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Friday, August 5, 2016

Olympic Preview: Women Eagles Going For Gold


Here. We. Go! Since rugby was formally voted in as an Olympic sport back in 2009 the Women Eagles 7s have been gearing up for this moment. The team has naturally gone through a lot of changes since, seeing several coaching changes (including three in the last year!), the introduction of the Women's Sevens Series, and full-time contracts for nearly two dozen athletes. But throughout it all, and at the center of the drive, was the goal of medalling in Rio. Now that the games are here the team is finally going to get their chance.

As with any event the big question for the Women Eagles in Rio is can they win a medal? Absolutely they can. Without question it's been an up and down year for the team. It began by qualifying for Rio just over a year ago. Soon after head coach Ric Suggitt was out and new head coach Jules McCoy was brought in. That didn't last as the team struggled in multiple ways under McCoy leading to currently head coach Richie Walker, who was previously an assistant, coming back to lead the team. Under Walker the team seems to have settled down and found their groove.

Take the jump to read more.
Walker has had only three official tournaments with the team but in each one of those tournaments they finished 7th or better and were within distance of the semi-finals on each occasion. More importantly, Walker has had time to get the players into a lot of the same things they were doing under Suggit when they saw success. Players like Kathryn Johnson, have also come back into the team giving them an added element.

A medal in Rio is not guaranteed but over the last few years the team has shown that they have what it takes to be in medal contention. If we are speaking honestly Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are the heavy favorites to medal but if the Eagles can pull off just one upset that might be enough to see them claim a medal. In order to do that they are going to need to put in their best tournament in years.

The Team

After so much scrutiny over the last few years it's hard to argue that the team Richie Walker is taking to Rio isn't the strongest he could put together. There is a lot of balance and a lot to like about the team. You have speed in the likes of Vix Folayan, Lauren Doyle, and Jessica Javelet.  You have power in Nana Fa'avesi, Bui Baravilala, Kathryn Johnson, and Jillion Potter as well as an aerial threat from Carmen Farmer and skill from Richelle Stephens. You also have great kicking from Alev Kelter and savvy veteran presence from Ryan Carlyle, Kelly Griffin.

The key for the team going forward is can they cut down on the small errors that have hurt them in the past. As we all know sevens is such a tight game and the team has had in the past a tendency to make one bad pass or miss an assignment that has cost them the match. That said, the team they are taking is known to have good hands and is arguably their most-mistake free line-up.

Squad: Bui Baravilala, Ryan Carlyle, Lauren Doyle, Nana Fa'avesi, Carmen Farmer, Vix Folayan, Kelly Griffin, Jessica Javelet, Kathryn Johnson, Alev Kelter, Jillion Potter, Richelle Stephens

The Opponents

Fiji (12:00 p.m. et/9:00 a.m. pt, Saturday): First up for the Eagles if Fiji. This is going to be their most crucial match of pool play. A win against Fiji and they are likely in the Cup round, a loss and they are going to need some help. The good news is that the U.S. has beaten Fiji three out of four times this year. The first time they met, in pool play in Dubai, the U.S. lost 24-19 putting them out of the Cup quarterfinals, a lesson for this weekend. After that it was all Eagles with a 38-0 in the Plate semi-finals in Atlanta, a 24-12 win in pool play in Langford, and a 14-12 win the Plate semi-finals in Clermont.

Getting a win over Fiji is not going to be easy. The Fijians have been improving rapidly over the past year and can make some reason noise this weekend. The opportunity to win a medal for your country for the first time is a powerful motivator. If you give Fiji space then watch out. At the same time, they can be frustrated.

Colombia (5:00 p.m. et/2:00 p.m. pt, Saturday): Colombia is the biggest unknown. They qualified through South America but haven't had a lot of experience after that. They also seem to have some political turmoil as former Eagles Nathalie Marchino was initially left off the team only to be put back on. Even with Marchino on the roster this should be a big win for the Eagles. It needs to be as point differential could be huge. They need to pile on the points.

Australia (12:30 p.m. et/9:30 a.m. pt, Sunday): Like many other teams on the Series this year the Eagles did not see success against Australia. They lost 34-0 in the Cup semi-finals in Sao Paulo and then 22-5 in the Cup quarterfinals in Atlanta. Australia are such a tough team and easy favorites to take the gold. While and upset would be spectacular the Eagles would ideally like to keep this one close to help point differential.

If the U.S. plays it right they should finish in second place which will likely set up a quarterfinal match against either Great Britain or Canada.

Keys to the Tournament

Put Your Head Down And Play: It's often been said that the Olympics are like every other tournament but very different at the same time. In the end it's about how you do on the pitch and the best way to perform well is to put your head down and focus on the task. This is where the past experience of many players on the team will come in handy. Many of these players have played on the biggest stages of either rugby or another sport. We think they'll be good in this department.

Small Errors: If the Eagles are going to play their best tournament they have to be sharp in all the small elements of the game. That means their passing has to be crisp, their tackles have to be on, and they have to be communicating with one another. If they make errors that cough up possession then the likes of Fiji and Australia are going to capitalize.

Find Javelet: The U.S. have something few other teams have--flat out speed. One of the difficulties for the team over the last year has been trying to figure out how to get Jessica Javelet the ball in space. Even more, they also need to make sure they are there to support Javelet if she finds herself alone.

Enjoy It: This is the Olympics. For some of these players they are never going to get this experience again. If you are relaxed and enjoying the experience off the pitch then you are going to play better on the pitch. Additionally, because you may never get this experience again there is no reason not to leave it all out there.

The Takeaway

The Eagles aren't a favorite to win a medal but they have a chance to take one. The women's tournament is so wide open and all it's going to need is one or two upsets to shake things up. The Eagles are definitely one of the teams that can cause an upset. Making it to the quarterfinals seems very likely and from then on it's all wide open.

The tournament can be streamed on NBCOlympics.com and individual matches can be found on other channels (more info here).


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