When rugby made its Olympic debut at the Rio Games last year, the U.S. Eagle Sevens team finally got its chance to play on one of the grandest stages of sport. But after the women finished a disappointing fifth place there, they’re now refocused and looking to rebuild for the 2018 World Cup, held next summer in San Francisco.
The good news: Many think that the world No. 6–ranked Eagles team have the wings to get to San Francisco and even win the cup, especially if they can perform well this weekend at the HSBC Kitakyushu Sevens in Japan.
While the U.S. has not won a World Cup since 1991, experts and fans are anxious to see how the Sevens squad, made up of many new players since last summer’s Olympic Games, will come together in Japan.
“[The U.S.] can upset the best teams in the world, but it’s going to take more game time before we can really have a stable opinion about how good they are,” Jackie Finlan, editor of the sport’s news site, Rugby Breakdown, told Excelle Sports. “Unlike other teams like Canada, New Zealand and Australia that really retained a big core of their  Olympic team, we had a lot of [players] retire or take a break. So there’s a lot of new faces.”
At the same time, USA Rugby’s 2010 Player of the Decade Phaidra Knight believes that many of the current players are becoming stronger and smarter on the pitch. She says the Eagles have a shot at taking the World Cup crown next year.
“They have also gained a tremendous amount of confidence over the past few months,” Knight told Excelle Sports. “It’s no secret that the USA houses one of the strongest pools of athletic talent in the world for sport.”
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This weekend’s Kitakyushu Sevens in Japan will be one of the many tests the Eagles have to face to qualify for the world cup. The competition is stiff there, too: The U.S. will have take down Canada (No. 3), England (No. 8) and Spain (No. 10) to win the Japanese title.
If you’re watching the Kitakyushu Sevens this weekend—you can tune in live starting this Friday at 9:25 p.m. EST on the Rugby Channel—keep your eyes out for these players whom Finland and Knight think will help take the Eagles to the next World Cup:
Alev Kelter was already an accomplished athlete before she became a rugby star. The 26-year-old from Eagle River, Alaska played both Division 1 soccer and hockey at the University of Wisconsin. In 2009, she won gold with the U.S. Under-18 hockey team at the IIHF Women’s World Championship.
Since 2014, Kelter has earned 14 caps with the Sevens and led the team to a silver medal in the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto. She was also a vital piece of the 12-woman squad that represented Team USA at the 2016 Olympic Games.
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“She’s a crossover athlete and she’s been the center of the Sevens team,” Finlan said of Kelter. “She’s pretty seamless in the backline [and] she’s just a really exciting player. The U.S. needs experienced players, but they need that spark to spur some creative play.”
“She’s a great kicker, runner, and she reads the field very well,” added Knight.
Kelly Griffin, 30, is the most-capped player on the current Sevens roster, which makes her a great asset to the team, says Finlan.
“For a player pool that has so many young and new faces, [Griffin’s] experience is vital,” said Finlan.
Griffin started playing rugby her first year at UCLA, where she became a two-time All-American. She also played with the USA Rugby U-23 team in 2006 and 2007. She has since made 20 appearances for the Sevens and has also trained with the Fifteens. With the Sevens, Griffin helped the U.S. win silver in Toronto and was part of the Olympic team in Rio last year.
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Kristen Thomas, 23, is one of the fastest, most explosive players on the pitch. She comes from a high school basketball and track and field background, with experience in the hurdles, high jump and long jump.
“When she runs, it’s like butter,” said Knight. “She’s got great pace on the wing. Great tackler and smart player.”
The Philadelphia native started playing rugby her freshman year at the University of Central Florida, where she became a two-time All-American in 2013 and 2014. She made her debut with the national team at the São Paulo Sevens series in February 2015.
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Since then, Thomas has earned six caps with the squad and was a “shoe-in” to make the line up for the 2016 Rio Games, according to Knight. But the 23-year-old broke her ankle right before the competition. Now, Thomas is healed up and ready to show off her stride.
Rugby is in Joanne “Nana” Fa’avesi’s blood. Her parents were both rugby players from the Polynesian kingdom of Tonga, where rugby is the national sport.
The 25-year-old started playing with Team USA in 2014 and was one of the key players to help the U.S. qualify for the 2016 Olympics. Alongside Kelter and Griffin, Fa’avesi was on the silver medal-winning squad in Toronto and the Rio Olympic team.
[More from Excelle Sports: Future looks bright for U.S. women’s rugby sevens, fresh off fifth-place finish at Rio Olympics]
“Nana is a really awesome defender,” said Knight. “Tenacious in contact in general. She plays with a lot of heart and soul.”
Naya Tapper, 22, is one of the “young faces” on the team, but her speed and size make up for her lack of rugby experience. The South Carolina native was an All-American track and field athlete in high school.
“She’s a physical phenom,” said Knight. “She’s built like a truck and is extremely fast. She’s impossible to tackle. She’s very raw and there’s so much potential in her.”
At 5-foot-9 and 176 pounds, Tapper certainly has some force behind her runs. Even though she is new, Tapper has experience playing with the Sevens and the Fifteens.
This weekend, U.S. will begin the Kitsakyushu Sevens by facing England, then Spain.