It's all or nothing for the USA Women's U20s, as the junior Eagles prepare for its rematch against England in the Nations Cup final tomorrow. In the teams' first meeting less than a week ago, the Roses shut out the Americans 37-0, but USA captain Katie Johnson is optimistic about her team's chances in the championship.
"We've got nothing to lose," the No. 8 said. "We'll go all out and have a good time against England, and it'll be exciting either way. I'm confident that we'll pull something out, especially since we haven't played to the best of our ability yet."
The USA is coming off a 15-5 win over Canada Wednesday, a victory that took nearly 60 minutes to evolve. A sloppy, disjointed game marked the first half, and Eagles looked uninspired into the second stanza.
"We weren't doing enough," Johnson said of the first half. "Many of the players were watching to see what Canada had instead of showing them what we had first. Some of it was intimidation, knowing that we had to beat these guys to move on."
But then subs Alycia Washington at lock and prop Colleen Carey injected some pep into their teammates' step, coming on in the last quarter. Centers Akalaini Baravilala and Amelia Bizer "carried the team," according to Johnson, and accounted for the two tries to the seal the win.
The Eagles are exactly where they wanted to be - 2-1 record and playing in the final - but they've been working hard over the last two days to make sure they put their best foot forward tomorrow.
"We've been buckling down on defense, and working on our counter-rucks and mauls for more controlled play," Johnson said. "We need to make more level three tackles so that turnovers are more of an option for us.
"We need to stay wide, too," Johnson reflected on the England game specifically. "Our forwards weren't pushing our backs out quick enough, and we were getting run around on the outside."
But if any team's going to pressure England, Johnson knows this year's group has the potential. "We're the underdogs coming in, but this is the best assembly I've been to," Johnson praised, "the best athletes, the best everything."
Johnson's been in the age grade program for six years, so she has a reliable perspective. She longs for these gatherings, especially since her college team's falling apart and she's been training with the men's side, in addition to enlisting a personal trainer.
"I'm always working out, practicing my skills on my own or with friends," Johnson said. "I get to play at such a higher standard here and with the best athletes in the USA who push you farther."
Johnson intended this tournament to be her last with the U20s, even though she has more than a year of eligibility. But she's delayed her push for the senior side until she's packed on some more weight, and will use the next year to build muscle in order to contend with the senior athletes.
"I need to work on running low," Johnson added. "I'm a weird runner; I always get stood up. I've been working on it for a while, but maybe all these dump tackles will make me change."
England banked a 66-7 win over South Africa on Wednesday, and will be incredibly difficult to knock off. If the USA can peak in tomorrow's game and put some points on the board, it'll certainly be deemed a victory.