The focus for the women’s Eagles in the past three years has been on building a unifying pathway and creating structures to develop beyond 2017. While that strategy will certainly pay dividends down the road, the consequence of a three-year plan gives the feeling that we are in an off-cycle. Despite these challenges, the past months of hard training have shown the girls’ grit in fighting against the odds.
The emphasis on building for the future as opposed to right now is no secret to the administration. USA Rugby is looking to capitalize on this transition as young rugby stars come into their own. But for now, the Eagles face quite a few challenges going into the Women’s Rugby World Cup. A thrilling road to the top, this Women’s World Cup is set to be the stuff of legend.
Lack of experience
In 2017, a World Cup year, the Women’s Eagles have played a total of two test matches. Pushing back to last August, that number only rises to four. England and Italy played more matches than that in the Six Nations.
Furthermore, the total number of caps on the team is relatively low compared to the high-ranking squads. The two most-capped players on the Eagles’ World Cup Squad have 26 and 28 international appearances. In comparison, 19 players on the England squad have more than 25 caps, with two players boasting over 100. Five of the Italians hold over 60 caps, and teams like Ireland and France contain a wealth of experience in the other pools.
Additionally, the USA is just a young rugby country. While our average chronological age compares evenly to other teams, the Eagles have a younger rugby age. Most don’t have the advantage of having played rugby since age five. The USA women have just played less games of rugby, domestic or international.
These challenges are coming to an end, however. Rugby is reaching the youngest of athletes now, and the Eagles have more than a few players that competed in high school. With youth comes a joie de vivre that can amount to a ruthless competitiveness. The Eagles have enough experience in their leadership to guide that drive to a championship.
The Pathway to the Cup
In order to win the Rugby Women’s World Cup, the women’s Eagles are probably going to have to plan England twice. England are the current world and Six Nations champions coming off a win against their next-closest rival, New Zealand.
Why twice? The pathway to the World Cup is a much more stringent one than the men’s.
The inclusion of only 12 teams in the women’s competition makes it a heck of a lot harder for anyone to win. With only three pools, the teams that top each pool secure a semi-final bid.
And the last spot?
It goes to the top runner-up, creating a massive battle for points throughout the pool stages. Not only do you want to win all three, but losing one game can topple even the greatest teams.
In 2014, the Eagles had to face New Zealand twice. Until Ireland pulled off a shocker, NZ were widely considered the favorites. After losing to Ireland, who was also in our pool, New Zealand fell into the consolation matches for 5th place, where we had to face them again in that match.
Now, the Eagles are in a similar situation, but with England. Except this time, we expect to have learned our lesson. The easiest path to the semifinals is for us to win all three pool games, beating Italy, Spain and England. By doing that, it’s still likely that England will advance as the best second-place team. And we’d have to face them again at some point on the way to winning.
It’s definitely achievable, but it’s an incredible challenge to defeat the world champions twice in less than a month.
But it’s not just England.
Italy and Spain are 9 and 10 in the World Rugby rankings right now, which is right behind the women’s Eagles, who sit in 8th. The first two games are must-wins, and they’re not going to be easy. Italy has the advantage of playing in Six Nations each year, and Spain have shown well on the 7s circuit.
That’s just what happens in a World Cup – each game should be a dog fight. The Eagles just have to step up to the challenge.
Finances and external stress
While we’d love to believe everything else just disappears when we step on the field, it doesn’t. Mindfulness to be present and focuses in a pressure environment takes lots of practice. It’s much easier to put aside your external thoughts when all you have to worry about is how sore your muscles are.
However, the women’s Eagles have been financially stunted for a while. A handful of the girls on the sevens program are being funded full-time, yet it’s not a living wage. The majority of the residents have to work outside jobs to make ends meet. Not to mention the players who don’t get paid to play at all. All year, Eagles have been waking up at 4 am to train, working 9 hours, and staying out until 10 pm at club practices. There’s no room for sleep.
Those who understand the need to recover are forced to make tough financial decisions such as living on friend’s couches or taking part-time, lesser paying jobs. Often those jobs are not careers and definitely not salaried. So what happens when players go away to training and then World Cup for a few months? They lose money-making opportunities.
Student loans, medical bills, car payments – those things all still exist while the team is in Ireland. While as athletes, the Eagle women are 100% focused, no one can deny the challenges of leaving the “real world” behind. A disparity in funding between the men’s and women’s game still exists, and that remains a challenge.
Bring on the challenge
It’s no coincidence that the official hashtag for the WRWC is #BringIt. Challenges are no strangers to this brave, strong and powerful group of women. It’s been a fight through underfunding and under-experience for a while. Despite the obvious obstacles, the Women’s Eagles are at a tipping point.
The work has been put in. The chips are ready to fall. It all comes down to game day. Each match will be a hard fight, but every match is winnable. One step at a time, the Eagles are ready to hoist the World Cup again.
Kimber Rozier is one of 28 players selected to represent the United States at the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup in Ireland. She is a NSCA certified strength and conditioning specialist and Precision Nutrition nutritionist who holds dual Bachelor’s degrees in Exercise and Sport Science and Spanish from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She spends her time traveling the world as an international rugby player for the USA and her career in 7s and 15s has taken her to places such as Hong Kong, Paris, London, and Dubai. She earned a bronze medal in the 7s World Cup in Moscow and played fly half for the squad throughout 15s 2014 Rugby World Cup in Paris. Kimber has recently played overseas in Ireland, furthering her career with Railway Union, and now has returned home as an athlete with Scion Rugby Academy out of Washington, D.C.