Photo: Mike Lee / KLC fotos for World Rugby
The USA is 2-0 after day one of the Rugby World Cup Sevens, defeating China 38-7 in the Round of 16 and ending Friday with a 33-17 win over Russia. The Eagles will now play New Zealand in Saturday’s Cup semifinals at 12:04 p.m. Pacific.
As seen earlier in the day, the connection between kicker Nicole Heavirland and jumper Abby Gustaitis played crucial roles in the USA’s amount of possession, and the duo held onto the USA’s opening kickoff. Russia kicked the ball off the ground but the captain was quick to chase it down and did really well to salvage what could have been a retreat deeper into Eagle territory. The team settled down through a couple of phases, and then the ball moved wide to Naya Tapper. Akin to game one, the wing on her first touch powered through the sideline defense for the opening try, converted by Heavirland.
Russia showed how dangerous it can be with ball in hand – and again, why stealing as much possession as possible is vital – as Baizat Khamidova slipped through some missed tackles for a try, 7-5.
Emba’s scored three tries so far. / Photo: Jackie Finlan
The next phase made the crowd roar, as Jordan Gray got her hands on the ball. Her fixed stare, as she lined up a pair of defenders, did not precede a step or a dummy. She took on defenders head-on, plowed through them, and then looked for support. That allowed the ball to move wide to Tapper again, and she finished off the campaign with a 40-meter try, 12-5.
The final try of the half was a full-team effort. It started with Gustaitis in the air, continued forward through Gray’s crashes, slinked through tackles Lauren Doyle style, and got in scoring position through Kristen Thomas. Gustaitis went on a power run to the posts and was stopped short, until Gray and Heavirland got behind the prop for a little extra oomph. Gustaitis had the poise to keep her feet while freeing the ball for the dot-down. Heavirland’s conversion gave the USA a 21-5 halftime lead.
“We really didn’t want to adjust to them, so we were really just going after it and going for our game plan,” said Thomas, who indicated that getting 2s and 3s to the ruck was a major focus for the team this game. “We tried to play a power game against them so we were able to get them to bunch and then move the ball wide.
“In the second half we just continued that,” the hooker added. “It was a back-and-forth battle; of course, it’s 7s rugby. And they had a yellow card [advantage] and they came back with a few tries and we had to battle back from that.”
The second half began with end-to-end action, and then a yellow card to Heavirland gave Russia the momentum to make some moves. A kick ahead saw a dramatic foot race to the USA try line, a sprint that Ilona Maher won and whose perfectly timed stride saw the ball kick out the back. The effort prevented the grounding but the game restarted with a five-meter Russian scrum, and a try followed easily, 21-12.
And then another penalty allowed Russia to simply work the numbers and space for a third try, still with a player advantage, and it was 21-17 with minutes remaining.
“We said exactly that: Keep your composure,” Thomas recited the motivational speech to finish out the match. “We’ve trained for this. We train with a person down. We train with two people down, so we were ready for the moment that we were down a person, and we were ready to rally and play defense.”
It was a deciding moment: Was Russia going to keep building or would the USA do enough to keep the lead intact?
The Eagles did more than exist through the rest of the game and added another two tries before the final whistle.
“We pulled a few people off the bench that we really rely on to bring that leap of energy in, and so it was really crucial for them to come in,” Thomas said. “[Maher] came right off the bench and scored that amazing try right through the middle, so that really rejuvenated us and we were ready to go after that.”
Maher’s try came off the back of a power run from Cheta Emba. And then Gustaitis came down with the restart and got to within striking distance of the try line. Maher popped the ball to Emba, who needed little room to barrel past for the defense for her third try of the tournament, 33-17 the final.
Thomas was in a unique position, starting at hooker, being subbed off, watching the game from the sideline, and then brought back on to finish out the game.
“It’s a little weird when you first start doing it, but we’ve done a few times now,” Thomas said. “You just really have to stay engaged, try to picture the game as if you’re still in it. I usually take some runs down to the try zone and back just to stay engaged; you don’t want to stay on the bench too long.”
Especially when there’s a rabid USA-leaning crowd out there waiting to cheer for you. Thomas enjoyed a personalized version of that support when she scored against China.
“It was so amazing,” Thomas said. “The fans are so great out there; it’s a home crowd. And our families and friends are here, so it’s just an amazing experience just playing let alone scoring in a World Cup.”
Tries: Tapper 2, Gustaitis, Maher, Emba
Cons: Heavirland 4
Tries: Khamidova, Mikhaltsova, Noritsina
USA starters: 1. Abby Gustaitis, 2. Kristen Thomas, 3. Jordan Gray, 4. Ryan Carlyle, 5. Nicole Heavirland (c), 6. Lauren Doyle, 7. Naya Tapper