Rachel Johnson / Photos: David Barpal (see more)
The USA Women’s National Team (WNT), in its first outing since the last World Cup, dropped a 67-6 contest to New Zealand. The match was the first of The Rugby Weekend tripleheader and marked a young team’s starting point.
“The great thing is we know where we are now. We know the details that we have to work on. Everyone’s working a bit blind before you actually play your first game,” said USA WNT Head Coach Rob Cain.
The new coach kept the focus on the players and their development, and also eluded to a massive number of upcoming tests for the Eagles.
“It’s never going to get tougher for them,” Cain said of the newly capped. “They’ve made their debuts, at home, loads of expectations against the world champions. It’s only easier for them … We’ve got 29 dress rehearsals for the World Cup; this is our first one, so we really are thinking of where we’re going. I’m just really proud of the players. Their work ethic has been exceptional all week.”
The game took a worrying start, as New Zealand turned over the USA’s kickoff receipt and moved the ball wide toward an overload. Debut wing Kaitlyn Broughton did a good job covering three players before tackling wing Renee Wickliffe into touch at the five. Later in the half, Broughton produced the same try-saving tackle on Wickliffe after a beauty of a cross-field kick.
But the effort went unrewarded, as Charmaine Smith snatched the throw-in and set the driving maul for prop Aldora Itunu to touch down. Vice captain and scrumhalf Kendra Cocksedge, who played a great territorial game with her boot, slotted the first of several difficult conversions, 7-0.
The Americans responded with an important surge, and hard running and connections through contact stressed the New Zealand defense. The Kiwis were quick over the ball but some indiscipline kept the USA on attack, and inside center Kimber Rozier made good on the first opportunity, 7-3 after six minutes.
The Americans enjoyed their most consistent possession during the opening 15 minutes and it was lengthened by New Zealand’s penalties. Deeper into phase play, the connections broke down, and it was representative of a new team building chemistry. The USA couldn’t pierce that red-zone defense, although there were some exciting kick-chase attempts that looked to finish off breaks.
New Zealand finally cleaned up its work in the breakdown and after a legal steal, Cocksedge’s clearance kick relocated the game to the USA’s end. Chelsey Allen scored, and then an unnecessary penalty at the USA five meter set up a New Zealand driving lineout for Eloise Blackwell to touch down.
With the VC’s two conversions, New Zealand led 21-3, but the Americans weren’t beat yet. Cain shed special praise on captain Kate Zackary, who “might not speak all the time but people listen and she says the right things,” said Cain. The big, strong forwards were good in contact, and Alycia Washington was especially good over the ball. Debut Rachel Johnson put in a distinguishable performance, great on the ground and comfortable in open space after a picked-off lineout.
“I thought Rachel Johnson was phenomenal again,” Cain said. “I’m really pleased for players like that. We’ve focused a lot on the rugby but we don’t think about the story, and Rachel’s had a long story to get here. And she deserves to be here and she showed that she’s going to be a real threat at world level.”
Captain Kate Zackary
On two occasions, New Zealand looked like it was going to take a lineout for a trip over the try line, but a penalty and then steal nullified those opportunities. The third attempt however saw captain Fiao’o Faamausili dot down for the 26-3 lead.
Shortly after the restart, Cocksedge’s pass hit the referee and play reset with a New Zealand scrum. The Americans sent the Black Ferns retreating and drew a penalty that Rozier slotted for three, 26-6, to end the half. The USA scrum remained a highlight throughout the match.
In the second half, the USA defense sat back a bit, and once the Black Ferns got a taste for going forward, they didn’t stop. As time of defense increased, some fatigue showed and players started falling off tackles. When New Zealand poached possession, Cocksedge did such a good job of kicking downfield and keeping the pressure on the USA.
Fullback Meya Bizer attempted to relieve pressure with a clearance kick, but the team was all offsides and Cocksedge moved the quick tap to Wickliffe for the first of two tries. Kiwi fullback Selica Winiata followed with five, getting through broken play caused by another big effort from the USA scrum.
The New Zealand scrum wasn’t entirely dominated. After a finishing pass was deemed forward, the USA reset for a five-meter set piece. This time, the Black Ferns pushed the Eagles back and the ball shot out for Cocksedge to scoop up and score. During the final 10 minutes, New Zealand ran in another three tries (Stacey Waaka, Blackwell, Ayesha Leti-I’iga) as the USA just couldn’t slow the attack.
The USA worked its bench and awarded caps, and both captain Kate Zackary and Cain kept the message on the value of the experience. Details and time together, along with a more flexible schedule, will mark the upcoming weeks on tour.