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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.

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“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.”

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.

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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.

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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