Women's Eagles Sevens: Dubai 2016 Preview

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - The 2016-17 HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series kicks off at Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens Dec. 1-2, with the entire tournament available for free to viewers in the United States on The Rugby Channel.

The Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games turned the 2015-16 Series into a glorified preparatory tournament, with the final standings after five legs nearly replicating the Rio standings. Only the Eagles bettered their Series finish in the top half of teams in Rio, beating France in the Fifth-Place Final at Deodoro Stadium.

WHAT YOU MISSED

Players were contracted out of the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., prior to kickoff of the inaugural Series' start in late 2012 with intentions of medaling at Rugby Sevens' debut at the Olympic Games. Though it did not happen, the journey Head Coach Richie Walker, staff, and players have been on for more than four years continues with a new Olympic cycle. In fact, the Eagles will be able to fight for another medal in less than two years' time at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 in San Francisco.

"I was really proud of them and they came out of the Olympics proud of themselves," Walker said of his charges prior to Dubai team selections. "Even though we got fifth place it was really close, and a big confidence boost."

The U.S. was the only team that faced gold medalist Australia without losing, and nearly toppled New Zealand in a five-point margin of defeat. Dubai will be the first time the Eagles have played together against international competition since Rio, but several athletes selected have been busy during the sevens offseason.

WHERE THE EAGLES FLY

While Nicole Heavirland and Naya Tapper - as well as new selection Nicole Strasko - made their international test debuts at the Women's Rugby Super Series in July, the trio of Joanne Fa'avesi, Alev Kelter, and Kate Zackary flew to Dubai last weekend from France, where they were playing in their first XVs games for the Eagles.

Young Kayla Canett was also in Europe during the second half of the year with the Girls High School All-Americans powered by Atavus. The under-18 squad, also consisting of capped Eagles Sevens player Lilly Durbin, placed second at Rugby Europe's U18 Championship with wins against Canada, Germany, Ireland, Russia, and Wales.

A week after the Women's Rugby Sevens event at the Games of the XXXI Olympiad ended, Bulou Mataitoga's Berkeley All Blues faced Kristine Sommer's Seattle Saracens in a late consolation match at the 2016 USA Rugby Emirates Airline Club 7s National Championship. Mataitoga's play was seen by national team selectors and Brandon Sparks, head coach of the AIG Women's Collegiate All-American Sevens team, in particular. She was named to the WCAA team for the Atavus Elite Women's 7s Tournament and, though she missed the Women's Premier League Championships with an injury, played full back for the All Blues' XVs side throughout the fall season.

FLIGHT PLAN

Cheta Emba was a reserve for the Eagles in São Paulo last season and is up for her Series debut this weekend along with Canett, Mataitoga, Sommer, and Strasko. It is a tough ask for players that have not yet tasted the Sevens Series to face the likes of Australia in their first day of competition, but that is where the experience of the likes of Lauren Doyle and Alev Kelter come into play.

"There have been lots of changes in the Residency program as players have gone on to do other things with their lives post-Rio or have not been renewed for this cycle," Walker said. "I'm very happy for the four returning Olympians and am excited to see them step up and be the next leaders of this team."

Doyle is one of the most capped sevens players in the world behind 10 others, including Rio 2016 captain Kelly Griffin. Her speed and game-breaking ability have seen her rise to 15th in tries scored all-time on the Series, and will be necessary against the Eagles' opponents in Pool A.

Beginning with Russia, the Eagles will like their chances to open Dubai and the 2016-17 season with a win. The Bears have undergone a shift since failing to qualify for Rio, though did reach the Cup Final in the United Arab Emirates a year ago. The team is experienced, however, carrying just two debutantes in the 12-player squad.

South Africa did not appear in any of the Series legs in 2015-16 despite qualifying for the Olympics as a continental champion. The nation was replaced by Kenya in Rio as the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee's criteria for Olympic support did not allow for that particular qualification method. Dubai will be South Africa's opportunity to prove it is one of the best 12 women's rugby teams in the world.

As Walker stated during the build-up to Dubai, Australia will not have to change anything it has done for the past four years after successfully capturing gold. No one will be able to take the medal from Australia, but it will have to defend its Series Champion status on the circuit. The Eagles will have as good a shot as any to topple Australia with the favorable result this summer.

SCREAMING EAGLES

The Women's Sevens Series and men's counterpart have doubled up in the United Arab Emirates since the 2012-13 season, making for a busy weekend of rugby viewing in the U.S. America's east coast is nine hours behind Dubai, meaning late nights and early mornings for those still jonesing for Olympic rugby.

The Eagles kick off their 2016-17 season Thursday, Dec. 1, at 4:28 a.m. ET against Russia, and play through the early morning hours until the final pool match against Australia at 10:43 a.m. ET. Depending on results, Walker's side will kick off Day Two between the hours of midnight and 3:15 a.m. ET Friday, Dec. 2, after the men's tournament begins.

Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens will be broadcast on The Rugby Channel for viewers in the United States. A paid subscription is not required. Also follow live match updates on Twitter (or catch up on the action later) with USA Rugby's account (@USARugby).

Women's Eagles Sevens | Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens
1. Cheta Emba
2. Ryan Carlyle
3. Kate Zackary
4. Alev Kelter
5. Nicole Heavirland
6. Lauren Doyle
7. Naya Tapper
8. Joanne Fa'avesi
9. Nicole Strasko
10. Kayla Canett
11. Kristine Sommer
12. Bulou Mataitoga

Women's Eagles Sevens | Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens
v. Russia - Thursday, Dec. 1 @ 4:28 a.m. ET
v. South Africa - Thursday, Dec. 1 @ 7:24 a.m. ET
v. Australia - Thursday, Dec. 1 @ 10:43 a.m. ET