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Ian Muir photo

It’s been 14 months since they’ve taken the field. With a new coach and 13 debutants in the lineup, the Eagles being a new era Saturday against the defending world champion New Zealand. The same Black Ferns team that bounced the USA from the 2017 World Cup 45-12 in the semifinals.

“They’re one of my favorite teams to go against. They’re the true epitome of heart on the field, best friends off the field,” said captain Kate Zackary, who will man the openside for the USA, of the Black Ferns.

“While we may have had a tough loss to them at the World Cup, this is a great opportunity just to have another shot at the title. That’s kind of been our theme all this week. They’re currently the reigning champs, and this is our chance to show everyone what we’ve been working on since the World Cup.”

The work hasn’t been constant for the team, as it took nine months after the RWC for USA Rugby to replace outgoing head coach Pete Steinberg, who ran the program for seven years. That search led to Rob Cain, an Englishman who coached women’s HP general manager Emilie Bydwell at Saracens.

His hire was announced in May, and he’s logged thousands of miles crisscrossing the country to work with and meet the community. In that time, he’s gotten to know the player pool. So well, in fact, that he’s confident starting six players seeking their first caps against the Black Ferns – tighthead Azniv Nalbandian, blindside flanker Rachel Johnson, scrumhalf Carly Waters, flyhalf Gabriella Cantorna, wing Kaitlyn Broughton, and outside center Emily Henrich.

“The players have sorted out selection. They’ve made our job really easy, because they’re the ones that are in form,” said Cain.

“They’re the ones who have really put the hand up and we’ve had to take notice. We’re going to reward players who have been playing really good rugby, sensible rugby, aggressive rugby, and they’re the people we’ve brought into the squad.”

There are another seven test-level rookies on the bench, too. Almost all of them have emerged directly from the collegiate ranks. With the tally of official NCAA varsity programs up to 17, not including professionally run programs like Penn State, Life and Lindenwood, who exist outside the NCAA’s auspices, the inclusion of so many recent collegians signals a sharp rise in standard.

“While they may be young, they’ve hit the ground running. Most of the have now been participating in some form of an age grade program, and a lot of our collegiate programs are focusing more on the high-performance aspect versus the club rugby aspect,” said Zackary.

“That’s, I think, prepared them a lot for this, so it’s less of a big jump. While it may be the international level, they fit into the high-performance realm very well. They’re young, they’re eager to learn, they listen to everything we have to say, but they also bring their own bit of flare.”

Given this is the first test not only for most of the match-day 23, but also the head coach, Cain has tried to download at a careful pace.

“I think, obviously, we’re all going through a new experience, myself included. We’ve all come in in the week. Everyone’s a bit nervous; experienced players as well,” said Cain.

“We’ve got a lot of detail to cram in in a short space of time and we’ve just really followed the rule less is more. Were here to enjoy the start of this new adventure. We’re left to take off where the last regime left us, but that was the end of their journey, really, and this is the start of our journey.”

The journey starts on a big stage. Not only are the new-look Eagles playing the best in the world in their debut, they’re doing it on a big stage. With 61,500-seat Soldier Field the backdrop and two more international tests to follow, Saturday’s game may well be the best-attended women’s test ever in America. The occasion isn’t lost on Cain.

“There’s going to be a lot of emotion tomorrow, as there quite rightly [should] be, playing for your country,” he said.

“With us playing more test matches over the next three years, we’re trying to allow them to never lose the emotion, but just learns to control it, so it becomes more of a habit, more of a nature rather than a big event.”