First-game jitters are over as the USA Women 7s team has begun its Dubai 7s campaign with a 12-all draw against Ireland in pool play. This opening game was pinned as the battle for second place in pool A, behind New Zealand, and the two teams must run up the score against Fiji and manage the point differential against the Kiwis for that guaranteed berth into the playoffs.
Physicality is nothing new to the American game, and that characteristic was present everywhere in the USA’s play – although not consistently in some areas. Suffocating defense from Jill Potter and Katie Johnson helped produce some turnovers in Ireland’s end; but the Eagles were definitely vulnerable to the fend when the Irish broke into space.
The Americans reiterated their collective strength with ball in hand, powering through the middle for some good, gainline-breaking runs – the most memorable of which came from Folayan, who fought off a cloud of Irish defenders for 20-30 meters before going to ground. But the young team was too fond of contact around the field, and often picked around the breakdown one phase too many instead of swinging it wide.
Penalties further hampered those positive notes. Several times the USA defense did well to turn over the ball but that flash of possession would be overturned with a penalty in contact.
From the opening kickoff, Johnson didn't rein in the ball but USA held onto possession. The ball worked down the line but an ill-advised pass in contact saw the ball pop loose and Ireland quickly on the attack. Deven Owsiany did well to ankle-tap the breakaway wide, but quick support put Ashleigh Baxter into the corner, 5-0, with less than a minute gone.
Johnson did well to secure the subsequent kickoff but an obstruction penalty returned the ball to Ireland. A couple phases later, Johnson opted to pinch in on defense and the risk paid off, as Ireland knocked on. A solid scrum allowed the ball to work out to Folayan, who single-handedly brought her team to Ireland’s 22 meter. The USA turned over the ball when slow support forced a knock-on at the base of the ruck, but the Americans were in good territory for the first time all game.
Villines made a poor choice to go weak around a ruck, where there was no room down the sideline, and was pushed out of bounds. It looked as if the USA’s first scoring opportunity had been squandered but then a brilliant lineout plucked Ireland’s ball out of the air. Villines quickly burst to the line and offloaded to Megan Bonny out of the tackle, and the Washington State grad was in for her first IRB try. Villines converted the centered try for the 7-5 lead.
Ireland, however, wasn't ready to let the tide turn in the Americans’ favor and on the very next possession saw flyer Alison Miller step around the defense and get to about 10 meters from the USA’s tryline. A fantastic individual effort that was met by Folayan, who was fended about 50 meters prior and then chased down Miller to prevent the solo try.
Irish support was a little slow and Potter nearly turned over the ruck, but a couple of passes eventually saw Claire Keohane dot down and convert her own try, 12-7 into the break.
The USA let their defense do the talking as the second half kicked off and turned over the ball again at Ireland’s 22 meter. And again, the immediate scoring opportunity was left on the table as the Eagles punched it to the line only to have a diving penalty halt momentum. Ireland kicked to touch for a 22-meter lineout, worked it wide, and it looked as if the USA had turned over the ball again, but the referee’s whistle sounded. Clearly frustrated, Folayan rolled the ball away from the penalty mark (in standard fashion) and was yellow-carded. Harsh indeed, but the commentators indicated that the players were briefed about the referees’ strict enforcement of such a slowing tactic.
Two minutes without the team’s best finisher – that hurts. Although the USA didn’t give up any points, the team missed Folayan’s poise and speed out wide, especially when a connecting pass between replacement Dana Meschisi and Bonny halted a promising drive (that began from a stolen lineout).
With three minutes remaining, Rebekah Siebach replaced Owsiany at scrumhalf, a new position for the BYU grad. From the first scrum she monitored, she pressured Ireland from the base and caused a fumble that she herself scooped up. She darted the remaining 15 meters into the try zone. The ball was off-center and captain Kelly Griffin couldn’t convert, 12-12.
Siebach continued to make her presence known as the minutes ticked away and she covered space incredibly well, quelling a couple of potential Ireland breakaways. But there were some chinks in the defensive wall, and twice Lauren Doyle, who came on at flyhalf, was easily shoved off. Doyle spent last year at wing and sweeper, where her shirt-tackling is applicable, especially when operating at top speed. But in tighter, she had issues bringing ballcarriers to ground.
With very little time on the clock, Ireland put in a last-ditch effort with a quick lineout but smartly kicked to touch when they couldn’t get out of their end quickly, rather than tempt the USA defense.
Penalties, too much contact – those issues are easily fixed, especially with a young team. But youth brings its own benefits – like speed, which was very evident, and exciting. Meschisi, who only touched the ball a handful of time, demonstrated a dangerous step; and Villines, also fast, is a confident, hard striker. Depending on how next round’s game against Fiji goes, we might also see crossovers Liz Sowers and Lorrie Clifford.
Game two kicks off at 8:04 a.m. EST.
Tries: Bonny, Siebach
Tries: Miller, Keohane
USA roster: 1. Jill Potter, 2. Kelly Griffin, 3. Katie Johnson (Dana Meschisi), 4. Deven Owsiany (Bex Siebach), 5. Amelia Villines (Lauren Doyle), 6. Megan Bonny, 7. Vix Folayan