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New-look U.S. women’s rugby team on verge of Olympic qualification

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Four years ago, the U.S. women’s rugby team missed its first chance to qualify for the Rio Games by tiebreaker and was forced into an extra continental tournament to earn a place in the sport’s Olympic return.

The Americans are taking care of business early for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

They are ranked third in the world going into the penultimate World Series leg in Canada this weekend. It would be their best finish ever in the series’ seven-year history, after being fifth or sixth each of the last four years (and losing in the Rio Olympic quarterfinals).

The top four in this season’s standings — once it concludes in France next month — become the first Olympic qualifiers along with host Japan.

The U.S., the only nation to finish in the top four in all four legs thus far, will mathematically clinch an Olympic spot this weekend by finishing two places ahead of France, which it did in three of the first four legs.

“This is by far the best situation that the group has found themselves in,” first-year head coach Chris Brown said. “We are excited to hopefully achieve it this weekend, but we’ve also never won a tournament.”

It’s a new position for the program. One perhaps overshadowed by the U.S. men, who like the women were fifth or sixth the previous four years but currently lead their World Series standings.

The U.S. women have a new leader — Olympic coach Richie Walker resigned in August and was replaced by Brown, who had been an assistant for the men’s team. And a new roster. Only three of this season’s 12 primary players were on the Rio Olympic team (six of the U.S. men’s primary players are Olympians).

The oldest is 28. Four of the 12 players in Rio were in their 30s.

“We have the strike power, the playmakers in the middle, the distributors,” Brown said. “We should be building up these next 18 months to be in a space where there’s nothing inside of us to think it’s not highly possible that we’ll have a good opportunity [at an Olympic medal].”

The team does not have a single defining superstar, like Perry Baker for the U.S. men. None of its players rank in the top eight in the World Series in points or tries. Its most written-about player leading into Rio, stalwart and cancer survivor Jillion Potter, has retired.

“The team previously had a lot of strike power individually,” Brown said. “I’m asking them to play a little bit more collectively on the offensive side and playing for each other, rather than just giving the ball to this player or that player.”

The new nucleus is led by converts.

Scoring leader Alev Kelter failed to make the 2014 Winter Olympic hockey team, then switched to rugby after receiving an out-of-the-blue call while snowboarding from the late Ric Suggitt, former U.S. coach. Nicknamed “Chips,” she broke her front tooth at least three times before the Rio Games.

Naya Tapper, a 24-year-old, led the U.S. in tries the last two seasons. Tapper was a high school state championships 100m finalist sprinter before joining the University of North Carolina’s club rugby team.

Cheta Emba and Tapper are the only Americans to appear in all 24 matches this season. Emba played rugby and soccer at Harvard, where she was an all-Ivy League goalie and earned a bachelor’s degree in molecular and cellular biology.

Emba and Nicole Heavirland were the two traveling alternates for the Rio Olympic team. Heavirland has captained the U.S. at every World Series leg the last two seasons after playing in the 15-per-side game at the 2017 World Cup. She originally enlisted at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point as a guard for the basketball team before converting to rugby as a freshman.

“They want to be known as rugby players not individual athletes that are learning to playing this game,” Brown said.

The new coach emphasized two points in his first months in charge — shoring up the team’s self-belief and its defensive strength. He said defensive effectiveness is up 20 percent from last year.

The belief came, too.

It began at the first World Series leg. The Americans were on the verge of an embarrassing bottom-four finish at home in Glendale, Ariz., down 28-0 at the half in their last group match against New Zealand.

Two key, late tries made it a digestible 35-12 defeat. The Americans advanced by one point in the differential tiebreaker with Spain. Then they upset Olympic champion Australia, beating the Aussies for the first time since 2015, and finished second overall.

“They are confident,” Brown said. “There’s a belief they can do a job, make a statement and challenge for that championship.”

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Geraint Thomas cuts Julian Alaphilippe’s Tour de France lead

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FOIX, France (AP) — When one French rider starts to fade, another comes to the fore. One way or the other, France may still be on course for its first Tour de France winner since 1985.

Dancing over his saddle, his mouth wide open and gasping for air, Thibaut Pinot launched a ferocious attack Sunday and profited from the first signs of weakness in the high mountains from French race leader Julian Alaphilippe to edge closer to the yellow jersey in the overall standings.

Ascending the last uphill finish in the Pyrenees with a display of power and fluidity that signaled that he’ll also be a major contender to win the Tour, Pinot gained time on all his rivals for the second consecutive day following his triumph at the famed Tourmalet mountain in the previous stage.

Heading to the second and final rest day Monday ahead of what promises to be a climactic final week in the Alps, the race is exquisitely poised. Six riders are all within 2 minutes, 14 seconds of each other at the top of the standings.

The six terrible ascents above 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) in the Alps, peppered over three mountain stages, will likely decide who will stand on top of the podium on the Champs-Elysees next Sunday.

TOUR DE FRANCE: TV Schedule | Full Standings

“The high mountains have only just begun,” said Alaphilippe. “The Alps are going to be a big mouthful.”

Surging from the mist and rain, Pinot crossed the finish line of Sunday’s Stage 15 in second place, 33 seconds behind Simon Yates, who posted a second stage win after a long solo raid, three days after his first stage victory in the southwestern mountain range.

The 29-year-old Pinot was irresistible when he made his move seven kilometers from the summit. Only Emanuel Buchmann and defending champion Geraint Thomas’ teammate Egan Bernal could follow. But Pinot accelerated again about 2 kilometers later to drop them for good.

Pinot moved to fourth place overall, 1 minute, 50 seconds behind Alaphilippe.

“The weather conditions and the stage were good for me, I had good sensations, I needed to make the most of it,” said Pinot. “I need to keep going up in the general classification, the most difficult stages are looming.”

While Pinot was escorted by his faithful Groupama-FDJ teammate David Gaudu in the final ascent toward Prat d’Albis, Alaphilippe was isolated without a single teammate to help him in the 12-kilometer climb and cracked, yet managed to salvage his yellow jersey.

Alaphilippe was so exhausted after his effort up the hill, where he grimaced through the rain, that he had to grip a roadside barrier afterward while he caught his breath.

“If I crack I hope he’ll carry the torch for the French,” Alaphilippe said about Pinot.

Thomas, who had already conceded time to Pinot at the Tourmalet, remained second in the general classification. He got dropped when Pinot took the lead from a reduced group of contenders but did not panic. He rode at his pace until he accelerated with 1.5 kilometers left to cut the overall gap on Alaphilippe from 2 minutes, 2 seconds to 1:35. Steven Kruijswijk of the Netherlands stood third overall, 1:47 off the pace.

Thomas said after the stage he could have tried to follow Pinot earlier but instead opted for a conservative approach because he did not want to bring back Alaphilippe to the front. Bernal was with Pinot and the Welshman would not take the risk of chasing down their common rival. Bernal, a Colombian with excellent climbing skills, remains involved in the fight for the yellow jersey, 2:02 behind Alaphilippe.

“I felt better than yesterday but I needed to try to pace it when it all kicked off,” Thomas said. “It’s a difficult one, tactics wise. I wanted to go, I had the legs to go but I wasn’t going to chase down Egan Bernal with Alaphilippe on my wheel.”

Coming right after the ascent of the Tourmalet, Stage 15 ran close to the ancient Cathar castles and was a punishing ride totaling more than 39 kilometers of climbing.

Alaphilippe was so exhausted after his effort up the hill, where he grimaced and dribbled through the rain, that he had to grip a roadside barrier afterward while he caught his breath.

“If I crack I hope he’ll carry the torch for the French,” Alaphilippe said about Pinot.

Yates, the Vuelta defending champion, was given a free reign by the peloton when he took part in an early breakaway as he was not a threat overall. He made his decisive move about 9 kilometers from the line.

“I’m very proud of that,” Yates said of his second victory at this Tour.

Watch world-class cycling events throughout the year with the NBC Sports Gold Cycling Pass, including all 21 stages of the Tour de France live & commercial-free, plus access to renowned races like La Vuelta, Paris-Roubaix, the UCI World Championships and many more.

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Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce turns back the clock, wins another Diamond League

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Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce continues to show she’s just as fast as before childbirth, winning a Diamond League 100m in 10.78 seconds in London on Sunday.

Fraser-Pryce, a 32-year-old, two-time Olympic champion, beat a field that included the two fastest women of 2018, Brit Dina Asher-Smith (10.92) and Ivorian Marie-Josee Ta Lou (10.98).

It lacked the only woman ranked higher than Fraser-Pryce this season, Rio Olympic champion Elaine Thompson, who edged her countrywoman at the Jamaican Championships on June 21.

But Fraser-Pryce has now broken 10.79 three times this season, her first time doing so since 2013. She could become the oldest woman to win an Olympic or world 100m title in Doha in two months.

“10.78 is a fabulous time,” she said. “My aim for Doha is definitely to be on the podium. For me, it’s a long season from here, so I am hoping my experience will come into play.”

Full London results are here. The meet lacked U.S. stars who are preparing for this week’s USATF Outdoor Championships, where world champs spots are at stake. The Diamond League resumes Aug. 18 in Birmingham, Great Britain.

Also Sunday, Kenyan Hellen Obiri won an anticipated head-to-head with Ethiopian-born Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan in the 5000m. Obiri, the world champion, clocked 14:20.36, the world’s fastest time in two years. Hassan, who nine days ago broke the mile world record, took third in a European record 14:22.12.

Swede Daniel Ståhl won a discus that included the world’s top three this year and the reigning Olympic and world gold and silver medalists. Stahl launched a 68.56-meter throw to overtake Jamaican Fedrick Dacres.

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