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'Have to do what other countries are doing': Why USA women's rugby must become professional

By Finn Morton
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.

United States flanker Rachel Johnson said she would “love to see” professional contracts given to Eagles players by the next Women’s Rugby World Cup.

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The Eagles were the first women’s team to taste World Cup glory back in 1991, after they beat England 19-6 in the Final at Cardiff Arms Park.

But women’s rugby has reached new levels during this World Cup in New Zealand, but not many nations are fielding professional teams.

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Johnson, who plays her club rugby with Exeter Chiefs, believes the Eagles have to become professional if they are to compete with the best teams in the world.

“What’s really exciting about women’s rugby right now is the growth that you’ve seen internationally,” said after the quarter-final loss to Canada.

“There used to be a few top teams and now as programs are really investing in their teams, we’ve seen a lot of growth, and not just growth but unique styles of play.

“The World Cup has been awesome to be able to be exposed to that type of play.

“You’ve seen the impact and the different it makes to have contracted players so if we want to continue to grow and try to be the best in the world, we have to do what other countries are doing.”

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The United States began their World Cup campaign with a tough 12-point loss to Italy in Whangarei, before bouncing back with a promising win over Japan.

After losing their third and final pool game against Canada in Auckland, the Eagles were have another chance to challenge their rivals in the quarter-final.

The Eagles, who are ranked seventh in the world, held their own during the first half of their knockout clash with World No. 3 Canada.

Hooker Joanna Kitlinski gave the United States the lead with a try inside the opening 10 minutes, before their opponents responded with the next three tries.

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With the two teams separated by just eight-points early in the second half, a yellow card to inside centre Alev Kelter was an unfortunate turning point for the Eagles.

Canada ran away with the Test 32-11, and booked their place in a blockbuster semi-final against powerhouse England at Eden Park this weekend.

While their World Cup campaign has come to an end, Johnson believes that the United States’ two games against Canada “were definitely our best matches.”

“Obviously gutted by the result but I think Canada brings out a real rivalry in us and a real energy in us.

“Our last two games against Canada were definitely our best matches here at the World Cup.

“I’m so proud of my teammates. That first-half really showed the rugby that we’re capable of playing. Then there was just 20 minutes there in the second (half) that just let us down that was hard to come back from.”

Canada were be leading by just four points before a try to Paige Farries after the half-time siren had sounded extended their lead.

Aside from a penalty goal to the Eagles’ Kelter in the 45th minute, the second half was all Canada who scored 13-points to three after the break.

United States head coach Rob Cain said he was proud of the “really special group” after their quarter-final exit.

“It’s a hard one. We did everything right in the first 40 minutes, and that 20 minutes after half-time we just didn’t do what we spoke about all week,” Cain said on the Rugby World Cup Twitter page.

“Credit to Canada, it’s not about us. Canada came out in the second-half, they did really well in that 20 minute window.

“We want to play rugby but when you’re chasing the game in these conditions, the unforced errors started adding up and we got more and more away from what we wanted to do, which was unfortunate because they’re a really special group and I’m really proud of them.”

Canada will play England in the first semi-final at Eden Park, before tournament hosts New Zealand take on France.

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finn 8 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

What a difference 9 months makes! Last autumn everyone was talking about how important versatile bench players were to SA’s WC win, now we’re back to only wanting specialists? The timing of this turn is pretty odd when you consider that some of the best players on the pitch in the SA/Ireland match were Osbourne (a centre playing out of position at 15), Feinberg-Mngomezulu (a fly-half/centre playing out of position at 15), and Frawley (a utility back). Having specialists across the backline is great, but its not always necessary. Personally I think Frawley is unlikely to displace Crowley as first choice 10, but his ability to play 12 and 15 means he’s pretty much guaranteed to hold down a spot on the bench, and should get a decent amount of minutes either at the end of games or starting when there are injuries. I think Willemse is in a similar boat. Feinberg-Mngomezulu possibly could become a regular starter at 10 for the Springboks, but he might not, given he’d have to displace Libbok and Pollard. I think its best not to put all your eggs in one basket - Osbourne played so well at the weekend that he will hopefully be trusted with the 15 shirt for the autumn at least, but if things hadn’t gone well for him he could have bided his time until an opportunity opened up at centre. Similarly Feinberg-Mngomezulu is likely to get a few opportunities at 15 in the coming months due to le Roux’s age and Willemse’s injury, but given SA don’t have a single centre aged under 30 its likely that opportunities could also open up at 12 if he keeps playing there for Stormers. None of this will discount him from being given gametime at 10 - in the last RWC cycle Rassie gave a start at 10 to Frans Steyn, and even gave de Klerk minutes there off the bench - but it will give him far more opportunities for first team rugby.

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