Scratching the Surface

the rising USA Women's Eagles

We've all heard it too many times before, Rome wasn't built in a day.

Yet when it was built, it became this shining beacon of history that emulated culture and character, along with something achieved that truly stood the test of time.

And among all the many things that took time to build, it's a wonder how one of the most infamous cities in the world can compare alongside a women's national rugby team that visualizes a goal in equal measure, and still within its own right.

The USA Rugby Women's Eagles just completed their first string of test matches in more than a year. They did it with 21 new players, 17 new caps, a new Captain, a new Head Coach; and for the first time in two World Cup cycles, a General Manager. What's more is they did it after last finishing fourth at Rugby World Cup 2017 Ireland to mark their highest ever finish since claiming the title in 1991.

1991 Women's Eagles

You might ask then, why a team who just reached a new echelon in the world rankings would wait a whole year before assembling again.

The answer: a fresh foundation for a new build.

A new era for the Women's National Team was opened with the hiring of Emilie Bydwell to lead as the General Manager for Women's High Performance. Bydwell herself owns 21 caps and three Rugby World Cup appearances in 2010, 2013 (7s) and 2014 as a Women's Eagle. When she was brought on, Bydwell was faced with the opportunity to review, revise and establish a long-term strategic vision that would consistently deliver benchmarks of success while also overcoming the challenges of limited resources.

The World Cup finish didn't diminish the financial restrictions or limitations the growing program is up against. And moreover, it brings to light the efforts of all coaches, athletes, staff and administrators dating back to 1991 who helped reach the 2017 result.

Still, it requires courage and wisdom beyond retrospect to understand that sometimes, even after reaching a peak, a program needs to take the time to investigate its history, reset for its future and determine how to regularly reach those same goals.

To do that, and do it well, takes time.

A fact that weighs even heavier when measured against the influx of new players rising through the pipeline of women's rugby in America.

"This has been an incredibly challenging year, and I thank all the players, staff members, administrators and community for their patience and support," said Emilie Bydwell. "The 15s program in particular is at an inflection point, I firmly believe that we have the pieces in place now from a planning and scheduling standpoint to maximize our sprint to the 2021 World Cup in New Zealand.

"I am aware that things felt idle from the outside, but without aligning the pieces first - we would have left the gates too early, unprepared. We will be demanding a lot from USA Rugby and the community to help back our women financially in the next 30 months (and beyond), but we would have felt irresponsible doing that without the correct plan. Very exciting times are coming, as our athletes and staff grow together, so let's get behind them and enjoy."

What could be misconstrued as idle on the outside was very much intricate and tireless work behind the scenes to not only identify the right individuals to join the new era of the Women's Eagles, but also to fit the appropriate roles.

Then, simultaneously, came the task of strategically building a competition schedule that challenged both players and coaches while also exposing them to the nature of the best in the world.

Alongside filling new roles and building a schedule was the biggest task of all: scouring the pipeline to create an in-depth player pool.

When Head Coach Rob Cain was officially introduced, he immediately dedicated his focus to visiting as many rugby-rich programs as possible to learn about the landscape of women's rugby in America and invest in its talent.

More than six weeks on the road were filled with countless discussions, matches and training sessions across both the senior club and collegiate levels. And through them, Cain not only familiarized himself with the climate of American rugby, he discovered a nest of budding players that showed a potential to, within time, challenge and beat the best in the world.

"We've had more than a promising start from everyone as our performances against New Zealand and England were filled full of effort, pride and determination. Our continued improved performances against England A and Ireland not only showed glimpses of just how dangerous we are going to be but also how much the players learned from our two previous challenges," said Coach Cain.

"Collaboration between clubs, varsities and the 15s program has been great and I thank them for not only being so welcoming to me but also integral to having such a promising start to the new adventure we've been on since my arrival. Their willingness and efforts to support the players and myself has played a huge part in the leaps we have made as a program in such a short span of time.

"We are only beginning to scratch the surface in terms of where we know we can go. Our time together and more games -- both of which we intend to have more of in 2019 -- will really allow this new group of staff and players to showcase our intentions as a group moving toward 2021."

In truth, women's rugby in and of itself is a quickly growing sector of the sport. Within that are many challenges to overcome, many milestones to reach and an array of individuals fighting for the same goal.

When the Women's National Team finally assembled for the Autumn Internationals 2018, a group of more than 30 American rugby players were pit together to - within days - become a cohesive unit and face the No. 1 ranked team in the World.

There were different personalities, different experience levels and varying skill sets that all had to unite under new leadership. Each of them carried the responsibility of paying homage to the 1991 Women's Eagles, the 2017 Women's Eagles and to themselves for making the most of an opportunity to create something everlasting.

It was an unbelievable challenge that every player, coach and staff member embraced with open minds and open arms; knowing that the prize of the future would be much greater than the pressures of the moment.

The Women's Eagles didn't beat the No. 1 New Zealand Black Ferns. One week later they didn't beat the No. 2 England Red Roses. Some might argue that the matchups were too harsh, or that the players weren't ready. But what is completely undeniable is what each athlete gained from those two experiences and what a program learned about itself that it carried into the final two games of the schedule. Something that, very clearly, could not have been achieved as profoundly if a team wasn't faced with the bold challenge of a top-ranked team.

The Women's program did defeat England Academy. And less than one week later, it secured another smashing victory over rugby powerhouse Ireland.

Where they were unable to score against the Black Ferns, the Women's National Team notched their first new-era try over England, four over England Academy and another three in their final win in Ireland. These numbers are an indication of one thing: the unification of the same women with different personalities, different experience levels and varying skills who had grown through each matchup into a fully functioning unit.

After 9 caps with the Women's Eagles and two World Cups in both 15s and 7s in 2017 and 2018, Captain Kate Zackary was sharply focused on the new era of the Women's National Team.

"This is the start of our next journey - World Cup 2021. We weren't focused on wins or losses, but rather the development of individuals and team," said Captain Kate Zackary. "This tour was about experience, not just on the field but off as well. In three short weeks, 17 players played in their first international senior level matches and have made lifelong memories. This team has the potential to be the best in the world, but it will take every player in the pool and it will take time. We'll get there."

For those who still can't picture the similarities between a growing women's national rugby team and a city that continues to stand in all its glory, picture this: the strongest foundations are always laid over time. The road appears messy, looking worse before it shows signs of looking better, and it takes consistent margins of progression to ultimately reach a finished result.

The new era of the Women's National Team has just barely scratched its surface. As the pieces are put together, strengthened by the consistency and cohesion of a unit, new and existing Eagles will not only reach for the same levels of success as 1991 and 2017, they will cement it.

Photo credit in order of appearance: USA Rugby, Travis Prior-KLC Fotos, Neil Kennedy, Mike Lee-KLC Fotos, Neil Kennedy, Travis Prior-KLC Fotos.

*Alex Williams served as a General Manager for the Women's Eagles in 2011.