As the USA Women’s team prepares for the first of three tests against France this evening, attention has focused on the disparity between the American forwards' and backs' experience. But the French are in the same scenario, as the Rugby World Cup Sevens has diluted the 15s backs pool worldwide. Both sides are using this opportunity to test younger backs, so what does that mean in terms of expectations?
No doubt that both sides will be leaning on their forwards to set the tone of the game. The USA forwards are initiating only one new cap – second row Molly Kinsella – from the starting lineup. She’s locking with Sarah Walsh, and they’ll be supported by a front row that has 53 caps between them and averages 32 years in age. The back three are incredibly dynamic and yet reliable – Lynelle Kugler, captain Shaina Turley and Stacey Bridges – and are three of the most consistently exciting loose forwards at the Eagles’ disposal.
But France has brought a top-rate pack, too. There is only one uncapped forward – No. 8 Sophie Pin, who was added to replace an injury – on the entire roster. The French have one key advantage on their side: game time. Since the USA last saw France in November, Les Bleus have played five tests at the Six Nations tournament, where they finished second. The country has also just concluded its Top 10 domestic competition and have seven players from finalists Montpellier and Lille joining the Californian tour.
“I don’t think there is any additional pressure than normal for a test match,” Turley reflected on the forwards’ mindset. “It is true that the bulk of experience lies with the pack in this particular tour, but seeing what these young backs can do at camp gives us a lot of confidence going forward. We have tailored our game plan and approach to play around the team and have been able to prepare better for this round of matches, so it should be an exciting few weeks.”
USA Women National Team coach Pete Steinberg was rather pleased with the forwards’ set pieces and defense last fall, but it was the attack that needed work.
“The skill issues are across the board, and it is really focused on us playing a faster game,” Steinberg said in 2012. “I think there needs to be a rethink about how to create a more dynamic game in America. We showed on tour we can play a physical, static game, but when we wanted to speed the game up, we are unable to execute effectively. … We need to build an attacking approach that works for the players we have.”
It’ll be interesting to see how Steinberg and staff have addressed this issue. A new halfback pairing in scrumhalf Jossy Tseng and flyhalf Hannah Stolba will be tasked with executing it, and the Glendale #10 will have recent Washington State graduate Megan Bonny and Penn State junior Meya Bizer working in the centers. The back three is anchored by 23-year-old veteran and 7s professional Sadie Anderson at fullback, while to-be-capped wings Ryan Carlyle and Erica Cavanaugh hold down the wings.
France is in a similar situation personnel wise. With the RWC 7s taking precedence in selections, France is without backs Caroline Ladagnous, Julie Billes, Marjorie Mayans, Jade Le Pesq and Elodie Guiglion; whereas the USA is missing game-changers like Vix Folayan, Vanesha McGee and Nathalie Marchino.
With all that said, these June tests are an opportunity to be seen, and it might be their only shot before the more veteran 7s players return. Steinberg has stated, however, that the program will be careful in how they integrate the 7s Eagles into the 15s team and will manage that number accordingly.
“Since the fall tour, the Eagles have developed our attacking approach extensively along with our high performance culture,” Turley affirmed. “We also were able to have the Top 60 camp right before this series, so I think we'll go into this feeling far more prepared than last tour.”
So what did we learn? The USA and France have similar personnel issues and strengths, but the visitors have the edge, again, in recent, game-time experience. Fortunately, these tests are the first of seven for the Americans this summer, so we’ll have a better understanding of the USA’s progress by the end of the Nations Cup in August.
There is one distinctive edge that the USA has over France: hometown advantage, which isn’t something the Eagle women can say very often.
“The team couldn't be more excited to have this series of matches here in the USA,” Turley said. “The energy is definitely up with this squad, and we are looking forward to playing in front of some familiar faces. I have actually never played a match as an Eagle in the United States, so I feel very fortunate to do that and also be in Southern California.”
Tonight’s match will kick off 5 p.m. PT at Oxnard College.