Unbeaten in Okinawa, Falcons win invitational Cup

OKINAWA, Japan - The Andrew Locke-coached USA Falcons developmental squad won the Cup at the weekend's Okinawa Sevens invitational tournament, going undefeated through six matches Feb. 18-19.

Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games traveling reserves Cheta Emba and Nicole Heavirland led the Falcons in scoring with 30 and 41 points, respectively, while the team defeated a developmental Australian side twice in the final two matches to win the championship. Kate Zackary accounted for four of the Falcons' 23 tries, and captained the 11-player team that arrived in Japan a day prior to kickoff.

"This was a huge opportunity for us as a program and I appreciate the efforts by the Japan Rugby Union to host this invitational," Locke said. "It was a first-class event from the welcome to the closing tournament function. Playing 24 hours after arriving was challenging in its own right, but every foreign team was under the same conditions and I thought the ladies responded well.

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"With the Women's Sevens Series only having six stops, every chance to play against elite competition is highly welcomed."

The participating teams' schedules included matches against each of the five opponents prior to final seeding matchups to determine place. With five Eagles that won the silver medal at HSBC Sydney7s at the beginning of the month, the Falcons played to their strengths of power and pace on day one. Japan A benefitted from a yellow card to Ryan Carlyle in the final minutes of the opening match, scoring a match-tying try beyond the 14-minute mark for a 19-19 result.

Naya Tapper, Player of the Final against Canada in Sydney, kicked off a scoring barrage by the Falcons in their encounter with France's developmental side. Playing just the first half, the University of North Carolina graduate crossed the try line twice as the Falcons led, 19-0, at the break, before Zackary added her second and Lilly Durbin dotted down for a 29-7 win.

Locke said one of the focuses for the tournament was to make progress from game to game. The local Japan sides rucked well, however, keeping the Falcons from quick ball in their two day-one matchups. Japan B pressured the Falcons early in the third match of the day, blocking a kick for a first try before sloppy play allowed the co-home team to cross again. Heavirland and Tapper combined for one try in the first half, Zackary leveled the game early in the second, and a long run from Tapper gave the U.S. its first lead of the match. Japan B found its way over with the final play of the match, however, and a penalty against the Falcons led to a successful conversion attempt in front of the posts and a second draw, 19-19.

The starting sevens throughout the tournament had kept a core group together while offering minutes from the get-go to international sevens newcomers Tia Blythe, Megan Foster, Sam Pankey, and Kelsi Stockert. Blythe opened the scoring against the Netherlands with a try in her first start of the weekend, while second-half substitutions blew a 12-0 game wide open with three tries for a 33-0 win.

"I am excited for some of the players with primarily-XVs backgrounds who mixed in on the weekend," Locke said. "Kelsi Stockert was a versatile addition playing at several positions. She made huge contributions with her hard runs, work rate on defense, and counter-rucking effort. Tia Blythe provided numerous sparks with her running and offloads. She was also very consistent on defense with several crucial tackles. Also very pleased with the efforts of Sam Pankey and Megan Foster in their first international sevens tournament."

The Women's Eagles Sevens may have impressed at Sydney7s, but their Cup Final appearance was a surprise to some viewers not because of their play at Allianz Stadium, but their 11th-place finish in Dubai to open the season. Teams like Australia and New Zealand have had sustained successes on the HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series with consistent play, and the Falcons were forced to find their own with back-to-back matchups with Australia.

Heading into the final match of the round robin - before the "playoff" matchup was to be decided - the Falcons were a step ahead of Japan A without a loss. Despite conceding a 5-0 lead in fewer than 60 seconds, the Falcons led Australia from the second minute on and saw out the 26-17 win with a 14th-minute score. As it was Australia's first defeat, the two met again in the Cup Final by virtue of their five-game records.

A slightly altered lineup again allowed an early try to Australia in the Final, and a lengthy back-and-forth through giveaways and set pieces gave Tapper the opportunity to score. Emba gave the Falcons a halftime lead with her sixth try of the weekend, and Durbin extended the advantage before a late Australian try brought the final score to 19-12.

"We're gutted for Bulou Mataitoga, who was not able to travel at the last minute, because I know the work she has been putting in in order to have these opportunities to play with her teammates," Locke said. "The ladies know there was no way we would have even made the Final in not for the efforts and commitment of all 11 players that traveled.

"We talked after Sydney about consistency. With an 11th-place finish in Dubai and then second in Sydney, we need to demonstrate consistency in performance with what our goals and standards are. This tournament was a positive step in that direction and certainly continues the momentum as we build for Vegas. Richie Walker is excited to receive us back, and this will definitely make his job harder regarding those selections as competition will be high."

Eagles Head Coach Richie Walker will be tasked with selecting a squad of 12 for the third round of the 2016-17 Series, HSBC USA Sevens. The tournament in Las Vegas marks the first time the women's event has been paired with the men's Sevens Series event on U.S. soil, and will kick off Friday, March 3, at Sam Boyd Stadium.

USA Falcons | Okinawa Sevens

1. Lilly Durbin

2. Cheta Emba

3. Megan Foster

4. Nicole Heavirland

5. Tia Blythe

6. Sam Pankey

7. Ryan Carlyle

8. Kelsi Stockert

9. Nicole Strasko

10. Naya Tapper

12. Kate Zackary (C)

USA Falcons | Okinawa Sevens

v. Japan A - D 19-19

v. France - W 29-7

v. Japan B - D 19-19

v. Netherlands - W 33-0

v. Australia - W 26-17

Cup Final v. Australia - W 19-12