My Experience at the Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017. Belfast, Ireland. What’s next? #BringIt 4

As with any World Championship type event in which our Eagles participate, there was significant optimism for the USA Women as they embarked to Ireland several weeks ago. Only twelve months ago, there were rumblings that the tournament might be cancelled, and more recent funding issues potentially threatened USA participation in the tournament.  Responding to USAR’s CEO pleas to assist, the philanthropic efforts ($150,000 total) of many in the American rugby community enabled the tour to commence, and the ladies did not disappoint – soundly thrashing the likes of Italy, then Spain in the first two matches.  

Next came the final pool match vs. the (then) top-ranked team in the world, England.  As of August 2016, the English XV became the first fully professionally contracted Women’s side, and had the benefit of playing a dozen tests (including the Women’s 6 Nations) leading up to the WRWC, compared to the USA only playing Canada twice in June, and the WPL All-Stars several weeks before the World Cup campaign.  In the WWRC lead up the story broke that England Rugby would not be renewing the central contracts for the Red Roses. 

“The Bonus Point” vs. England 

However, based on the improvement of the Eagles through the first two matches, and reports from Ireland thru social media, indications that an upset of England was possible.  We had brought in several contracted 7s players  (Cheta Emba, Kris Thomas, Nicole Heavirlind, Naya Tapper, Kelter, Javalet, etc..) early in the process and it was clear that this team was improving rapidly with each passing day. For me, the ‘firepower’ of these 7s players meant anything was possible. This injection of talent compares to just one player (Jillion Potter) coming from the 7s pool for WRWC 2014. 

As the England match went past the 80th minute, the USA was well beaten, but had performed very well against the defending World Cup Champion Red Roses, scoring several well put together tries but ultimately coming up short. One of the beautiful aspects of Rugby is the ‘play to the end’ mentality despite the score line, and as wing Kris Thomas took an inside pass from a set piece, this feature has rarely been more on display.  Thomas swerved 3-4 times during her 70-meter jaunt to score after full time, and it appeared to be yet another ‘moral victory’ for our Eagle team.  As I was about to turn off the broadcast, the announcer mentioned ‘bonus point’, and I realized we might actually have a shot at advancing out to the pool.  I messaged some of my trusted ‘in the know’ comrades Aaron Castro and Grant Cole who both advised all that needed to happen was France beat Ireland in the final pool match of the tournament and the USA would advance over a heart broken Canada. 

Later that day, and for the first time in my life, I found myself barracking for a French national team and they did not disappoint, thrashing the disappointed hosts by 21-5.  The Eagles were in the semi-finals, slated to play 4-time Champion New Zealand! 

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Kris Thomas. The try scorer in extra time that started this trip…

“We going?” 

My next move was never in doubt.  I’ve been fortunate recently to learn about the Women’s game from former Eagles 7’s coach, and founder of the American Rugby Pro Training Center (Little Rock, AR), Dr. Julie McCoy.  If I recall correctly, less than an hour after the final whistle v England we both messaged each other at the same time, “We going?”.  24 hours later it was a done deal, and 72 hours later I found myself at the Eagles Captain’s Run in Belfast on the eve of the semi-final vs the Black Ferns of New Zealand.  

Semi Finals – USA vs New Zealand 

On game day I had no idea what to expect from the entire spectacle, I had seen only a few Women’s test matches, including USA’s three lead up matches and several 6 Nation’s games courtesy of ESPN earlier in the year.  I arrived at Kingspan Stadium, home of Ulster Rugby, excited to participate in what would certainly be a unique rugby experience. There was no disappointment.  The crowd of only 6,000 (out of 18,000 capacity) on this semi-final Tuesday was cause for concern, but the atmosphere more than made up for some empty seats.  I’d estimate the crowd as 70% women, and many of those dressed in their home country colors.  This was a passionate group.   

As the Eagles ran on, and the national anthems of both teams played, I choked up as I always do, but seeing the Lady Kiwi’s perform the haka in front of the USA team was special.  I loved how Alev Kelter just smiled back at them on the big screen, and the team (I am sure at the bequest of Kiwi born Assistant Coach Richie Walker) gripped arms and walked forward to ‘accept the challenge’.  Game on!  And, it was brilliant.  

For 55 minutes the battle was even, the USA holding the lead well into the match, but the pressure of the Black Ferns (winners of 24 of their last 25 WRWC matches) proved too much.  It didn’t help that future World Rugby Hall of Famer Portia Woodman decided to demonstrate her magic that day with four tries, but the result was not just the ‘moral victory’ we in the USA so often seem to settle for.   

The Eagles had put in a brilliant physical, skilled, and committed performance.   Later in the evening, England defeated France, leaving the top 2 ranked teams in the world to battle the final, and the USA to play a talented and experienced Les Bleues in the consolation final.   

After three days touring both Northern Ireland, and the Republic – I returned to Belfast after watching on TV what could arguably be the most entertaining Men’s test match this century (Bledisloe 2, where NZ beat 35 point underdog Aussie in the final minutes).  What a day this would turn out to be! 

Final’s Day 

Game time for the consolation final was 5:00 p.m. local, and I met Julie for lunch with three hours to spare.  We discussed everything under the sun on Women’s rugby.  We agreed no topic was off limits; I got the history of the USA in the WRWC, the growth of 7’s, the disparity of funding, changes in demographics of the players themselves, the shift of Women’s rugby to more ‘mainstream’ and the reasons that might account for that shift, and Julie’s own experience as a player and coach at the top level, as well as her ethos about the game.   

Arriving at the stadium, the atmosphere was electric.  While semifinals day may have seen the stands only 1/3 full on a Tuesday night, it was clear when exiting our Uber (where Julie and I received an education from a former British Army soldier who served 8 years in Belfast during the Bombing days), Kingspan Stadium was going to be rocking.  The costumes were terrific, rivalling the creativity shown at the Hong Kong 7’s, and there was something about a female dominated rugby audience that made this so special and unique.  The opportunity for the USA to medal in what clearly was the most competitive and compelling WRWC ever now was a bonus.   

I’ll let other writers more savvy with on field commentary discuss the game itself, and will note that the USA were 21 point underdogs vs. the French.  80 minutes later, 16,000 people had witnessed one of the most exciting, end to end, wire to wire rugby matches possible – both sides deserving to win.  The run of play gave no indication of any ‘favorite’, and the contest at the ruck was fierce and furious.  It was a marvelous game of rugby with many of the crowd taking note of some new rugby heroes: Alev Kelter, Kris Thomas, Sara Parsons, Tiffany Faaee, Jordan Gray, to name a few.   

Several Ulster men independently said to me, “We have not seen rugby as exciting as that at Kingspan for years!”.  

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Julie McCoy. You don’t get too far too fast walking the WWRC with Julie.

The Final’s 

Walking the stadium at a WRWC Final with the likes of Julie McCoy compared to my experience of navigating the Hong Kong 10’s with Todd Clever, or the Vegas 7’s with Dan Lyle – i.e., you’re not going anywhere very fast.  She knows everyone!  It was fun to experience this in such a special environment.  We happened upon her former teammate, former Eagle and current RIM/TRC Board Member Pam Kosanke, who was in attendance also to participate in the Women’s Rugby Leadership conference held in conjunction with the WRWC. Listening to Julie and Pam discussing rugby was enlightening and educational, and suffice to say without getting into specifics, Pam is a tremendous asset for American Rugby serving in her administrative capacities.  I’m not mentioning that because Pam enabled Julie and I to have access to the President’s box for the final, but in fact, she did just that.  

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Pam Kosanke!

I’ve had some wonderful personal experiences recently in Rugby, and I would put this one right there comparable to anyone of them.  Once again, I had come to an event with literally no expectations and now found myself sitting with the England dirt-trackers in the row in front of us, including Danielle Waterman (not able to participate in the final due to concussion in the semi, and not having enough time between matches to be deemed fit), and the Kiwi’s in the row behind us. Several seats away sat the entire World Rugby Board of Directors.   

Again, I’ll let others more qualified describe the match itself – but it was an 80 minute showcase of our sport, regardless of the gender of the participants.  Of course, New Zealand ultimately regained the title, but both teams put in a committed 80 minutes that would rival any match I’ve seen.  The noise and positive spirit from the crowd was relentless, and made for a memory I will not soon forget.   

Outtakes 

Whatever expectations I brought to Ireland were literally blown away.  The spectacle of this event at the top level of Women’s rugby rivals that of any I have experienced, including RWC finals, Hong Kong 7’s and others.  That’s the good news. 

Reality is that the rugby world faces the same issues in 2017 with the Women’s game as it had apparently after the same WRWC events in 2010 and 2014.  There is an enormous ‘buzz’ around the Women’s code with numerous requests on all forms of social media calling for higher prioritization for Women’s Rugby.  I’m sold.  It’s the exact same game the Men play, but at this level there is just something special.  It’s hard to describe the difference, but it’s there… in a good way. 

The overriding question must be, how to commercialize the Women’s game such that it can possibly fund itself?   The Men’s game may actually be falsely thinking it is secure financially; more and more it appears that the successful clubs around the world (i.e. Saracens, Toulon, Racing 92, Bath, etc…) are primarily funded by exceptionally wealthy individuals with their own quirky passion for the game, and all but the elite home nations are financially viable.  If this is the case, the Women’s game must be considered to be in crisis mode.  

I was very fortunate to spend an hour or so mingling with the likes of WR CEO Brett Gosper, Board members John Jeffrey, John O’Driscoll, and our own Bob Latham, whom I was grateful to see in attendance as an American.  This is the 4th consecutive WRWC final he has attended.  As previously mentioned, Pam Kosanke was there as well, and literally the only female in the room that night other than WR’s GM for Women’s Rugby Katie Sadleir 

World Rugby CEO, Brett Gosper 

In meeting Gosper I commended him on what I believe the positive moves are that World Rugby is making; player welfare, world calendar, on field safety issues, targeted financial focus for developing rugby countries, etc… and asked him his thoughts/vision for Rugby in the USA.  Without hesitation he answered, “Commercial Opportunities”.  We also discussed the necessity for the Men’s XV program to be competitive to assist in obtaining these same commercial opportunities.  We discussed other USA specific issues, and I brought up the subject of “RIM”.  I don’t think he was expecting such a question on this particular day from some guy dressed in Red, White, and Blue Converse sneakers, but his immediate reaction of half smile, glance to the ground with head shaking, and mumbled words to the effect of ‘disaster’ spoke volumes for me.  Subsequent conversations with the likes of Jeffrey and O’Driscoll yielded the same outcome.   

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Brett Gosper, WR CEO and John O’Driscoll

USAR Leadership Opportunities 

A USA Rugby team in the semi-final round of a World Championship is a rarity that should not be missed by our leadership.  I had personally messaged with Dan Payne about our flights to Belfast, and he literally was stuck halfway to Ireland in Washington DC after a flight cancellation left him unable to make it in time for the Semi-final.  His words to me about his predicament, “gutted”.  He was planning on making a surprise appearance, having attended the first two matches the week before.  

I was certainly hoping to see more USA leadership present, despite the short notice – and feel such events are practically mandatory.  Never would there be a better networking opportunity at the international level than at finals week at the WRWC.  Quite frankly, attendance is really ‘you had to be there’ to experience the unique magic of this event.

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Bob Latham. Former USAR Chairman, current USA Rep to WR Board

The Future; Women’s Rugby and WRWC 2021 

In discussing the future of Women’s Rugby in the USA with Pam Kosanke, she is of strong mind that the USA could/should host the 2021 WRWC.  I agree.  The upside is enormous; the most prominent being the ability to show the rugby world the USA is capable of hosting a multi week international competition. This event is completely different than the 3 day 7s RWC the USA will be hosting in San Francisco next year.  The net result could be a fond view of the USA hosting the RWC2027, and the commensurate financial windfall that would create.  The knock on effect of player participation, particularly with girls, would also be tremendous.  

Logistically, such a tournament could be held in just two major markets – and the finals week would fit superbly in an MLS stadium such as BBVA in Houston.  Another option in four years could be one of the ‘to be built’ stadiums for use in Major League Rugby.  Austin, Dallas, and Houston come to mind as potential venues.  The risk is that with only 6,000 in attendance for the Semi’s and a one-off capacity crowd of just under 20,000 for the finals in a rugby keen land like Ireland – the financial outcome could be scary.  For now, we will let the experts at RIM ponder such an idea.  

I also believe ‘finals week’ at WRWC, if placed in the right destination could create an event of enormous interest. Semifinals could be played on a Sunday, and Finals/Consolation on the following Saturday.  The lower places could be settled at venues mid-week.  Pick a fabulous destination, market the product, and I believe in 2-3 iterations you have 50,000 people in attendance.  Regardless, World Rugby should be open to changing this format in order to open the commercial opportunity, which at this stage lies only in finals week.  

Another thought I had for this event that World Rugby might consider is not actually following the Men’s model of a quadrennial World Cup.  Perhaps as the Women’s game grows both in participation, and popularity (and hopefully media coverage) they might consider making this an annual or bi-annual World Championship a la Men’s Under 20’s.  As the ‘minnows’ (see Hong Kong who were beaten twice in this tournament by over 100 points) grow, the tournament could be divided into two groups with a “Championship” and a “Trophy” competition for the different standards.  

Regardless of anything World Rugby does or does not do – USA Rugby must set it’s targets and plan accordingly.  Consistent placing as a Top 3 finisher in World events (and all that will be necessary to make that happen), and hosting the WRWC 2021 should be among those targets.

In summary, my experience at the Women’s Rugby World Cup was nothing short of outstanding in every capacity.  Well done USA.  Don’t let this excitement wane. 

Other articles I have written on these topics:

4 comments

  1. Great post, Tony. I was greatly disappointed that Pete and Peter didn’t adjust their failed outside/wing defense exploited by the Kiwis for the France match who exploited it also.

  2. Too bad you couldn’t make it to the two international fixtures the Eagles played against their French opponents in late 2016. Or the Super Series matches in Salt Lake City that summer (or the summer before in Canada). One would think they’d played just three games between World Cups if your post is anything to go by.

    • I think Tony was referring to the matches that this particular squad had in preparation for this tournament. but you bring up an interesting point . I wonder how many internationals our women’s team plays generally in comparison to the squads that are ranked higher than us

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