Women's Eagles Sevens: Kitakyushu 2017 preview

KITAKYUSHU, Japan - The HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series returns to Asia April 22-23 as Japan hosts its first leg in the competition at the brand-new Mikuni World Stadium.

With Japan also hosting Rugby World Cup 2019 and Tokyo the site of the 2020 Olympic Summer Games, the addition of Kitakyushu to the now-six-round season will give athletes an up-close-and-personal feel of rugby in the Land of the Rising Sun. Now midway through the 2016-17 season, the top three teams have somewhat distanced themselves from the pack, with a 20-point difference between New Zealand at No. 1 and Fiji at No. 4.


Roster for HSBC Kitakyushu Sevens


The USA Women's Eagles Sevens accumulated 32 of their 34 standings points between the last two legs in Las Vegas and Sydney, rising from 11th to fifth in a matter of 12 14-minute matches. Drawn with third-place Canada, England, and Spain in Japan, Richie Walker's Eagles will continue their progression starting Friday, April 21, at 9:30 p.m. ET. Each round of the Series can be viewed live in the United States for free on The Rugby Channel.

WHAT YOU MISSED

Prior to the start of the season in Dubai last December, the U.S. had been to two Cup Finals in 20 tournaments. Both, losses, had come on home soil - in 2013 in Houston and in 2015 in Atlanta. Coming off of a less-than-stellar performance in Dubai, the Eagles put their game together in the second round, beating New Zealand in the Cup Semifinal before eventually falling short of a gold medal to Canada.

Expectations were high, then, when the Eagles returned home ahead of the new-look U.S. stop in Nevada. Sam Boyd Stadium opened especially early for the Women's Sevens Series event Friday, March 3, with the Eagles kicking things off against Ireland. After captain Alev Kelter ticked the scoreboard in the first minute, Ireland assumed control of possession to take a halftime lead. Converted tries in the second frame by Kelter and Naya Tapper gave the U.S. a brief advantage, but two more scores by Ireland put the visitors in front by the time the whistle blew to end the match.

A perfect three-for-three on conversion kicks would have soothed the pain of defeat for Walker after a Sydney leg in which fewer than 40 percent of the team's dot-downs were converted. The bigger picture revolved around qualifying for another Cup Quarterfinal, though, and the Eagles went back to work against familiar foe Spain. Kate Zackary matched the scoring output of Kelter and Tapper in a 22-7 win before the Eagles nearly penalized themselves out of a Quarterfinal place. A well-worked team try finished by Tapper at the end of their final pool matchup with Fiji, 14-7, saved the squad from a place in the Challenge Trophy.

Better prepared for Ireland's challenge in the Quarterfinals, the Eagles ran in four scores to set up another Semifinal date with New Zealand. The Series leader had plowed through pool play and its Quarterfinal opponent, but found the Eagles again to be on a different level. Series-leading try-scorer Michaela Blyde replied to Kristen Thomas' second-minute opener to bring the U.S. lead after an attritive seven minutes to 7-5, and Niall Williams' ninth-minute winner held up to condemn the Eagles to the Bronze Final.

WHERE THE EAGLES FLY

Almost in response to the all-North America Cup Final in Australia - where host Australia and New Zealand met in the Bronze Final - the two nations atop the Series table reclaimed their places in the Vegas Final, relegating the two North American teams to the third-place game. Canada's only loss had come in the Semifinal, and there was no stopping the machine in a 31-7 result.

"You're only as good as the last thing you do."Alev Kelter, Women's Eagles Sevens captain

Tapper's 14 tries in two tournaments put her in the top six on the circuit, while the University of North Carolina graduate joins Alev Kelter (72) in the top 10 in Series scoring with 70 points. Both were named in the Las Vegas dream team, but it takes a full squad to finish in the top four. The return of Bulou Mataitoga added another mobile piece to the U.S. attack, and coincided with physical debuts for Samantha Pankey, Nicole Snyder, and Kelsi Stockert. They spelled their teammates in a grueling weekend without a drop in playing quality - Pankey and Snyder each moved into the starting seven for a match, as well.

While Snyder and Stockert have been selected to the Kitakyushu team, Pankey was unavailable due to an injury sustained in training for the recent Can-Am Series at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center. One teammate there, Jordan Gray, will make her own Series debut this weekend, while USA Falcons selection Megan Sanders will make her first international appearance for an Eagles team at Mikuni World Stadium. Young Lilly Durbin also returns to the team for her second Series stop in place of a recovering Ryan Carlyle, who traveled with the team.

Whereas Hope Rogers physically challenged defenses in Sydney in her Series debut, Gray - a No. 8 in XVs play - will give the Eagles' opponents unique components to consider. For one, it may take more than one player to tackle the six-foot Brigham Young University graduate if she runs at the defense. Additionally, there is the small matter of taking into account the space out wide, where the likes of Stockert, Tapper, and Thomas reside.

FLIGHT PLAN

One positive for Spain, which beat England last month in the Challenge Trophy Final, is that negative results this season will not harm the team in regards to qualifying for Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 in San Francisco as Las Leones automatically qualified with a fourth-place finish in Moscow in 2013. That does not mean a squad with veterans Patricia Garcia and Maria Casado cannot eat away at the gap in the standings from 10th place while simultaneously building depth. Two debutants are included in the Spain team in Japan, where Las Leones will face the U.S. for the third time this season.

England's fall from a top-four team at the Rio 2016 Olympic Summer Games (Team GB's 12-player squad was made up of 11 English players and one Welsh athlete) as well as on the circuit since 2012-13 has been a sight to see this season. Following a Bronze Final appearance in Dubai, England has failed to string two wins together more than once - only in Las Vegas between pool play and the Challenge Trophy Semifinals. Experienced Joanne Watmore leads the team in scoring through the first three rounds of the season, while 21-year-old captain Abbie Brown - on seven caps - is tasked with linking the veterans and four more inexperienced players in the squad in Japan.

After lining up against Canada just once in five legs of the 2015-16 Series, the Eagles are about to face the current No. 3 for a third time in as many months. The Rio bronze medalist will rue the loss of all-time appearance leader Kayla Molechi, injured in Las Vegas, but have plenty of experience in the pool to make up for it. Julia Greenshields and Ashley Steacy hold a combined 27 caps on the Series and are the only changes to the squad from HSBC USA Sevens, where Canada outscored opponents 174-54. The Series' all-time leading points scorer is also in the team in Ghislaine Landry, who tops the charts on the current season with 13 tries and 33 successful conversions.

SCREAMING EAGLES

Fear not, Eagles fans that saw a Japan leg and thought match times would resemble the Asian legs of the men's Series, for Kitakyushu Sevens kickoffs will be much more manageable Stateside. Pool play begins Friday night at 9:30 p.m. ET with U.S. versus Spain, with the final kickoff of Day One scheduled for 4:48 a.m. ET (Eagles versus Canada at 3:20 a.m. ET).

The entire tournament - as well as each of the remaining rounds of the season - can be viewed live on The Rugby Channel. No paid subscription is necessary to view the broadcast.

Women's Eagles Sevens | HSBC Kitakyushu Sevens
1. Joanne Fa'avesi
2. Kristen Thomas
3. Kelly Griffin
4. Nicole Heavirland
5. Lilly Durbin
6. Alev Kelter (C)
7. Naya Tapper
8. Jordan Gray
9. Kelsi Stockert
10. Megan Sanders
11. Bulou Mataitoga
12. Nicole Snyder

Women's Eagles Sevens | HSBC Kitakyushu Sevens
v. Spain - Friday, April 21 @ 9:30 p.m. ET
v. England - Saturday, April 22 @ 12:14 a.m. ET
v. Canada - Saturday, April 22 @ 3:20 a.m. ET