The USA women's national team kicks off the Rugby World Cup with a meeting against Italy in Dublin on Wednesday.
The clash is another game in which the Americans are expected to win but could be a bit of a shocker. Italy has greatly improved over the past few years and will bring a physical, aggressive style to its Pool B opener at Billings Park. Has the USA team improved? It's hard to say. But the Eagles would do well to take this matchup seriously.
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"We're excited after our month together to finally get to play," USA head coach Steinberg told USA Rugby. "We know Italy is going to be a good challenge and that they've got a lot of international experience, but we're excited about the potential this team has."
Finally getting to play... that's an interesting comment from Steinberg, especially since he stated in no uncertain terms on a RuggMatrix Podcast that training instead of playing games was the right move in the lead-up to the World Cup.
Has preparing on the training field done enough for a team that seems a little overwhelmed when it gets smacked in the face? Steinberg expects so and recognizes that an injection of fractiousness and athleticism may be what's needed. The Eagles have received a boost on the training front, as Irish Rugby Tours sponsored an early arrival in Ireland so the team could bond, prepare, and acclimatize.
So now it's time to play.
Tighthead prop Tiffany Faaee (New York RFC) will captain the USA on Wednesday, and leads a team that is quite changed from the one that defeated the Women's Premier League All-Stars handily a month ago.
Catie Benson (Penn State) and Katy Augustyn (Life West, Northeastern) round out the front row.
Stacy Bridges and Alicia Washington are Steinberg's go-to players in the second row, but there is some turnover in the back row. New additions Kate Zackary (USA 7s team) and Jordan Gray (BYU) join Sara Parsons (Nevada, Scion Sirens), who showed some excellent flashes in the USA's final World Series 7s tournament this spring.
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In the backs, Deven Owsiamy (Penn State, Keystone) and Kimber Rozier (North Carolina) present a fairly experienced halfback combo. However, Rozier has not had a firm grip on the flyhalf role, and she will need to take charge of the attack. If she does, she has some talent out wide, with 7s impresarios Kristen Thomas and Naya Tapper offering excellent try-scoring threats.
"We're inexperienced, but we're athletic, and we have to grow into the World Cup," Steinberg said. "The players have worked really hard, and we've had two really good days of practice leading into this game. We're looking forward to playing together, and showing the world what the U.S. can do."
USA at the Women's Rugby World Cup
The Eagles could well come out of pool play with a 2-1 record. Following their opener against Italy, the USA plays Spain on Sunday and England next Thursday. The schedule certainly makes it appear as if the USA and England will battle for Pool B supremacy. That's likely, but England -- the bigger, more cohesive, and much, much more physical side -- has had the upper hand for some time. The USA can be bothered by that, but Pool A has Canada and New Zealand. So someone is going to come out of that pool disappointed, too.
If the USA beats Italy and Spain (not guaranteed), then the Eagles have a shot at making the top four but will need bonus points and a close score with England to get there. The three pool winners make the semis along with one wild card team. Standings points will determine which team is No. 4, and if that doesn't do the job, points difference, then tries difference, and then a series of other tiebreakers come into play.
More likely? The USA is in the fifth- to eighth-place bracket and plays for fifth. This is where the Eagles have been since 2002, finishing seventh, fifth, fifth, and sixth in the last four tournaments, respectively. But improvements can still be shown by challenging for first in the pool. That would be a marked step forward for the Eagles, who have gone 1-2 in pool play in the last two World Cups.