Maher during the Captain’s Run / Photo: Jackie Finlan
The last time that The Rugby Breakdown talked to Ilona Maher (read more), the then-senior at Quinnipiac University was playing for Scion Rugby Academy at the March 2018 LVI. In that interview, she talked about her rugby future in ambiguous terms, focusing more on graduation and keeping her options open.
Fast-forward five months and Maher is a member of the USA’s Rugby World Cup Sevens squad, and the future nurse took the pitch during the Eagles’ 38-7 Round of 16 win over China.
“It’s been crazy. It’s been a whirlwind,” Maher said of the past five months. “Vegas was really important for me. I think I had a goal when I went into [the tournament] and what I wanted to do. I wanted to play well and I wanted to show [USA Women’s 7s head coach] Richie [Walker] what I could do, and I think I performed well.”
Maher impressed during Scion’s title run, but she certainly wasn’t an unknown entity. She’s been in the USA pipeline and had represented the Women’s Collegiate All-Americans, but was primarily regarded as a 15s player. In Vegas, she showed her versatility and poise.
“And then after that, it was just kind of different steps I wanted to do,” Maher said of post-Vegas plans. “’Well now I want to go to the [Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center]. O.K., now I want to make the Paris tour. O.K., now I want to do World Cup.’ So it’s just been setting a goal and reaching it.”
After relocating to Chula Vista, Maher was selected to the final leg of the World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series in Paris. In two matches, she was subbed onto pitch late, and in both matches, she scored a long-range try to end the game.
“With my [USA 7s] debut, I wasn’t as nervous as I expected to be. I was nervous but once I got out on the field, it was: O.K., I can play rugby; I know how to play rugby,” Maher said. “And with [the World Cup], it’s the same feeling – maybe a little more intensified and I’m a little more nervous. It’s more of excitement being on your home field … being here with your family and friends and all the fans.”
Maher, and the rest of the USA 7s team and staff, enjoyed an additional opportunity to connect with supporters as the featured guests of Women For Rugby’s fundraiser earlier this week.
“It was so great. Because I saw that I had fans when I was back in college … and they’d come out to see me. It’s cool to see that the game is just growing around the country and people everywhere are starting to watch us and more girls are getting interested. So seeing these young girls who could one day do what we’re doing is amazing,” Maher said.
The USA is readying for its second match of the RWC 7s and will face Russia in the Cup quarterfinals. If the Eagles win then they’ll face New Zealand in Saturday’s Cup semifinals.
“Not really,” Maher said of the RWC 7s experience not sinking in yet. “Once we were going to warm up and started high-fiving people it started to sink in that: Oh wait a minute, we’re the USA Team. A lot of people around the country love us and want to see us play.”
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