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The women’s 7s team stumbled to a disappointing seventh-place finish a couple of weeks ago in Dubai, the opening tournament of the Olympic-qualifying season. The Eagles beat Russia twice and China once, but fell to Fiji, New Zealand and Canada. The Fiji and New Zealand games were close, but the 36-0 drubbing at the hands of Canada was embarrassing.
There are still five tournaments left, and plenty of time for the team to climb a few spots in the standings and qualify for Rio, but there should be a sense of urgency within the program. From the outside-in, there are lots of potential factors pointing to the results in Dubai, but most glaring is the team’s lack of competition.
Thanks to the generosity of Serevi founder Chris Prentice, a team close to that which competed in Dubai played at the Coral Coast 7s in Fiji leading up to the start of the Series. The Eagles also hosted Brazil at the Olympic Training Center for a round of scrimmages in August. Outside of that, they hadn’t played any real competition since Amsterdam in May.
So, at the tail end of a season where head coach Ric Suggitt openly blooded a carousel of new players, including many who had never played rugby before and are now being depended on heavily during Olympic qualification, the Eagles went essentially dormant for the better part of seven months. They trained at the OTC, but they weren’t getting live game action.
While the men have in the neighborhood of a 50/50 shot to qualify for the Olympics, the women are expected to be a shoe-in, and evidenced by their third-place finish at the 2013 7s World Cup, they have the capability of medaling.
From that 2013 World Cup team, only a few players remain in the system. And the new ones need more game time to improve. Given how little the Eagles played between the end of a seventh-place season and the beginning of the current one, it’s no wonder they finished seventh in Dubai.
Competing for a medal in Rio is crucial to the growth of American rugby. Winning, and medaling, draws media attention – transformative media attention. American rugby needs the women to perform, and underachieving because of a weak schedule is unacceptable.
Certainly, funding is at the base of the issue. (Good thing we took money from the senior national teams this year for a costly, unsuccessful trip to the Youth Olympics in August). But it’s not everything. Why did USA Rugby not have any women’s teams at the Las Vegas Invitational last year? Why aren’t they sending any this year? It’s good enough for Canada (third in Dubai), France (fourth) and Japan, but not worth a five-hour drive from the OTC?
Another missing link in the women’s game is high-performance touring paid for by someone other than USA Rugby. Between Tiger, the Northeast ODA, Serevi and World Club 7s, there are top-notch playing opportunities for Eagles and Eagle hopefuls throughout the year – Martin Iosefo plays with Tiger in Australia in October, and by December he’s making his Eagle debut. Prior to the last few months, with Tiger branching out into the women's game, Serevi setting up a women's-specific institute and the burgeoning of the American Rugby Pro Training Center, there haven’t been those kinds of opportunities for women. And the domestic women's 7s club game is, frankly, of a low standard.
The Eagles are hosting Ireland for a round of scrimmages next month, and that’s a step in the right direction. But the bottom line is, they need to play more against real competition.