Women's Eagles Sevens: Sydney 2017 preview

SYDNEY, Australia - The 2016-17 HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series is about to end its nine-week break this weekend with HSBC Sydney7s kicking off at Allianz Stadium Thursday, Feb. 2 (United States ET).

Australia is hosting its first round on the circuit since its inception with the 2012-13 season. The home team the gold medal of the Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games Rugby Sevens competition, as well as a No. 2 ranking after Emirates Airline Dubai Rugby Sevens. This weekend's action - and the entire season - can be viewed live for free on The Rugby Channel.

WHAT YOU MISSED

Head Coach Richie Walker's Women's Eagles Sevens scored 10 tries in the United Arab Emirates but earned just two points from the first of six Series rounds for an 11th-place ranking in the standings. Dubai Captain Lauren Doyle, one of six American try-scorers, led the team with four dot-downs. Alev Kelter has been named captain, as Doyle was not selected for the trip to Australia. Doyle will be eligible for selection for the third round at HSBC USA Sevens in Las Vegas.


See the Men's and Women's Eagles Sevens in Las Vegas


Kelter was a productive performer of the Eagles on the Series last season, scoring a team-leading 79 points with 10 tries. In Dubai, she split conversion duties with Nicole Heavirland with a 55-percent success rate despite several kicks from wide angles. Her restarts were also advantageous for the Eagles and led to sustained possession post-U.S. tries.

In her Series debut, Cheta Emba reminded sevens fans of Team USA's gutsy draw with Australia at Rio 2016 with a match-winning try against Russia to open pool play in Dubai. The Eagles had been trailing the Bears until the 12th minute of the match when Walker inserted tactical substitutes Kayla Canett - also on debut - and Joanne Fa'avesi. Fa'avesi tracked down Kelter's restart following Doyle's first try of the tournament, and held off a defender long enough to free Emba for the win.

The Eagles had conceded more penalties than Walker would have liked, however; a trend that continued through the remaining pool games. South Africa capitalized in a 26-7 loss for the U.S., which did keep eventual runner-up Australia to its lowest point output prior to the Cup Final. A full-team try was a bright spot in the Challenge Trophy Semifinal before the Eagles found their stride against Brazil to finish the tournament on a high note.

WHERE THE EAGLES FLY

Walker made a total of four changes to the Sydney squad, bringing back Rio captain Kelly Griffin in addition to including Kristen Thomas for the first time since a leg injury sustained in France last May. Thomas was only four points behind Kelter in 2015-16 in scoring 15 tries, good for eighth on the circuit. Her speed will offset the absence of Doyle in the lineup, while Griffin's rugby I.Q. and experience - she has played in 93 international matches - will provide stability to a team sitting at an average age of 23.

All-American Kayla Canett returns for her second go-round having impressed the coaching staff in limited appearances in Dubai. A try-saving tackle against South Africa proved the 18-year-old could hold her own physically, and a read of a quick throw by one of the best in Australia showed what the younger players in the pathway can offer on the circuit. The current Pennsylvania State University student-athlete will be joined by former Nittany Lion and Women's Rugby World Cup veteran Hope Rogers in the latter's Series debut.

Rogers has been training at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center with a few XVs Eagles, but has participated in sevens training with Walker's core group. Her strength with ball in hand will more than test opponents, and could free space elsewhere on the field for her teammates. In addition to Emba and Thomas, speedster Naya Tapper will be looking to take advantage of such a scenario.

Sarah Buonopane made headlines at the 2016 USA Rugby Club 7s National Championships with a Dream Team performance for Old Blue of New York following two starts at outside center for the AIG Women's Collegiate All-Americans. Her training at Northeast Academy - a member of the USA Rugby Olympic Development Academy program - has also seen her selected to Northeast sides in international competition in Barbados and the Las Vegas Invitational tournament. She attended the National All-Star Competition over the New Year holiday but will have a more immediate impact with the Sevens team in her debut this weekend.

FLIGHT PLAN

The Eagles were in a tight battle with Russia in last season's standings, accumulating 46 points to the Bears' 42. Russia would have characterized itself as having taken a step backwards that year without a Rio 2016 qualification spot and three appearances in the Series' Cup round. Dubai is almost like a second home, however, as the Russians have finished in the top three in the two most recent tournaments. The Eagles walked away winners from the head-to-head in December, but Russia left the United Arab Emirates with a bronze medal.

On the other end of the Dubai Bronze Medal Match was England, whose Team GB counterparts also lost an opportunity at capturing bronze in Rio. In addition to the defeat to Russia, England fell to Olympic medalists Australia and Canada and nearly let a lead slip against an improving Fiji team. The Eagles lost all three of their matchups with England between the final two legs of the 2015-16 season, including two Cup Quarterfinal defeats. The team is relatively unchanged for Sydney, with two debutants selected.

Spain's relationship with the Eagles is rather back and forth, with each nation holding supremacy for a period of time before the other regains the upper-hand. In the final four legs of the 2015-16 season, the Eagles were drawn in a pool with Spain, shutting out their European opponents in São Paulo and Atlanta. The Spanish conquest began in Canada, however, with a 10-7 pool defeat preceding a 14-12 Plate Semifinal before a 12-10 result in Clermont-Ferrand. A dream qualification run for Rio propelled Las Leones into a Challenge Trophy Final appearance in Dubai, but it has been more than eight months since the two sides have rekindled their rivalry.

SCREAMING EAGLES

The Women's Eagles Sevens will play Russia in the second match of day one at Allianz Stadium, as Pool C gets things underway at Sydney7s. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:52 p.m. ET Thursday, Feb. 2, before 11:12 p.m. and 1:54 a.m. start times for the remaining pool matches that night. The Women's Sevens Series can be viewed live from the United States on The Rugby Channel without a subscription. Live match updates will also be provided on Twitter by USA Rugby (@USARugby).

Women's Eagles Sevens | HSBC Sydney7s
1. Cheta Emba
2. Kristen Thomas
3. Kelly Griffin
4. Ryan Carlyle
5. Nicole Heavirland
6. Alev Kelter
7. Naya Tapper
8. Kate Zackary
9. Joanne Fa'avesi
10. Kayla Canett
11. Hope Rogers
12. Sarah Buonopane

Women's Eagles Sevens | HSBC Sydney7s
v. Russia - Thursday, Feb. 2 @ 8:52 p.m. ET
v. England - Thursday, Feb. 2 @ 11:12 p.m. ET
v. Spain - Friday, Feb. 3 @ 1:54 a.m. ET