Throwback Thursday: Can-Am
Ireland will host the eighth Women's Rugby World Cup this August, 26 years since the USA Women's Eagles won the first world championship in 1991. Each Thursday leading up to the tournament, USA Rugby will be taking a look at the history of the WRWC and the Eagles' performances through the years.
To coincide with the 30th anniversary of the first U.S. international and 2017 Can-Am Series, this is a special breakdown of the American-Canadian rivalry.
By the time the USA Women's Eagles shocked rugby powers England and New Zealand on the way to a Women's Rugby World Cup win in 1991, the U.S. had already proven to its neighbor to the north it was a dominant force in international rugby. Just 16 international women's matches had been played prior to the first Can-Am matchup in 1987, when both countries made their debuts.
The Men's Eagles were 2-1-8 against Canada in a 10-year span leading up to the fall of 1987, when the first squad of Women's Eagles joined their trip to Victoria, British Columbia. Perhaps excited at the prospect of its national men's team continuing a streak of victories over the Americans, but more likely ready for women to take the stage, the city turned out in force at a welcoming ceremony for all four teams.
Victoria's first female mayor, Gretchen Brewin, recognized the women for their commitment and sacrifice. Within days and, eventually, years, it was apparent those same women and those to follow would follow suit. Though the men lost their fourth rivalry match on the trot, the Women's Eagles began a nine-match winning streak against Canada in a 22-3 defeat north of the border.
"I think it was the shortest game of my life," starting lock Robin Pace, Eagle No. 12, said of her only Eagles appearance. "You're so amped up, so excited about playing in a crowded stadium. There were several thousand people there, but it felt like 80,000 in Florida State's stadium or something. All of a sudden it was halftime, then all of a sudden it was over. We trained so hard, were so fit.
"It was exciting that we won. I can't tell you how exciting it was."
The occasion may have been bigger than the rivalry itself in that instance, as it kicked off the team's historic timeline on the international stage. It was slow to begin with, as the Eagles played just two more matches in the two years to follow, but they were further victories against Canada in Saranac Lake, N.Y., and Edmonton, Alberta.
The rivalry was renewed in 1992, with the Eagles bearing the World Cup Winner title in Minnesota in their first match since the triumph in Wales. That match was close, 13-12, but the '93 encounter that brought the first Canada Cup to an end put a marker on the gap between the two nations, 60-3.
At the time, the major sporting rivalry between the U.S. and Canada was in ice hockey, where professional athletes in the NHL from both countries created nothing short of a battle of superpowers at the international level. Compared to the rest of the world - especially with the fall of the Soviet Union - they were the benchmark for the sport.
As Tier Two nations in men's rugby, the two were middling sides in a sport dominated by the thoroughbreds. In the women's game, however, the Eagles were a force of change. Other nations had to up their own support, their own preparations for international competition. As the gap between the Eagles and other countries lessened at World Cups, so did the U.S.'s supremacy over Canada.
The Canadians won three of six matchups between the '98 World Cup - the last time the Eagles reached a Final - and the 2002 World Cup, where they also finished fourth to the U.S.'s seventh. The series was split in the next quadrennial to bring the overall record in favor of the Americans to 13-5, before momentum swung Canada's way around the '06 and 2010 World Cups.
"We had a really experienced team going into the 2006 World Cup," former Eagles captain and all-time caps lead Jamie Burke, Eagle No. 137, said. "Much more so than Canada. After it ended it was like a massive retirement from international play happened. We went on tour in 2007 and played against ['06 Finalist] England with 19 new caps. It was a really green team going into the next ramp-up."
Canada's Heather Moyse led the '06 tournament in Canada in points and tries scored, and was level on most tries in England in 2010. A young, talented Eagles squad that endured a rough patch of eight consecutive losses through the first match of the '09 Nations Cup following the 2006 exodus, though unable to qualify for the top four out of pool play, was given a shot at ending Canada's upswing in the rivalry in the World Cup's fifth-place match.
"The games that stood out to me the most in my career were World Cup games in general," Burke said. "But the fact it was a Canada game and a World Cup made it much more of an epic World Cup game than it otherwise would've been if we were playing a Scotland or an Ireland because of the history that was being played out there."
Using a few notes gained from a 2009 Nations Cup matchup - the U.S.'s first Can-Am victory since 2006 - and four matchups in the World Cup year, the Americans shut Canada down in the second half to prevail, 23-20.
The rivalry somewhat took a back seat in the years to follow as the teams traveled abroad more often, meeting only at Nations Cup in 2011 and 2013. The Eagles won the latter matchup, but it was Canada that stole the show at the 2014 World Cup, finishing runner-up in a momentous Final against England.
The advent of the Women's Rugby Super Series in 2015 and 2016 welcomed powerful nations England, France, and New Zealand to North America, but the most-attended games were between Canada and the Eagles. Canada Day 2015 was stolen by the U.S. in Red Deer, Alberta, before Canada got one back in Salt Lake City last year.
"I like to be in tune with the team," current Eagles captain Tiffany Faaee, Eagle No. 246 and a native of New Zealand, said. "I can feel it from them that Canada's the team to beat. I bounce off of that like, 'Yeah, let's go do it.' Especially that first game - coming off the bench, my first cap - the minute we came off the field with points and seeing the girls' faces, I knew it was a big deal.
"That was my introduction into the rivalry. That set the bar for me: 'Well, we have to keep doing that every time we meet.' We just couldn't get the results the last two. We're getting there."
Following Tuesday's match in Chula Vista, Calif., the U.S.'s lead in the rivalry - once 9-0 - has been cut to 18-17. The younger players coming through the ranks, however, have enjoyed some successes against their counterparts across the border.
The AIG Women's Junior All-Americans won their two most recent matches against Canada's under-20s in 2015, a different group of young women than the AIG Women's Collegiate All-Americans that beat two Ontario regional sides a year earlier - a team that included five Eagles in this month's Can-Am player pool. The Girls High School All-Americans powered by Atavus, which played its first matches in 2015, is unbeaten in all matches played against Canadian opposition in both sevens and XVs.
"There's something to be said for having that international experience at whatever age grade you're at, and having winning experience," Burke said. "You learn what it is to win at the international level. I think the reason it took us so long to build back from the 2007 struggles was that we had a lot of folks that had their confidence sort of 'squished.'
"I think these age-grade kids who are coming into the program are having that experience of winning internationally, which means, as the move up, they're like, 'No, I know how to win.' That mentality translates over as you move up and progress through the ranks."
The 36th rivalry match kicks off Saturday, April 1, 29 years and about five months from the first.