World Series titles and defending Olympic gold medalists. The win was the Eagles’ sixth over Australia on the circuit.
The first three came during the inaugural women’s series in 2012/2013, and the next two during the 2014/2015 season, with the average margin of those victories being nine points. But since Australia emerged as a world power leading up to the Rio Olympics, the Eagles have been no match, getting shut out twice with an average margin of defeat of 21.
Sunday’s comprehensive 26-5 quarterfinal win is by far the most emphatic ever over Australia, followed up by a nail biter against France. While most of the talk has been about Alena Olsen’s game-winning try at the end, it was the USA’s defense that was most impressive.
Unlike against New Zealand in the pool finale, the Eagles made France work for its tries. The Black Ferns scored 28 points in their 11 first-half phases Saturday, and Les Bleus needed 11 first-half phases to muster a single try in Sunday’s semifinal.
Though the score line against New Zealand in the final (33-7) was similar to that of the pool loss (35-12), it’d be a mistake to chalk it up as a similar performance. In the final, the USA scored first, and they were an offload away from leading 14-7. They were 28 points in the hole before getting on the board in the pool loss.
Though defense was impressive against Australia and France, it took a step back in the final. The Eagles didn’t force New Zealand to play more than three phases in a single possession the entire first half. Three times the Black Ferns scored on first phase.
So while there are some indicators suggesting the Eagles have improved in their short time under Brown, it would be premature to conclude they’ve turned a corner. Sunday marked the fifth final in program history, including one in each of the last four seasons.
Last season, the Eagles opened with a silver medal in Dubai, followed by an eighth-place finish the next tournament. In 2016/2017, they lost to Canada in the Sydney final, but managed just one other semifinal appearance the rest of the season, finishing sixth. In 2014/2015, they lost to the Black Ferns in Atlanta and finished fifth.
If this team is to differentiate itself from its predecessors and finish in the top four for the first time since the inaugural World Series season, they’ll first need to back up their performance in Glendale with another solid showing in Dubai next month.
Really, though, if they’re to show marked, substantial improvement, they’ll have to avoid the bottom falling out at some point. Consistency has been the team’s kryptonite – last season, the team failed to make the quarterfinals as many times as they made the semis. In both ‘16/17 and ‘15/16, the Eagles managed to finish second-to-last in a tournament.
For Brown’s turnaround effort to be called a success and the team to punch its ticket to Tokyo with a top-four finish to the season, they need to contend consistently, avoiding major pitfalls they’ve dived head-first into in the past.