By Peggy Shinn | July 22, 2018, 12:04 a.m. (ET)
(L-R) Nicole Heavirland and Lauren Doyle celebrate after scoring at the Rugby World Cup Sevens on July 21, 2018 in San Francisco. 

 

SAN FRANCISCO — The USA Women’s Eagles Sevens came to the Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 hoping to add another medal to their collection.

At the inaugural women’s sevens World Cup in 2009, the U.S. won bronze. They claimed a second bronze medal four years later. 

But at the 2018 World Cup Sevens, they came up short. In the bronze-medal match, the Australians used power and speed to beat the U.S., 24-14. 

Australia is the reigning rugby sevens Olympic champion. They also won the 2009 World Cup title.

In the gold-medal final, New Zealand successfully defended their World Cup title from 2013, running away from France 29-0.

Despite the loss in the bronze final, the United States’ top scorer, Naya Tapper, continued to show that a sprinter’s speed rules in rugby sevens. She scored two tries in the match. With seven tries for this World Cup, Tapper was second behind New Zealand’s Michaela Blyde (with nine) for most tries scored for the women.

U.S. team captain Nicole Heavirland kicked two successful two-point conversions for four more points in their final match.

The Americans wanted to win a medal at this World Cup, preferably a gold. But in the championship semifinal earlier Saturday, they could not get by the well-oiled New Zealand team. 

Still, the U.S. women were happy with how they played this tournament.

Tapper called the Americans’ performance “a flower growing out of concrete.” On the eve of the World Cup, the U.S. squad learned that Alev Kelter, a top scorer and team veteran, was still healing from an injury sustained at the end of the world series season. Then her replacement, Kelsi Stockert, was injured training the day before the round of 16.

“We had a lot of heavy stuff put on us,” said Tapper. “Things happening last minute, really nothing went as planned besides all 12 of us on the field, so I think that’s something magical.”

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Ryan Carlyle, a 2016 Olympian and the most veteran player on the 2018 World Cup team, was happy with the team’s perseverance. 

“We had really great connection from Game 1 to Game 4,” she said. “We never let our heads down, no matter what the score was. We kept fighting, fighting, fighting ‘til the end.”

This World Cup also illustrated how far the women’s game — and the U.S. women’s sevens squad — has come since the last World Cup in 2013.

“I watched a couple games from the 2013 World Cup, and I was laughing at how slow it looked and how simple the game was being played and how small we all were,” said Carlyle, the only member of the current U.S. team who played in the 2013 World Cup. “The whole world of women’s rugby has gotten so much bigger, faster, smarter, more exciting. I think that’s the biggest difference out here, and our games are just as exciting as the men, and we like that for the fans.”

The world champion New Zealand Black Ferns agreed that the women’s competition has changed. New Zealand is a rugby nation, and the women have never finished lower than second in World Cup competition. 

“We talked about the last World Cup,” said Ruby Tui, a Black Fern and mother of two who scored a try against the U.S. in the semifinal game. “You could just throw the ball wide, and it was a try. These players now, it’s not even close, especially when you get a team in the final. You have to be able to change your game up in that moment.”

In fact, in the semifinals, the U.S. women led New Zealand at the half, 14-12, thanks to Tapper’s fast and deft sprinting. Tapper was the first and only player in this World Cup tournament to score on New Zealand. The Kiwis kept their opponents scoreless in every match except the semifinal against the U.S.

The USA Eagles did not think they had been outplayed by the Black Ferns.

“We played like a team,” said Heavirland. “We keep rising and keep getting better, and we’ll be just fine.”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.