It was a warm and partly cloudy day as New Zealand and Russia kicked-off the Clermont7s. Kayla McAlister announced her return with the first try of the tournament. The New Zealand machine was truly impressive with McAlister, Woodman, Manuel, and Goss all back and in good form.
The Eagles seemed almost desperate in their opening 26-7 loss to an English side which was resting leading try scorer Joanne Watmore. If there was a bright spot for the Eagles it was the play of Leyla Alev Kelter. Her work rate, intensity, and individual effort led to her scoring the USA’s only try. The USA’s passing was dreadful. The English side drove the Eagles off loose ball. Careless mistakes handed over possession in penalties. Coach Walker sent on Jessica Javelet and Katherine Johnson with 3 minutes to go. If the intent was to have fresh legs to make an impact, there was a brief break by Javelet which quickly ended when possession was kicked away. The Eagles’ play (excluding Kelter) was mundane at best and very sloppy at its worst. The Eagles’ single try and final 22 point differential was a definite wake-up call for the tremendous gap that needs to be filled if this side is to be competitive in Rio in a little over 2 months.
The USA lost their second pool match 12-10 to Spain. From the knock-on at the kick-off to Spain’s tying try before their winning conversion, the Eagle performance was fraught with errors and failure to create enough space outside for anyone until 17 year-old Lily Durbin put the Eagles briefly ahead late in the second half. Her taking the pass at pace and cruising easily in for a try is promising of good things to come.
USA assistant 7s coach Peter Steinberg in a post-match interview explained the USA’s strategy as attempting to develop a side that can quickly stretch defenses wide. Excuses were made for the short length of time Coach Walker has had to work with the side. He is two months on the job with two months to go before the Olympics. For most rugby players the strategy and skills involved in getting the ball quickly to the outside is a basic you work on from your first practice.
As far as this tournament goes Coach Steinberg was reasonably comfortable that the USA would qualify for the cup knock-out round by finishing as one of the two best third place sides out of the pool matches. Perhaps this is a strategy the Eagles are working on for the Olympics. They play a deceptively simple game in the early rounds, save key players, and slide into the knock-out round as a third place underdog, and then unleash the hidden talents. Maybe I shouldn’t be writing this and giving it away to the world. Fortunately very few people read my stuff and even fewer get past the first two paragraphs.
In the third pool match the Eagles showed the team they can become. Granted Kenya is playing their first tournament at this level, but they have some speed and skills. The Kenyans threatened early, but were stopped by two try saving tackles by Victoria Folayan. The early stalemate cracked. Eagles passes were sharp even though drizzle made things slippery. Kelly Griffin set up Lily Durbin’s second career try. Alev Kelter continued as an unstoppable force, adding a try and two conversions. Folayan added a try as did Javelet & Johnson as the Eagles cruised to a 31-0 victory.
The USA finished Day 1 as the second best third in the pool round and will face England in a cup quarterfinal tomorrow. The very sly tactic is working. The English will find a big difference from the side they beat 26-7 in pool play.