May 27,2016 – Tomorrow Clermont7s, Today VixFly’s Birthday

My journey as a rugby journalist following the USA Women’s 7s team began a little over three years ago during the inaugural series of the women’s 7s’ tournaments in Houston. The Eagles took second in that tournament. Vix Folayan scored two tries in their semi-final 17-5 victory over Australia which set up the Eagles’ 29-12 loss in the cup final to England. Over the ensuing three years Australia rose to be the dominant side in women’s 7s, and eight of the members of that Eagle squad played their last 7s matches as Eagles. A USA Rugby development plan that envisioned players peaking at 27 was a factor in some players being released. Vix Folayan was 27 in Houston three years ago. Today in Clermont-Ferrand, on the eve of the final tournament in the women’s series before the Olympics, Vix turns 31, and is still a key player for the Eagles.

Many of the early Eagles’ players were cross-over athletes coming from track and/or basketball. Tomorrow Lily Durbin will play in her first international tournament as an Eagle. She is 17 and has been playing rugby for four years in high school. Also, on the squad is Carmen Farmer, a 35 year-old player from the Eagles’ 15s program. One wonders what happened to the development plan if this is the squad that is being fine tuned before the Olympics.

During the last three years there was a period of focused effort to recruit more cross-over athletes. Players like Jessica Javelet (30) and Alev Kelter (25) joined the team and have had significant impact. Does the recent effort to bring up to international competitive levels players like Durbin and 19 year-old Richelle Stephens, a rugby player from the same high school as Durbin, indicate a shift away from cross-over athletes or something else?

After the 7s World Cup in 2013 I wrote that the USA Men’s team had little to no chance of medalling in Rio, and the USA Women’s team had a good outside shot at bronze. Those estimations have reversed. The USA Men brought in an outstanding coach, Mike Friday, and seemed to have developed a squad that hovers around the age of 27. The USA Women went into coaching chaos when Richie Walker replaced Jules McCoy who replaced Rick Suggitt and all within a year of the Olympics. Rumors swirled about a player or players who were more persuasive to Alex Magleby, USA Performance Director, than coaches who disagreed about the player or players’ value, and this led to the coaching changes.

Coach Walker’s eclectic mix of ages and sporting backgrounds seems more an approach to developing a squad for medalling in 2020 than a team that will bring home medals this coming August. Tomorrow they get to prove me wrong. Today … Happy Birthday, VixFly!