The goal this season for the USA Women’s Eagles Sevens — actually their goal the past three years — is to qualify for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games after the season-ending tournament this weekend in Amsterdam.
Rugby sevens will make its Olympic debut at the Rio Games. Rugby union (15 a side) was competed at the Olympic Games in 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924, though only men competed.
The top four finishers in the World Rugby Women’s Sevens World Series will be the first women’s rugby teams to qualify for the Olympics. Only one team, New Zealand, has already secured a trip to Rio. That leaves three spots up for grabs in Amsterdam.
The U.S. team is in fourth place in the series standings but tied with France at 62 points. England is just two points back with 60 points, while Russia has 52 points. A lot could still change depending on this weekend’s results.
According to Eagles coach Ric Suggitt, there is no way the U.S. team can remain tied with France when all is said and done, so the key this weekend will be to finish ahead of France. But then the Eagles have to worry about England and even Russia, too.
“There is no possible way we can be tied with France by the end of the series, Suggitt said. “Based on how the points are allotted, we will either be above or below them. Now, on the other hand, England or Russia could make a move also.
“If England finishes one spot higher than us in this tournament, then they will tie us. The tie breaker is points difference, and we will know that at the end of the season. The rest of the teams are out of the race for the final spot.
“It is exciting enough already.”
New Zealand leads the series with 96 points, followed by Australia and Canada tied at 76.Victoria Folayan competes at the Canada Women's Sevens on April 18, 2015 in Langford, British Columbia.
If the Eagles do not finish in the top four, there are two other ways they may qualify for the Games — by winning the 2015 NACRA Sevens Championships in June, or at a second qualifier to be held before the end of June 2016.
The Eagles enter the Amsterdam matches with momentum, having shown at last week’s London Sevens tournament they can compete with all the top teams. The Eagles came close to winning every game and finished fourth in the tournament, behind Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and ahead of England, France, Russia and five other nations.
Importantly, they beat France, who had shut them out last month in the Canada series quarterfinal.
“The team did well in London,” said Victoria Folayan, the leading scorer on the team and third highest in the series this season with 30 tries. “I believe the team has been consistently playing better and better. I believe our tournament in Atlanta (in March), where we reached the final, was a definite turning point for the team.
“Prior to that performance, we struggled to make it to the quarterfinals out of pool play. The team gained confidence and a true belief in ourselves and each other from that tournament. It was a great feeling to show our friends and family how well we can play, and we know that we can not only make it to finals, but we can win."
In Amsterdam, the Eagles are in a pool with New Zealand, Fiji and South Africa.
“No games are easy and South Africa, although they did not fare well in the last tournament, have shown improvement,” Suggitt said. “Fiji are always tough, they are big and quick and truly understand time and space.
“New Zealand is the best team in the world right now, and they will be out to prove a point in this season’s last tournament. We will have to be sharp and execute our chances when we get them.”
In the London Sevens, the U.S. team began by beating China 40-7. They beat Fiji 24-19, but not without squandering a 19-point lead at the half.
“We are in the thick of things but we still make poor decisions at critical times,” Suggitt said. “This hurt us in London, and we will be addressing this in Amsterdam during our preparations.”
In their match against powerhouse Australia, the Eagles led 12-5 at the half. Suggitt, mindful of the 19-point lead the team had blown against Fiji, gathered his players.
“Focus,” Suggitt told them. “Do your job, pick each other up.”
|Kate Zachary runs down the field in the USA vs. New Zealand match at the Atlanta Sevens Cup Final on March 15, 2015 in Atlanta.
However, Australia tied the match at 12, and it ended in a draw.
“Tying Australia in our pool games was a critical factor in how the rest of our games followed,” Folayan said. “We are a team that is consistently growing, and we pride ourselves on our ability to look at the drawing board and fix our mistakes; we are not OK with complacency. … We have shown the world that we are strong and powerful athletes, now we are going to play smarter, faster and stronger.”
Against France, the Eagles broke a 12-12 tie to win 19-12. Against Canada in the semifinal, they lost 17-14 after coming back from a 12-0 deficit to take a 14-12 lead.
Up next was New Zealand, which had a perfect season before it lost to Spain earlier in the tournament. The Eagles led the entire match only to lose 24-19 in the final seconds.
“Another aspect of many of our games in the London tournament was how characteristically close the games were,” Folayan said. “We as a team are learning how to play calm and collected during times of high pressure. We are becoming more and more mature with each tournament we play.”
Hugh Cahill, a game commentator for the World Rugby broadcast, believes the Eagles are in a strong position.
“I think the USA will grab that fourth spot,” Cahill told worldrugby.org. “France are missing a few strike runners and I feel as though USA have a better squad, they are in better form and they have their sights set on fourth.”
Maryann Hudson is a freelance writer from the Houston area. She was previously an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2012 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.