Improvement targeted for changed Eagles in Brazil

SÃO PAULO, Brazil - Evidenced by Kelly Griffin's place amongst the 2015-16 World Rugby Women's Sevens Series captains ahead of this weekend's Brazil Women's Sevens, the Women's Eagles Sevens are near the bottom of the Series standings.

The two-point haul from Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens, the first of five stops on the season, came nearly 11 weeks ago. The tournament was the first under Jules McCoy, who had previously led the U.S. team to a Semifinal appearance at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2009, a loss to eventual runner-up New Zealand.

Half of the 12-player team has been changed from the squad that traveled to the United Arab Emirates. Two of the six, Rachel Griendling and Ashley Perry, played under McCoy at American Rugby Pro Training Center, a member of USA Rugby's Olympic Development Academy program. In its first year of existence, travel teams from the Little Rock, Ark., training center won the 2015 Club 7s National Championship and were runners-up to the AIG Women's Collegiate All-American Sevens team at Elite City Sevens.

Both athletes are now full-time residents with the sevens program at the Olympic Training Center, and will make their debuts in São Paulo.

"We're doing more advanced things here than we did in Arkansas," Griendling said of the differences between the NDA and the program in Chula Vista, Calif. "In terms of how [McCoy] talks to players and how she treats players, and how she looks at the game, it's really quite similar. It's been a benefit for me and a few of the other players."

While the two ARPTC alumni have familiarity with McCoy, most of the athletes at the OTC are familiar with each other, and that has come with months and years of training together in a full-time environment. With new attack and defensive systems less than a year away from kickoff at the Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games, that familiarity must transfer rather quickly.

"At ARPTC, [McCoy] never put pressure on us to win tournaments," Griendling said. "It was never about winning games. It was, 'Let's see if we can work this in this time; let's see if we can stress them here.'

"I think some players may thrive under 'winning is the goal,' and some players may not. For me, personally, I like learning things and trying things, and the pressure on winning takes my focus away from how to get there. It doesn't tell me how, it just tells me what the outcome needs to be."

The head coach echoed her player's thoughts following a disappointing result in Dubai, noting that a few more wins would not necessarily mean the processes still did not need improvement.

The new additions worked into the culture in southern California amongst veterans like Griffin and the returning Jillion Potter, who took time off from rugby to beat cancer, but were also part of a group of new faces that include Cheta Emba and Naya Tapper. The latter traveled to Brazil for this weekend's tournament, while the former is one of three non-traveling reserves.

In the weeks since the opening leg of the Series, the Eagles have hosted the women's sevens programs from Canada and Japan at the OTC, giving them even more opportunities to put the new systems to work.

McCoy provides the game plan, but there is still accountability on the players to execute. Following training sessions and competitions with the visiting national teams, the Eagles convene for a group review session on the pitch, pointing out the positives and negatives of the workout.

"Potter and I will have a go at each other at scrimmage time," Perry said. "When she's calling me out on things, or if I see her doing something she does, I'll try to stop her. I think that's my way of not trying to make myself better, but also making her better. Whatever happens, I know I'm helping the team, too."

"With some of the veterans, what impresses me is when they not only gain respect for having been here for so long, but also through working to build relationships with new players and building trust, and support and encourage everyone on the team," Griendling said. "It's admirable. They work best when they create a team environment with everyone."

With the Olympics on the horizon, massive personnel changes from tournament to tournament and lower finishes at each leg may be viewed in a negative light, but the team is focused on the day-to-day rather than how current performances may project come August.

"I think every stop and progression on the stop is the focus rather than Rio," Perry said. "Yeah, our intention is to win gold at Rio, but, instead of focusing so much about that, I feel like the focus is what the next step is. If we don't focus on the next step and miss a step and get too far ahead of ourselves, then we'll fudge up somewhere else down the road."

The Eagles kick off their Brazil campaign at Arena Barueri Saturday, Feb. 20, at 9:50 a.m. ET. A full preview of Brazil Women's Sevens will be posted to Friday afternoon.