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Kate Zackary: 'This is bigger than me. It’s bigger than any player'

By Daniel Gallan
Exeter Chiefs' Kate Zackary on her way to scoring a try during the Allianz Premier 15s match at Twickenham Stadium, London. Picture date: Saturday March 4, 2023. (Photo by Ben Whitley/PA Images via Getty Images)

If there’s anyone who understands that club rugby and the international game are worlds apart, it’s Kate Zackary. Her domestic team, Exeter Chiefs, are a power on the rise. Top of the Premier 15s with 13 consecutive wins after their opening round defeat, they have steamrolled the competition, including the dynastic Saracens in a 37-19 triumph back in January.

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Zackary has scored 11 tries in a campaign that has seen her multinational side put up 50 points or more in 57% of their league outings. In only their third ever season, the Chiefs have a claim to being the most dominant club side in the women’s game. But as the sun rises in Devon, it appears to be setting out west across the Atlantic Ocean.

The USA Women’s National Team XV, to give the Eagles their official title, have been in steady decline. Currently seventh on World Rugby’s rankings, they haven’t beaten a team ranked above them since July 2019.

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In that time their neighbours to the north, Canada, have restructured the hierarchy of their relationship, winning eight North American derbies in a row. Their most recent clash in the Pacific Four Series in April saw Zackary sin-binned in the dying minutes as her compatriots were humbled in a 50-17 drubbing.

“They’re our kryptonite at the minute,” Zackary’s frustration is palpable as we try to make sense of the Eagles’ place in this new world order. “It’s a tough one. We respect them. They’re a great team and it’s great to see other teams raise their standard but for whatever reason we just can’t seem to beat them. It’s pretty obvious that they’ve overtaken us.”

It wasn’t always like this. The USA lifted the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991 after beating England 19-6 in the final in Cardiff. Three years later they were vanquished finalists – 38-23 to England – and four years after that they again went down in the showpiece event having been blown away 44-12 by New Zealand’s Black Ferns.

It’s been a sad story in World Cups since then. They’ve reached the semi-finals just once in the six subsequent tournaments. Last year they finished third in their group and were then unceremoniously dumped out of the competition by Canada in the quarterfinals.

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“It was difficult to take,” Zackary says of her team’s seventh place finish, their worst ever result at the World Cup. “As captain you shoulder some responsibility for what happens out there. It becomes more difficult when I know just how much talent we have in the group. I know that we’re better than that. But some things work against us.”

Money is the greatest obstacle. The Women’s Premier League (WPL), the top-tier domestic league in the US, operates on a pay to play model. Players competing across the seven teams are partly subsidised by fundraising schemes that are initiated by the clubs themselves, but all too often they are forced to reach into their own pockets.

“Sometimes you’re having to spend around $4,000 a season of your own money” Zackary explains. “You’re spending money on travel and hotels, you’re contributing to coach’s fees and the medical teams.

“Every cent is precious and many talented players have to leave the sport because it just isn’t financially viable. Those who stay have to find a career that both allows them to take time off work to play rugby and that pays enough for them to afford the extra costs. We struggle with player retention as a result.”

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Zackary was a leading light with the San Diego Surfers where she lifted two WPL titles in 2016 and 2018. The team failed to make the playoffs in 2019 and were denied the opportunity to right that wrong when the covid pandemic brought play to a halt. When the WPL relaunched last year, the Surfers, along with two other clubs, were unable to to raise the required funds to maintain their position in the league.

This is a sore point for Zackary who met her fiancé and former teammate, Mandy Wagner, through the Surfers. She speaks of the gruelling trips from California to New York, about the same distance between the eastern edge of Ireland and the Russia-Kazakhstan border. She recounts weekends that begin on Friday mornings, involve five-and-a-half hour flights crossing three time zones for a lunchtime kick-off on Saturday before another flight in the opposite direction to make it to work on Monday.

USA captain <a href=
Kate Zackary (R) and teammates celebrate” width=”1024″ height=”663″ /> USA captain Kate Zackary (R) and teammates celebrate after scoring a try during the New Zealand 2021 Women’s Rugby World Cup Pool B match between Japan and USA at Northland Events Centre in Whangarei on October 15, 2022.

“I loved it,” she says to my surprise. “Of course there were challenges and the national team has suffered as a result of those logistical challenges. But it was so great knowing that everyone was in it together. Everyone was pushing for the same thing.”

Now with title chasing Exeter she is at the coalface of an organisation that has both the will and the means to adequately support its players.

“You can’t really compare the Premier 15s with the WPL in the US,” she says. “One’s the best league in the world. The other is fighting for survival in many ways. It’s no surprise that England are competing for World Cups and winning Six Nations hardware.”

This is why so many Eagles players ply their trade in England. Half of the most recent squad of 30 represent teams in the Premier 15s. Part of the challenge with the national squad is bridging the gap between the two disparate groups.

“That’s my job as captain,” Zackary says. “I have to remind the team that as far as natural talent and natural athleticism goes, there’s no difference throughout the squad. But we have to be smart with our strategy and our game plan. We can’t come up with something that’s cohesive and together like England or France. We have to be more fluid. We have to focus on what we’re good at.”

Zackary has a list: “We have speed around the edges, we have a strong kicking game and we’re athletic. Some of the players, like myself, come from a soccer background so we have good endurance and spatial awareness. Others have a basketball background so they’ve got good hands and are comfortable in a tight space. We have to work with what we’ve got.”

But a glass ceiling will remain firmly in place until the Eagles start playing more regularly. The US competes in the Pacific Four Series that also includes New Zealand, Australia and Canada, and travel to Europe for the Autumn Nations Series, but matches are infrequent.

The WXV tournament, scheduled for launch this year, should address this while also mixing teams that would otherwise only meet at quadrennial World Cups.

“It’s going to be massive,” Zackary declares with rising enthusiasm. “Not just for us but for a lot of teams at our level. Teams like South Africa, Fiji, even Australia who don’t play as much as the top nations. More games means more exposure and hopefully more sponsors and revenue. That’s how things might change.”

Zackary knows that change will come slow. She’s prepared to wait, even if the trees of the seeds being sown now will only bear fruit after she’s retired. She’ll be 34 in July and though she says she plans to be around for the next World Cup, the tournaments in Australia in 2029 and on home soil in 2033 will surely be beyond her.

Not that she won’t be playing an active role with USA Rugby. She says she plans on working in either an administrative or coaching role and is currently using her time in England to glean as much knowledge as possible so she can transfer it when she returns across the Atlantic.

“I want to give back and make a difference,” she says. “This is bigger than me. It’s bigger than any player. Before the 2017 World Cup we met the players who won the World Cup in 1991 and they turned this myth into something that was real. I am confident that we will be World Cup contenders again.”

For now Zackary’s focus is on securing the Premier 15s crown. Exeter are out for revenge for last years’ final that saw Marlie Packer take charge in Saracens’ 43-21 win. Zackary says that everyone in her team remembers the sting of that loss and is adamant not to feel it again.

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“It’s been years in the making,” Zackary says of Exeter’s rise. “We’re a largely international team [one with 10 different nationalities present]. Even the England players mostly come from other parts of the country.

“We have this shared uprooting. We’re exiles and nomads. This team means the world to us. There are no cliques. We’re all pulling in the same direction. The men’s team supports us and everyone in the club, from [chief executive] Tony Rowe to the fans on the side who stay behind for autographs and selfies want to see us do well. That’s what you get when you have proper investment in people.”

If the USA Eagles ever get anything like what’s going on in Devon, they’ll be a force on the rise once again.

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