The USA Women squeaked through in first place in pool B because their point differential after pool matches with Canada, South Africa, and Argentina was 44 points and Canada’s was 41. The USA and Canada tied (12 all) in their match and both sides beat South Africa and Argentina. That 3 point difference meant the USA went into Day 2 facing Russia in their opening cup quarterfinal match and Canada had to face the Dubai women’s series champs, New Zealand. New Zealand finished second in Pool A, losing by a conversion to England (7-5). Australia finished first in pool C by defeating the fast, hard hitting Russian side by a try (15-10).
The current Olympic/IRB thinking on who will get to compete in 7s at the Olympics in 2016 will call for the USA to beat Canada in a NACRA tournament in 2015 or early 2016 to qualify for a trip to Rio. The plan that has been floating between the IRB and IOC is currently specific only for the men’s qualification. The women’s qualification path could be different, but if the current men’s model is accepted for the women, Day 1 play in Houston indicates that it is still a coin toss who would win a USA-Canada match and could depend on factors related to where the tournament is played. The faces of the Canadian and USA women as they left the match after their draw tells a bit of the mindset of the sides. The Canadians looked sad and disappointed. The USA women seemed elated. The USA players feel they are improving and gaining on the Canadians and the Canadians fear they are not improving as quickly as the USA.
The Canada match started out badly for the USA. High, uncommitted, arm tackling led to an early Canadian try. A second Canadian try came from 2 US players being sucked in to cover one Canadian attacker and knocking each other over. Then two US players (Kelly Griffin and Nathalie Marchino) really stepped up and changed the momentum to pull the sides even by the time the buzzer sounded the end of the match. Kelly and Nathalie were outstanding all day. Team captain (Vanesha McGee) upped her effect on play in the USA’s second match against South Africa, scoring 2 tries and leading the side to a 22-19 victory. Deven Owsiany joined the starting line-up in the South Africa match and was, at times, an inspirational force in defense. Who would win the USA’s final pool match against new comer to women’s international 7s (Argentina) was never in question. The USA ran in 7 tries to Argentina’s 0. The lady pumas were unable to score a try in all 3 of their pool matches.
Day 2 was another glorious day weatherwise and rugbywise in Houston. There were reports of ticket sales approaching 4,000, but a quick visual estimate of attendance indicated the crowd was less than 2000. In conversation with Susan Carty, IRB Women’s Development Manager, she stated attendance was not disappointing as the IRB expected this venue and location would take time to grow.
The scores for Day 2 matches can be found on the IRB women’s 7s series website, so I won’t list them all here, but focus on highlights of USA & Canada matches.
Canada fell in the quarterfinals to New Zealand (12-10) in a match that started with palpable intensity. Canada’s Jennifer Kish charged down their opening kick-off to the Kiwis, evaded and broke several tackles before offloading to Kayla Moleschi to put Canada up by 5 with less than 30 seconds gone. New Zealand would score 2 tries and convert one before Canada put together a multi-phase movement that ended in Moleschi going over for another try to pull Canada within 2 points. With 2 minutes left New Zealand almost scored again but a great tackle by Magali Harvey kept Canada’s hopes alive, but Canada’s fight had been draining. With a minute to go a bad choice by Canada to try to break through a line-out rather than pass the ball out led to a knock-on and time ran out on a courageous Canadian effort. The New Zealand effort seemed to dampen Canada’s fire. They lost to Netherlands in the plate semi-final, but came roaring back in the battle for 7th place to leave a South African side severely burned in 33-0 defeat.
It was over 4 minutes into the first half before Russia scored the first try in their quarterfinal match with the USA. Weak tackling allowed the Russian phenomenon Baizat Khamidova to get the first points with Nadezda Yarmotskaya adding the conversion. With less than a minute in the first half, Lauren Doyle outpaced the Russian defense to put the score at 7-5 going into half. The second half saw Nathalie Marchino adding 2 tries and the Russians being held scoreless for a final score of 15-7. Nathalie’s final try was an 80 meter break which she touched down between the post.
Victoria Folayan was the USA hero in their semi-final match with Australia, scoring two of the USA’s 3 tries. The third try came from Christy Ringgenberg scoring from an intercepted Aussie pass and her conversion put the match out of reach at 17-5 with time running out.
England had battled through the Netherlands (19-14) and New Zealand (19-12) to earn their place in the the cup final against the USA. England jumped out to a quick 10-0 lead as US tackling and coverage was lacking in commitment. Five minutes into the first half the Kelly Griffin-Nathalie Marchino dynamic duo went to work, Each scored a try and the US was up 12-10 before England scored a try to put them up 15-12 as the buzzer went for half. The USA seemed to come out for the second half a different team. England’s Joanne Watmore scored from the kick-off. The Eagles spent most of the half in what seemed a lethargic defense. The exertions of the tournament had taken their toll and the effects were clear in the women’s handling, tackling, and coverage. Watmore added another converted try and when the match ended England were the champions (29-12) of the first Houston International Women’s 7s.
In a post match interview with USA players Jillion Potter, Kimber Rozier, & Lauren Doyle they expressed disappointment at the final result, but happy to have made it to the final and very happy at the improvement since Dubai. The general mood of the USA team seemed to be one of elations that they are moving in the right direction and getting there at a faster pace than the other nations. It is hard to imagine the competitors in Rio in 2016 will be very different. For now the women seem on track to bring home a medal.