Heading into the Nations Cup, the USA had two goals: Benchmark state of player pool and culminate with a peak performance in the final game. The Eagles defeated South Africa 29-9 in the third place match Saturday, dominating in the second half to end the campaign on a high note.
"During the whole of the Nations Cup preparation, it was all about the England game," USA coach Pete Steinberg said. "We followed a conservative game plan, but during the second week of the Nations Cup, we decided to open it up. We were trying to do too much in the first half against South Africa [Saturday], so there were a lot of handling errors, and our ball-in-contact was not good."
South Africa took an early 6-0 lead on two penalties from flyhalf Zandile Nojoko. The USA answered back with a try from wing Vanesha McGee, and conversion and penalty from fullback Pam Kosanke to take a 10-6 lead that held until halftime.
"At halftime, we reiterated the need to retain possession, and we dominated in the second half," Steinberg said. "South Africa was in our end only a couple of times, and we were the only team that didn't concede a try during a game."
Defense played a major role in the turnaround. Since the England game, the USA has been trying to replicate the defensive intensity that nearly put a win in the Eagles' pocket two Fridays ago. That stellar performance took an emotional and physical toll on the players, and some of the fallout resulted in breakdowns against South Africa in the teams' first matchup (which the USA lost 26-23).
"Defensively, we played better positionally than we did against England," Steinberg assessed. "We had a lot of individual efforts against England, but we defended better as a team against South Africa. Intensity was really up. The second half was the most complete game of rugby we played all tournament, but we're a long way from fulfilling our potential."
McGee, Shaina Turley and Sam Pankey added five-pointers in the second stanza, while Kosanke hit two extras. Nojoko slotted one more penalty for the 29-9 final.
"It was tremendously important to end on a win," Steinberg said. "Losing to South Africa was a big blow for the team. We started a less experienced side [in the teams' first match], but still one that was good enough to win. I was impressed with how the players pulled themselves together after another last-play loss."
Reflecting on the tournament, Steinberg is pleased with the potential of this young squad. Laura Miller showcased her range of athleticism at flanker and lock during the two South African games. She was very powerful in the lineouts, and RSA struggled to win any ball with Miller defending. Devin Keller has the potential to be a very good hooker. The Keystone player doesn't hook for her home club so she doesn't get the regular practice at that position, but Steinberg was still really impressed with her play. In the backs, Kaelene Lundstrum and Katie Dowty have stepped up their games. Dowty in particular chased down a South African breakaway five meters from the line and established her defensive prowess with some great tackles.
All told, Steinberg was happy with the outcome of the tournament.
"I'm satisfied with what the players and staff accomplished with our constraints," Steinberg said. "We played England in the closest game they've had since the Rugby World Cup final against New Zealand. We're disappointed with the second halves against Canada and South Africa, but that's just an indication of where we are as a team. We can compete with the best in the world.
"I was very happy with how the players responded to a new program and approach," Steinberg continued. "We made progress in developing a culture that we can build a foundation from."
Steinberg has been contracted for a year, so right now his plans include tracking players through their club seasons and developing high performance plans for those serious about the 2014 world cup. The next national assembly will occur in January during the annual players camp.