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Mahoney: EIRA Girls Make Statement in Ireland

  • 05 Aug 2022
  • 10672 Views
EIRA rugby

In July, Eagle Impact Rugby Academy (EIRA) took a 15s tour to Ireland, a trip that marked the first international tour for the organization’s U16 and U18 girls’ teams. The squads went 4-for-5 against Irish provincial teams, represented the U.S. game well, and took home memories that will surely impact their rugby and life trajectories moving forward.

EIRA formed more than a decade ago and for the majority of its existence focused on the boys’ game. In the last few years, however, the USA Rugby National Development Program has expanded into the girls’ sphere.

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“Growing up in Arizona, Salty Thompson has almost been like a second dad to me when it comes to rugby,” EIRA girls’ head coach Lindsey Mahoney said of the EIRA co-founder, who is based in Arizona. “Throughout my playing career, I’ve always seen him growing the program for the boys … but when I started coaching, it was, ‘Salty, we’re missing the girls and it’s such a big opportunity that I think you’ve overlooked.”

So EIRA started holding local ID camps and in December 2020, 40 players attended the first girls’ winter camp in Casa Grande, Ariz. Mahoney then entered an EIRA U16 team into the 2021 NAI 7s tournament, “to see if we had something,” she said. “And they are honestly our most core group of girls today, although some of them are U18s now.” Mahoney liked what she saw, but also clarified that 7s is not the main focus with EIRA.

“We want to help grow the game from a 15s perspective, because there are so many select side academies and programs that are developing 7s for our girls in this country, but there’s nothing for 15s,” said Mahoney, also head coach of Grand Canyon University and co-coach of the Pacific South U23 all-stars. “A lot of these girls come to us with 7s experience, not 15s experience, and if you want to play rugby in college, you have to have a foundational understanding of how to play this game. We’re helping prepare the next generation of college and national team players.”

EIRA Rugby

AJ Haughey / Photo: Walter Schmidlin

It took approximately two years to build a player pool with the depth of knowledge and experience that’s needed for quality, international competition. But that time came, and Ireland was pegged as the July 2022 touring destination.

“Salty was a little nervous,” Mahoney said. “That’s his home, so obviously it was a goal of ours to perform well and show that the USA knows what it’s doing.”

Forty-seven players filled out U16 and U18 squads, and Mahoney, who is the head coach for the EIRA girls, added Kelsie McDowell, Chris Rowell and Dai Morgan to the coaching staff. Sonya Fesola’i-James served as the girls’ tour manager. The group arrived in Ireland on July 18, and there was an adjustment for culture shock, distance from family, and big-group dynamics. But once the mindset shifted to the rugby, some comfort followed.

EIRA rugby

Photo: Walter Schmidlin

“But a lot of them haven’t been in a high performance environment before, so we wanted to show them what that looks like,” Mahoney said of the on-going development. “If you were to play in college, this is what your day would look like, this is what your focus needs to be, this is how your attitude needs to look going into these competitive games. That was also a shock for them, but they really adopted it and it showed in the performances.”

There were also players who did have exposure to that lifestyle and could bridge that gap for teammates. Mahoney noted Sahryse Fong, the U16 captain and hooker, who has been with EIRA since she was 14 years old. SoCal’s Haughey sisters, AJ and Cora, and flyhalf Leilani Lepe are also EIRA veterans and big influences. And extraordinarily, a few players have moved in with the Haughey family. They play for Fallbrook, train with Charlie Purdon, and, “eat, sleep, breathe rugby,” per Mahoney.

From the opposite coast, Buffalo’s Annie Henrich is another leader with the U16s.

EIRA rugby

Annie Henrich / Photo: Walter Schmidlin

“It’s been cool, because obviously the Henrich name is pretty popular in the rugby world, but she’s been able to really make a name for herself within EIRA without her sister’s or mother’s name attached it,” Mahoney said.

“That whole group has been with us to every single camp and opportunity we’ve held and stuck with us through the entire thing,” the coach continued. “They understand the culture and what we kind of want to drive, and what we’re looking for.”

For the first couple of days, the teams separated on the training pitch and classroom, just so specifics could be nailed down, but rejoined for the majority of the remaining time. On July 22, the teams faced their first opponent in Munster, and the U16s took the pitch first.

EIRA Rugby

EIRA U16s

“Munster is a strong team and rooted in a lot of success and tradition, and the players were excited to jump into that,” Mahoney said. “Like I said, the U16 girls are our most-core group and they came out and smashed Munster. We have a lot of girls from Hawaii from the Kahuku area and I don’t think the Munster girls were able to handle their physicality. We might have relied on our physicality versus rugby knowledge at times, so we came away with some work-ons.”

Pasefika’s DaviAnn Pula and Zariyah Danielson, playing inside center and No. 8, respectively, scored tries for EIRA, while Henrich and Cece Stowers kicked conversions. Munster scored a try in the 14-5 win for the EIRA U16s. Then the U18s took the pitch. EIRA actually outscored Munster on tries, as Caroline Cook dotted down twice, and captain Lennox London, Audrey Fryda and Celia Watson scored a try apiece. Munster scored four tries but connected on three conversions for the 26-25 victory.

“That game was really back and forth, and you could see the girls’ wheels turning from start to finish,” Mahoney said. “They were a totally different team by the end of the game. They were using two lines of attack the whole time, they were playing with speed and accuracy, and had spread the field nicely. I don’t think Munster was expecting that, so they were happy about that. Again, this is all about development, so I was smiling ear-to-ear seeing the growth of our 14 through 18-year-olds.”

EIRA Rugby

EIRA U18s

The teams had good momentum coming out of Munster and then readied for Leinster on July 26. Unfortunately the provincial side didn’t field a U16 team, so EIRA combined the player pool for a U18 squad. Training together, Mahoney relished the intensifying energy and faster decision-making that came to the pitch.

That did mean, though, that half of the player pool would not get a game in round two.

“Some heads were down,” Mahoney said of selections. “But you really saw leadership help through that – just to get the girls up and in the right mindset, and to really help protect the integrity of our culture. Kate Muldoon and Cora Haughey did a great job at that. Both impressed me with their attitudes throughout that and they helped maintain the cohesion between the entire team.”

Mahoney called out Halateka Williams from the Pleasanton Cavaliers, as well as AJ Haughey, Fong, Lepe and Henrich for their positivity.

EIRA rugby

Lennox London (left) / Photo: Walter Schmidlin

“And Lennox London,” the coach said of the U18 captain. “She’s going to Harvard and is an incredible leader and phenomenal athlete. The girls look up to her and she has nothing but humility. She’s so welcoming to the entire group.”

The combined EIRA team beat Leinster 48-7. Then on July 29, EIRA posted two shutouts against Ulster. The U16s won 67-0, and the U18s closed with a 53-0 win. The players then voted for team superlatives:

Ireland Tour 2022 EIRA U16 EIRA U18
Best Forward Sahryse Fong Lennox London, AJ Haughey
Most Improved Forward Jennie Weiner, Zariyah Danielson Ashley Torres-Brown
Best Back Osooso Sulunga, Annie Henrich Leilani Lepe, Ashley Cowdrey
Most Improved Back Rebecca Balladares, Carys Phillips Liberty Cawthorn
MVPs Fong, Henrich, DaviAnn Pula London, Caroline Cook

It was a lot of rugby, but the team did get some time in Dublin and also boarded and trained at Clongowes Wood College. The Kildare school is renowned for its rugby and superb grounds.

“It’s a castle,” Mahoney enthused. “I’m in awe that we got to stay there, so imagine a 16-year-old being in Ireland for the first time, playing three provinces and staying in a castle that has beautiful rugby pitches.”

EIRA rugby

Photo: Walter Schmidlin

Mahoney hit all of her goals for the players. She wanted them to see what rugby away from home looked like, experience rugby culture from another country, and make a statement about American rugby and what’s happening at the grassroots level.

“You look on paper and see we won all these games, and that’s awesome, that’s a great outcome,” Mahoney said. “But the most important thing to me was reading the self-reflections, which they submitted after tour, and seeing that they really took a lot away from this. When you’re balancing 50 girls and their needs, you’re always worried that they’re not getting out of it what you want for them, but they really seized opportunities to learn and grow and make memories that will last a lifetime. I really feel like we’re moving in the right direction with this.”

What’s next for the girls? Mahoney is looking at Spain.

“Ireland was great. We did what we wanted to do and now we want to get better,” the coach said. “Spain has done a really good job investing in their women’s rugby. There’s a lot of professional opportunities for the girls out there right now, so their rugby is growing really fast. And they play really fast and physical like we do, so we think it’s a good matchup for us. Not sure when but within the next year we’ll look at going to Spain.”

EIRA rugby

Photo: Walter Schmidlin

EIRA U16 Girls

Rebecca Balladares – West Carroll, Md.
Katija Crawford – Pasefika, Hawaii
Zariyah Danielson – Pasefika, Hawaii
Annabelle Dauser – Sparta-Rock, Mich.
Sahryse Fong – Fallbrook, Calif.
Cora Haughey – Fallbrook, Calif.
Annie Henrich – Orchard Park, N.Y.
Rachel Kissinger – Celina, Texas
Abygail Lambert – Ospreys, N.H.
Carolina Martinez – Green Bay, Wis.
Carolyn Melody – West Carroll, Md.
Kiernan Myles – West Carroll, Md.
Arianna Pappas – Rebels, Ga.
Carys Phillips – West Houston RC, Texas
Alyssa Post – Sparta-Rock, Mich.
DaviAnn Pula – Pasefika, Hawaii
Cecelia Stowers – Madtown Furies, Wis.
Osooso Sulunga – Pasefika, Hawaii
Zaria Watson – St. Louis, Mo.
Jennie Weiner – Aspetuck, Conn.
Mallory Weronko – Sparta-Rock, Mich.
Halateka Williams – Pleasanton, Calif.

EIRA U18 Girls

Lex Catalano – Ospreys, N.H.
Liberty Cawthorn – Roosevelt HS, Iowa
Cate Coetzee – Vienna, Va.
Caroline Cook – Charlotte Cardinals, N.C.
Ashley Cowdrey – Sparta-Rock, Mich.
Charlotte Dauser – Sparta-Rock, Mich.
Caliann Dietz – West Carroll, Md.
Amelia Eastland – Eagle HS, Idaho
Audrey Fryda – Catholic Memorial, Wis.
Isabella Gullatta – Brunswick, Ohio
Marley Gurmendi – Monarch, Colo.
Andrea Hamilton – Aspetuck, Conn.
AJ Haughey – Fallbrook, Calif.
Reaghan King – Doylestown, Pa.
Erica Kissinger – Celina, Texas
Avery Laird – Aspetuck, Conn.
Leilani Lepe – Empire, Calif.
Lennox London – Charlotte Cardinals, N.C.
Kate Muldoon – Monarch, Colo.
Allison Provance – Brunswick, Ohio
Ashley Torres-Brown – Greenwich HS, Conn.
Emma Schaefer – Southeast Polk HS, Iowa
Celia Watson – Carmel, Ind.
Avonlea Wood – Aspetuck, Conn.
Abigail Zurek – Sparta-Rock, Mich.

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HIGH SCHOOL · USA