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Team USA’s women sit at second in the world after falling to Australia, 34-0, in the Dubai final back in December. It’s by far their best start to a season ever, and this weekend in Sydney the Eagles try to back it up with another big performance.
While Dubai ended well, it didn’t start that way. The Eagles snuck into the quarterfinals with a 1-2 pool record having lost big, 45-14, to New Zealand in the final match on day one. Then they upset the Black Ferns, 14-12, in the first game on day two, before dispatching Russia in the semifinals.
Considering the impact their performances against New Zealand had in Dubai, and that they face the Kiwis again in the Pool B finale in Sydney, you’d think there was some significant thought put into that particular team over the last several weeks. You’d be wrong.
“We actually didn’t really put a lot of stress on individual teams like that. We kind of just stick to our game plan no matter what, so when we talk about what went wrong or what went well it’s not necessarily versus who,” said Ryan Carlyle.
“We just try to fix from within, but New Zealand is one of those teams that kind of brings the best out of us as a nation. We get pretty pumped to play them. We love playing them. They play a style of play that we’re more familiar with, more comfortable with. It’s just they’re one of those teams that will expose your errors so it challenges us to really step up and clean it up.”
If the Eagles are to play cleanly this weekend, continuity could be pointed to as a contributing factor, as head coach Richie Walker picked a veteran side. Though Walker is entering his third calendar year as head coach, Sydney will mark just his 12th tournament at the helm.
The program endured a significant amount of coaching turnover prior to Rio 2016, and before that the late Ric Suggitt churned the player pool in search of more athletes. There’s no doubt he found some, and those players are now bonafide rugby experts now, on top of being excellent athletes. So the confluence of time together, experience and continuity appears to be going in the team’s favor these days.
“This is one of our first tours not having anyone getting their first cap. That’s always a bit comforting knowing that everyone here is familiar with what we’re doing, familiar with being on tour, familiar with playing on the international stage. It’s just one less thing to worry about as a player and as a teammate,” said Carlyle.
“Right off the bat we’re feeling pretty comfortable. I’ve been on this team since 2011, and a lot of the other girls are getting up to four, five years on the team, which is nice. We’re becoming way more friendly on and off the field. Makes it more comfortable – you’re out there playing with your friends, not just your teammates.
“The continuity is happening, and Richie is the guy making it happen. He’s all about team culture, so we’re just ready for whatever he puts in front of us.”
Leading into Sydney, one of the work-ons Walker put in front of his charges was improving their ability to retain ball during restarts.
“Our set pieces, specifically kickoffs, have been a massive work-on for us,” added Carlyle. “We have two of the best kickers in the world on our team, and we just want to take every one of those balls back to our side. We’re really focused on that, as well as ball retention off the set pieces, it’s going to be massive for us in this tournament.”
The Eagles kick off Thursday at 6:44 p.m. ET against England. Up next is Japan at 9:28 p.m. Then it’s New Zealand at 12:12 a.m. Friday. All matches will be streamed on The Rugby Channel.