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Rugby World Cup Sevens Is March Madness In September For Eagles

by Bob Reinert

The U.S. women's rugby eagles team poses for a photo ahead of the 2022 Rugby World Cup Sevens on Sept. 8, 2022 in Cape Town, South Africa.

 

If the U.S. women hope to reach the podium at the Rugby World Cup Sevens, which takes place Friday through Sunday in Cape Town, South Africa, they will have to quickly shift into high gear.
“We’ve been coming out of a bit of a competition desert,” said U.S. coach Emilie Bydwell.
The Americans, whose last competition was the France Sevens in Toulouse in May, won’t have much time to gear up at the World Cup, a quadrennial tournament that features a knockout format instead of pool play. It’s win or go home.
“The takeaway for us is that we have to show up prepared to win each game,” Bydwell said. “You’re out of the tournament before you know it. It’s really a good test to our ability to be present, aware and control our minds, essentially.”
Both the U.S. women and men finished their 2022 World Rugby Sevens Series in sixth place, and both expect to be competitive in South Africa.
The women open their tournament Friday at 6:33 a.m. ET against Poland, a team they defeated 31-7 in pool play at the Malaga Sevens in January. The men also open Friday morning, though they won’t learn their opponent until that day. All the games will be livestreamed on Peacock.
Captain Lauren Doyle and Naya Tapper, the first U.S. player to reach 100 tries, lead the American women, who finished fourth in the 2018 World Cup, which was held in San Francisco, losing in the semifinals to eventual champion New Zealand. They and five of their teammates were on that squad.
“This is a really exciting group for us,” Bydwell said. “We’ve got a lot of experience. But we also have some new players, some younger players, that filled out the roles that we need. (The) balance of youth and experience is exciting.
“It might be some of the similar faces, but I think you see a new-look team coming into next weekend.”
To help them prepare for the  World Cup, the Americans played scrimmages Saturday against France and Ireland, two teams on the other side of the 16-team tournament draw. 
“It just drives another level of intensity that it’s really hard to reproduce on your own,” said Bydwell, “when you have a different country across from you.”
Bydwell said that the Americans are out to prove something at the World Cup.
“We’re exceptionally driven to show to ourselves and the world that we can be a podium-performing team,” she said. “And I think that this summer has been really significant for us in terms of really looking at ourselves and … the critical few things we need to get right to be consistent on the world stage.
“We really just need to play as much rugby as possible and allow this team as many opportunities as they can before we go into a tournament to work through things together and build that connection and unity.”

Stephen Tomasin during training ahead of the 2022 Rugby World Cup Sevens on Sept. 8, 2022 in Cape Town, South Africa.

 

As much as she would like a podium spot in Cape Town, Bydwell’s sights are set well beyond this weekend.
“It’s a little bit later than they normally have the World Cups, so it’s felt more like the beginning of next season than the end of last season,” Bydwell said. “It is a World Cup, and we need to treat it that way, but we cannot do that at the expense of teeing ourselves up for the Olympic qualification season.”
On the men’s side, the Americans are more concerned with injuries than any rustiness. They had barely finished the LA Sevens tournament when they boarded a flight for Cape Town.
The U.S. lost both Joe Schroeder and Folau Niua to injuries in that final World Rugby Sevens Series event, while captain Kevon Williams had already been sidelined before it began.
“The downside to the weekend is we were hit hard with injuries, down to eight fit players for that final game against Kenya,” coach Mike Friday said of the LA Sevens. “This provides two younger players the opportunity to step up and rise to the challenge of this unforgiving game.”
Depending on their pre-round of 16 meeting, either Samoa or Uganda will provide the opening test for the young U.S. team at 9:39 a.m. ET Friday. Samoa placed fourth in Los Angeles. 
The men’s tournament features 24 teams in the knockout format.
“The format of the Rugby World Cup Sevens makes the tournament even more brutal, with basically NCAA March Madness in September,” Friday said. “The straight knockout scheme puts a lot of pressure on all teams from the get-go, and there is no room for error, particularly in sevens where you could be on the end of a call, not within your control, that may determine a result.”
Only three of Friday’s 13 players — Perry Baker, Maka Unufe and captain Stephen Tomasin — played in the 2018 World Cup in San Francisco, where the U.S. placed sixth. Unufe will take part in his third World Cup.
“The team’s looking really good,” Tomasin said. “We’ve had a bit of an unlucky run with some injuries to some of our senior players over the last month and a half or two. Unfortunately, that’s the way a sport goes, especially when you play a high-level contact sport like we do.
“We see ourselves as one of the top five or six teams in the world. Anything short of a semifinal is going to be disappointing for us. Just because you lose players with a lot of experience doesn’t mean the standards of the team drop.”
Tomasin said the younger U.S. players have stepped into the breach.
“They’ve been required to, and it’s been a lot of learning over the last few months,” Tomasin said. “Our standards don’t drop. We bring them up to ours.
“I think that’s the biggest positive that comes out of injuries is it forces the younger guys to get more playing time. The only way you get more experience is by playing.”
This knockout tournament will provide a baptism of fire for the young Americans.
“This is as intense as it gets,” Tomasin said. “Our sport is already one of the more intense sports in the world. With the straight knockout format, you really can’t slip up at all. It is high pressure, but that’s what makes our sport so great.”


Bob Reinert spent 17 years writing sports for The Boston Globe. He also served as a sports information director at Saint Anselm College and Phillips Exeter Academy. He is a contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.
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