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Team USA awakes from a long break to return to action this week in Kitakyushu, Japan. It’s the third of five stops on the World Series, and the Eagles currently sit in fifth place, just six points behind both Canada and Russia.

Awaiting them in Japan are France, New Zealand and the hosts. The Eagles are 0-1 against France this season, having lost 17-19 in pool play in Dubai. They’re 1-2 against New Zealand, and they’re 1-0 against Japan, having won 38-0 in Sydney.

While several World Series teams are fresh off the Commonwealth Games, the Eagles settled for a series of four scrimmages against Australia in Las Vegas last month. The USA took one from three, but feel improved.

“Just being able to play against one of the best teams in the world was a great opportunity for us, and just to review that film and learn from it was huge,” said captain Nicole Heavirland.

“Those four games that we played in Las Vegas gave us the opportunity to put different lineups on the field and see what was really effective for us.”

The on-field combinations are a big piece of the puzzle for the Eagles, as head coach Richie Walker is trying to hone in on his best teams. He’s a believer in matching up the right personnel for the right opponent, and this weekend he has three starkly different opponents.  

France likes to play in the outside channels and keep the ball alive. Japan likes to primarily play up the middle and is clinical in the breakdown. New Zealand can win in multiple ways.

Walker certainly has variety in choices. Height in Jordan Gray. Speed in Kristen Thomas and Naya Tapper, who are also really strong. The power of Hope Rogers. Alev Kelter has a sprinkle of all those good qualities, too. And then there are some of the smaller players, such as Heavirland, relied upon for skill and consistency.

“I decided to really go with what we have in American rugby, and not try and be like and Australia and not try and be like a New Zealand – use a combination of our 15s players inside our 7s players,” said Walker. “Like, nobody does quite what we do the way we use Hope. No one does what we do the way we use Jordan.”

Rogers, specifically, is unique. It is incredibly rare for a 15s prop to play international 7s. But Rogers does, and she usually soaks up numerous defenders with ball in hand. For Heavirland, who usually distributes the ball, Rogers is a welcome change-up.

“It’s super exciting to have all these different athletes on the team. I believe we have the best athletes in the world on our team,” said the captain.

“It’s exciting we’re not just athletes who can run, who are fast. We have someone like Hope who’s powerful, and you want to use it to your advantage. We’re not asking her to get fast, we’re not asking her to be a Naya Tapper. We’re asking her to do what she does.”  

As Walker figures out the right ingredients for the right dishes, he sometimes misses. New Zealand is a team that’s been tough for the Eagles to find the right combinations for. Either they get it right and win a close game, or they get it wrong and get routed.

“We’ve proved we can beat those big nations if we use our game plans right, and as we’ve gone through the series, we’re figuring out, we tried this game plan and that didn’t work, or we tried this game plan and that did,” said Walker.

 “When we start quick against New Zealand, the motivation gets there and the adrenaline starts to get going, and we get that extra step. When we start slow or the energy’s off before we even get on the field because it is New Zealand, sometimes that can work against us, and that is something that I need to control – make sure their energy levels right before they’re going out there, and make sure I give them the right tools when they go out there to make sure that we do start strong.”

The Eagles will have one game under their belt before running up against New Zealand, as they open against France and finish against Japan.