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With the news that two players in and around the Eagles camp tested positive for coronavirus this week, the second Stars vs Stripes match was cancelled.
Although the right decision was made to call off the game, it still comes as a disappointment that we didn’t get to see our Eagles get another crack this week.
Nevertheless, it was still a treat to watch the United States women play for the first time in almost a full year. While they may have come out of the gates a bit rusty, the quality of play certainly picked up and there were encouraging signs ahead of the upcoming 2021 World Cup in New Zealand.
Here are three things we learned, and three things we still don’t know after the Stars & Stripes battle:
What We Learned
Lots of speed – It’s certainly no secret the Eagles are loaded with athletes; Alev Kelter, Kris Thomas, Cheta Emba and others demonstrate this on a weekly basis on the 7s circuit. Therefore this shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, but it’s well worth noting the Eagles have more flyers coming up through the ranks who have some serious wheels. Sensational tries from Sarah Levy (we’ve seen her do this before) and debutant Kayla Lawson turned a lot of heads. With those two firmly in the mix now, the Eagles have a plethora of options in the back three.
Ortiz is the ultimate impact sub – Halfback Olivia Ortiz out of Davenport University proved her utility two summers ago in the Women’s Super Series when she came off the bench to engineer a super comeback against Canada. While she hasn’t had a ton of opportunities since then, Wednesday’s outing proved once again how dynamic she can be as an impact sub. Within moments of entering the game, the sparkplug scrum-half darted off the back of the scrum to the short side and committed as many as three defenders before putting speedster Levy away for a try. As we get closer to the World Cup, Ortiz deserves more looks in the #9 shirt.
Deep at No. 8 – With Kate Zackary playing overseas at Exeter, the No. 8 position has been up for grabs over the past nine weeks the women have been in Eagles camp. The two who emerged as the favorites for the position wound up being sevens star Jordan Gray Matyas and the Twin Cities Amazons’ Kathryn “KJ” Johnson.
Both Matyas and Johnson shined in the Stars vs Stripes game. Johnson in particular was everywhere on offense and defense, making big hits, smashing rucks, and accumulating heaps of running meters. Matyas, whose side won the match 34-12, was lethal every time she touched the ball. Despite all the damage she did, Matyas’ impact could have been even greater had her teammates been able to anticipate her offloads a bit better – on a number of occasions she freed her hands for an offload but there was nobody there to take the ball from her.
Anyhow, it will be exciting to see how those two fit into Rob Cain’s plans moving forward into the next year, given the overall depth in the back row with Rachel Johnson, Bitsy Cairns, and Zackary also in the mix.
Who's the fly-half – Over the past few years, the Eagles have gone through a number of different options at first-receiver. As a teenager, Kayla Canett handled the reins in the #10 shirt at the 2017 Rugby World Cup, but has shifted focus over to sevens since then. Gabby Cantorna and Katana Howard have both spent time at fly-half, as did now-retired Bui Baravilala, and this week we watched Megan Foster fill in brilliantly at #10.
Cantorna is the presumed starter at the moment, but Megan Foster certainly made a case worth looking at this weekend. Foster has by far the best kicking boot out of all the options, and her game management and distribution is sound. If there’s any question mark about Foster, it would be her lack of game time at fly-half – she normally plays at fullback.
With just under a year to go until the tournament starts, the Eagles and Rob Cain will need to settle on two fly-halves pretty soon.
The rest of the World Cup Pool – On Thursday of this week, the preliminary draw for the Women’s World Cup took place, pitting the Eagles into Pool B with Canada and two more yet-to-be-named sides. The two teams will be the final qualifiers from Europe and Asia, which would indicate the last couple of sides will likely be one of Ireland, Scotland, or Italy, and then Japan.
This sets up as a tough but winnable pool if the Eagles bring their best to New Zealand. 2017 proved the United States can compete with the big dogs, as they went on to make the semi-finals of the competition. Still, there will be no easy games and the match with Canada will be an all-out affair which will have the players spent.
How preparations will look – The cancellation of Saturday’s second Stars vs Stripes fixture brings up an issue that we can’t overlook: how will the team handle the Covid situation. It didn’t take long for a coronavirus case to take precedence and cancel an Eagles game. While New Zealand is definitely the safest place on earth with regards to the virus, our players won’t be able to spend the next 10+ months there.
Preparations will still have to take place in the United States, but what does that mean for warm up fixtures? It’s unlikely the Eagles will be able to travel around to play other teams, so odds are they’ll have to do more intrasquad scrimmages to avoid being undercooked for the World Cup. How this affects the team’s ability to be game-prepared for the tournament remains to be seen, though it shouldn’t change the approach too much.