Getty Images

U.S. women’s rugby moving into role of Olympic favorites

Leave a comment

The U.S. women picked up where they left off in the World Rugby Sevens Series on Sunday, winning the first event of the 2019-20 series at home in Glendale, Colo.

While the score in the final (26-7 over Australia) looked convincing, the path to victory was bumpy. The U.S. dropped a group-stage game 24-14 to France, then capped a quarterfinal rally over Canada in spectacular fashion when Cheta Emba raced more than half the length of the field for a last-second try and a 29-26 win.

The semifinal with New Zealand went back and forth, with Lauren Doyle making a clutch defensive play and a late try to stake the U.S. to a 19-12 lead. New Zealand scored a last-second try to cut it to 19-17, but the U.S. defense forced New Zealand wide to try the game-tying conversion from an acute angle, and the kick went wide.

The final against Australia was tied until just before halftime, when Ilona Maher forced the ball over the line for a 12-7 U.S. lead. Nicole Heavirland accounted for all of the scoring in the second half with two tries and a conversion.

Last year, the U.S. took second place in the season-opening event in Glendale and took three third-place finishes before winning the season-ending tournament in Biarritz, France. The women finished second on the season, clinching a berth in the 2020 Olympics.

The U.S. also has a strong presence in men’s sevens. The men’s team matched the women by finishing second overall last season after holding the lead late in the series, ensuring their presence in Tokyo next summer. The men’s 2019-20 World Series starts later in the year.

Rugby union’s traditional 15-a-side game, like soccer and cricket, has a richer history in Europe and several Southern Hemisphere nations than it has in the United States. The U.S. men have only won three World Cup games in their history and are currently laboring through the Group of Death in this year’s Cup.

The women, like their soccer counterparts, gained a head start on countries that have less of a women’s sports tradition, winning the first World Cup in 1991 and taking second place in 1994 and 1998. But with other countries catching up, the women didn’t reach the semifinals again until 2017, when they lost to France 31-23 in the bronze medal game.

Sevens has been played since the late 19th century, but international play only ratcheted up 20 years ago with the introduction of the World Series. The women’s series launched in 2012.

The 2018-19 season was the best in U.S. women’s sevens history. Until then, the best U.S. finish was fourth in the inaugural, abbreviated World Series of 2012-13. The men also had bounced around fifth and sixth place overall for a few seasons before finishing second last year.

Both teams will be hoping to improve on their performances from 2016, when rugby sevens debuted in the Olympics. The men opened with a 26-0 rout over host Brazil but gave up a last-second lead against Argentina and wound up missing out on the quarterfinals by a single point. The women reached the quarterfinals but were shut out 5-0 by New Zealand.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

U.S. women’s rugby team earns first World Series title, Olympic spot

Alev Kelter, Lauren Doyle
USA Rugby
Leave a comment

The U.S. women’s rugby sevens team came into the World Series finale expecting to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. What few could have predicted, in addition, was a first World Series leg title.

The U.S. handed World Series champion New Zealand just its third loss of the season, 26-10 in the final in Biarritz, France, on Sunday. The Americans finished the season ranked second in the world, bettering their previous best of fourth in the inaugural campaign in 2012-13.

“I’ve imagined this moment so many times, and for it to finally come together about five years later, it means the world,” Rio Olympian Lauren Doyle said.

The top four became the first nations to qualify for Tokyo 2020. Four years ago, the U.S. women needed a second-chance, continental qualifier to make it into the field for rugby sevens’ Olympic debut in Rio. They lost to eventual silver medalist New Zealand in the Olympic quarterfinals.

The U.S. also showed in-season progress this winter and spring, particularly against New Zealand. The Kiwis won the first four meetings, but the U.S. took two of the last three.

New coach Chris Brown, a former U.S. men’s assistant, replaced Olympic coach Richie Walker, who resigned in August. Only three of this season’s 12 primary players were on the Rio Olympic team.

“We had to sort our culture out and make sure they wanted to play for each other, and know what it was like to put the team before themselves,” Brown said, according to World Rugby. “We’ve got a good group here, and from there we had to work out how to actually defend and show our character through our defense. That’s what we’ve done all season. We’re still missing a few cogs on the attacking side, but we’re progressing.”

The U.S. men previously qualified for Tokyo by finishing second in their World Series.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: The world’s best rugby sevens player is an American

U.S. men’s rugby team qualifies for Tokyo Olympics

U.S. men's rugby sevens team
Mike Lee/KLC
1 Comment

The U.S. became the first men’s rugby team to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, clinching its spot Saturday during penultimate leg of this season’s World Series.

The Americans, ranked No. 1 in the world, mathematically secured a place in the top four of the World Series final standings by advancing out of pool play in London. The knockout rounds are Sunday, but a top-eight finish was all that was necessary for Olympic qualification.

Now the U.S. can focus on a goal it didn’t have at the start of the year: winning the nation’s first World Series season title. It entered London with a slim, three-point lead over Olympic champion Fiji, one that would be erased if Fiji and the U.S. advance to Sunday’s final and Fiji wins.

Regardless, the season champion will be decided at the 10th and final World Series stop in Paris next weekend.

The Americans held onto the standings lead despite being without two stars — two-time World Player of the Year Perry Baker and Danny Barrett — the last three World Series stops. Baker and Barrett returned from injuries for the London leg.

Four years ago, the U.S. needed to go to a continental qualifier to earn in its place in Rio. Rugby sevens made its Olympic debut in 2016, 92 years after the traditional 15-a-side rugby last appeared at the Games. The Americans ended up ninth in Brazil, missing the quarterfinals on a tiebreaker.

World powers Fiji, New Zealand and South Africa are in position to join the U.S. as Olympic qualifiers through the World Series.

Seven more nations will qualify via continental tournaments later this year and a last-chance event in June 2020. Japan received an automatic spot as host nation.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Nate Ebner on transition from Olympic rugby back to NFL