Rob Cain welcomed the USA Women’s Eagles into camp last Friday as the squad prepare for two tests that represent a key staging post on the long road to Rugby World Cup 2021.

Canada will provide the opposition twice this week as the sides ranked fourth and fifth in the World Rugby Women’s Rankings meet in Chula Vista on Wednesday and Sunday.

The two test matches not only provide the Women's Eagles with a chance to pull clear in the head-to-head with their North American rivals, but more importantly mark the end of the first phase of planning for New Zealand.

Following the double header against Canada, the USA will have played the same number of international matches in the last 13 months as they did in the three years between the previous two Rugby World Cups, in 2014 and 2017. 

Those matches, as well as two training games against Canada, highlight the commitment made by the union to investing in, and developing, its women’s 15s programme. Having effectively sacrificed eight months of the current four-year cycle as Cain was appointed head coach and a ‘Road to 2021’ calendar was fine tuned, it is progress that pleases Women’s High Performance Director, Emilie Bydwell.

“That’s a statement that I’m really proud of and the union should be really, really proud of,” Bydwell told World Rugby. 

“The fact that the union has really stepped up and said we’re going to invest in our women’s 15s programme, provide enough funding to hire a full-time head coach, and the resources for the programme to have a sustained annual calendar. 

“This calendar was a big accomplishment for 2019. [It] wasn’t just about increasing the number of test matches, but also how the scheduling of those test windows aligned to the domestic calendar, increasing our ability to leverage domestic competitions to further player development (through the Women’s Premier League and collegiate competitions) and ultimately have a periodised plan underpinning international competition.”

Building towards New Zealand 2021

Cain, the Women’s Eagles’ first full-time head coach, came on board in July 2018 and has spent much of the last 16 months building a squad capable of competing in New Zealand.

USA Rugby have targeted a place in the RWC 2021 semi-finals, having reached the last four for the first time in almost two decades in Ireland two years ago, and the integrated calendar is designed to give Cain and his players the tools to achieve that goal.

As a former Women's Eagle herself, Bydwell can remember the days when players would leave national team training camps not knowing when their next taste of test rugby would arrive.

By contrast, pre-season dates, training camps and both domestic and international windows were mapped out for 2019 at the beginning of the year and shared with the player pool. 

Regional hubs, meanwhile, meant that players had 20-30 hours contact time with national team coaching staff outside of squad sessions, allowing in-competition camps to be maximised.

“The last 16 months have been about figuring out what our player pool looks like, and what type of integrated calendar would accelerate their development and ultimately performance,” Bydwell added. 

“Identifying the people we are going to continue on from the ’17 World Cup campaign, who of our younger pathway players that we want to integrate in for the 2021 campaign, who we feel was missing from the senior pool, and how the sevens and 15s programmes are going to interact and engage with each other and integrate throughout the campaign.

“Then ultimately Rob [Cain] as well, learning the landscape and the player pool. So, these [matches] are really the end of that first half of the 2021 Campaign Plan. 

“Moving into the next two years, less than two years to the World Cup final in 2021, these two CanAm matches mark the end of that first phase and then this next phase when we really start to narrow our pool, narrow our focus.”

The USA ended a run of three successive defeats against Canada when they beat their North American rivals during the Women’s Rugby Super Series in Chula Vista in July.

That result levelled the head-to-head at 19 wins apiece, but success will not be measured in results alone this month. 

Flipping the narrative

Cain has selected seven uncapped players in his 27-strong squad for the two tests, while another prospective debutant, Darina Roe, is one of two travelling reserves.

Bydwell expects November to be “the last big round of new caps” as momentum begins to build towards Rugby World Cup.

“For us we are very process-oriented at this point,” she explained. 

“Through the test matches that we had last fall, through the Super Series and these November test matches we are very oriented towards the process in terms of how we measure success. 

“But, of course, this is high-performance sport and we know that will change. We are not going to rely on waiting until the World Cup begins to start winning matches and overturning the powerhouses of world rugby.

“We have to win games before we go to the World Cup to be in a position where players are confident in our process and in their own abilities.

“We are ultimately working to flip our narrative and go from competing with the best to actually beating the best. But we recognise that this doesn’t happen overnight.

“So, we’re targeting quarter-final win, being in semi-final and putting ourselves in a position to leave the 2021 World Cup with a medal.

“The 10 games prior to stepping on the field for our first World Cup game is when, in our best-laid plans, our process will start producing those results.”

Photos: Travis Prior