USA Women's Rio 2016 Pool Preview

RIO DE JANEIRO - Team USA's women's squad was drawn into the inaugural Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games Rugby Sevens competition's Pool A with Australia, Colombia, and Fiji Tuesday.

Head Coach Richie Walker led the Women's Eagles Sevens to a combined 3-3 record against eighth-ranked Fiji and HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series Champion Australia during the 2015-16 season. The U.S. placed sixth in five tournaments a year after qualifying for Rio at the 2015 NACRA Sevens Championships.

AUSSIE AUSSIE AUSSIE RIO RIO RIO

New Zealand had lifted the Series trophy at the end of the first three seasons, with Australia in second and third in 2013-14 and 2014-15, respectively. With several invitational tournaments and competitive matches with Series teams prior to and during the 2015-16 season, Australia exceeded expectations to win the first three legs of the five-tournament Series.

As Alicia Quirk wrote in a World Rugby column prior to the kickoff of the season:

"We are aiming to come in red hot in Dubai, letting our processes take care of our performance. We then want to continue to build momentum for peak performance in Rio."

It was Australia's consistency that saw the team win the Series by 14 points over holder New Zealand, losing just three matches in 36 opportunities. An incredible statistic, one loss came in pool play and the other two were defeats in a Cup Semifinal and Cup Final. If there is a favorite at Rio, Australia is it.

Led by captain Sharni Williams, the Australians have infused young talent to complement the vast experience included in the roster, which had an average age of 24 in the last round in France. Emilee Cherry tops the nation in Series appearances with 18, and was second in points (134) and tries (22) scored this season.

The attack is run by half back Charlotte Caslick and finished by Chloe Dalton, who converted a Series-high 46 post-try kicks for the second-highest scoring team on the circuit. The squad got younger with the addition of Dominique Du Toit, a Rugby Sevens gold medalist at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games, who scored four tries between HSBC Atlanta Sevens and the penultimate leg of the circuit in Canada.

The Eagles dramatically defeated a strong Australia team on home soil last season, but could not handle the strength of the team wearing green and yellow in two meetings this year. In the U.S.'s first Cup Semifinal of the 2015-16 campaign in Brazil, Australia sent the team to the third-place match with a 34-0 shutout. Australia posted a similar result in the Atlanta Cup Quarterfinal without the use of strong, pacey wing Ellia Green, who scored 17 tries in three tournaments.

The men's team will join the women in Rio as both qualified for the quadrennial at the first opportunity in 2015. Without Rugby Sevens, Australia has been a consistent medal contender at the Olympic Summer Games since the 1800s, and has won 34 gold medals in Games south of the equator.

FIJIANA FORTUNE

The Eagles started the 2015-16 season slowly following a brief offseason. With a grueling two days in North Carolina for the successful Rio 2016 qualification campaign at the 2015 NACRA Sevens Championships and a tougher tournament with medal contender Canada at the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto, the U.S. sparingly found time away from the field amidst a coaching change.

When it came to starting the Series in Dubai, the Eagles struggled to put the pieces together, and missed Cup qualification thanks, in part, to Fiji. The Fijians improved the continuity in their playing style from the 2014-15 season, and did not allow a 12th minute Megan Bonny-Alev Kelter converted try deter them from a victory in pool play. Litia Naiqato dotted down a full-team try reminiscent of the men's side's unique offloading game to overcome the Eagles' lead and win, 24-19.

Fiji followed up the seventh-place finish in the United Arab Emirates with its best performance of the season in São Paulo - despite winning only two matches - gaining 10 standings points with a Plate Final defeat to France. Earnings dropped in the final three rounds, however, as Fiji lost three matches to the U.S. in going 6-11 in Atlanta, Canada, and France.

Leading scorers Rusila Nagasau and Luisa Basei Tisolo accounted for more than a quarter of the team's points, each scoring 18 tries and combining for 23 successful conversion kicks.

Fiji has never won a medal at an Olympic Games, with a total of 119 athletes representing the Pacific island nation in 13 quadrennials, and has more opportunities than ever this year with 48 athletes traveling to Rio competing in Rugby Sevens, archery, football, judo, shooting, table tennis, and weightlifting.

CON GUSTO, COLOMBIA

Colombia's lone appearance on the circuit came in Atlanta this past season, less than a year after its CONSUR Women's Sevens Championship-winning campaign to qualify for Rio. It was tough going for the Colombians, who do not boast the same kind of experience at the international level as the likes of Australia and the United States, let alone non-core teams Brazil and Japan.

Colombia lost all five of its matches at Fifth Third Bank Stadium at Kennesaw State University, two in shutouts, and scored just 26 points. The team will be boosted by the inclusion of former Eagle Nathalie Marchino - a Rugby World Cup and Rugby World Cup Sevens veteran - who is eligible for the Colombian national team.

With an average of 44 athletes at each Olympic Summer Games since 1956, Colombia has won a total of 19 medals. The two gold medals came recently in 2000 in Sydney and 2012 in London, both in the individual events of weightlifting and cycling, respectively.

EAGLES IN FLIGHT

A devastating injury to Kristen Thomas in one of the final games in Clermont-Ferrand could keep one speedy wing from Walker's 12-player Olympic team. Lauren Doyle is in the latter stages of recovery mode, as well, while Victoria Folayan played sparingly across Series and invitational events this season. Only Kelter and Thomas reached double digits in tries scored.

The return of Jillion Potter from a battle with cancer was inspiration to say the least, but also a wonderful addition to a leadership group of a team that features two teenagers and less-experienced international Eagles. The strength of Potter shows with ball in hand and on defense, and was complemented well by fellow 15s Eagle Carmen Farmer on the circuit.

Jessica Javelet featured at several positions this season, using her pace on the outside to create havoc as well as serving as playmaker from the ruck to keep teams on their toes. The rugby IQ of Bui Baravilala was another weapon at the U.S.'s disposal, and partner in crime Richelle Stephens, 19, fit right in on the Series after making her debut in Dubai.

"I feel very excited with the final pool of players that have been selected, and looking forward to this group really working hard and putting their hand up to be selected to the 2016 USA Olympic team," Walker said.

The full Olympic team will be announced Monday, July 18, on USARugby.org. Match schedules for the Rugby Sevens competition at the Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games will be released by the International Olympic Committee in due course.

Women's Eagles Sevens | OTC Residency
Bui Baravilala
Amelia Bizer
Megan Bonny
Ryan Carlyle
Bianca Dalal
Lauren Doyle
Lilly Durbin
Cheta Emba
Joanne Fa'avesi
Carmen Farmer
Victoria Folayan
Kelly Griffin
Nicole Heavirland
Jessica Javelet
Kathryn Johnson
Alev Kelter
Hannah Lopez
Jane Paar
Jillion Potter
Richelle Stephens
Kristen Thomas