Cash flow a major worry for US Eagles, but no shortage of ambition and determination
An Irish connection is helping the US on their tough road to the World Cup finals in France
Along with her team-mates US World Cup squad player Nathalie Marchino has faced financial and logistical challenges to reach the World Cup finals in France. Photograph: Phil Cole/Getty Images
Last November, the Berkeley All Blues travelled to Cherry Hill, New Jersey to defend their US women’s rugby Premier League (WPL) title.
Participating in the finals weekend demanded a 4,000km flight for the San Francisco club members. They lost the decider to Minneapolis-outfit Twin Cities Amazon – another 4,000km flight home.
Dublin side Old Belvedere are the reigning Irish women’s rugby Division One champions – but they didn’t need to fly to Cairo and back for the final match of the competition.
Given the sheer size of the US, logistically, national domestic competitions are often a nightmare – particularly if funding is also a problem.
For the top flight of women’s rugby in the US, funding is almost non-existent. Not only do the players have to pay for long flights and accommodation themselves, but even the national squad – who meet Ireland in Paris this Friday on the first day of the 2014 Rugby World Cup – have cash-flow problems.
“The players have funded themselves to play for the national team, they have had to fund-raise to do tours and pre-world cup trips – it’s crazy that an international athlete is paying to play,” says Ian Jones from the US squad’s training camp in the seaside town of Granville in north-west France.
The US women’s rugby backroom team is drawn from small pockets of rugby territory across the States – apart from one of the strength and conditioning coaches, where the Eagles procured the talents of Cork native Jones.
“The IRB pay for the two weeks at the World Cup, but everything else the players have paid for themselves. This means fitting three or four in hostel and hotel rooms, budgeted meals, kit and every other logistical thing you can think of,” he says.
Having the services of two strength and conditioning coaches is also not a reflection of the financial resources of the US Eagles. “We split time as both of us have other jobs,” explains Jones. “So I am prepping the squad in pre-camp and for the first game and then, post Ireland, Paul (Cater, formerly with Wasps and London Welsh) comes in for the duration of the tournament.”
Jones also worked with London Welsh, and earlier with the Cork minor footballers and Irish women’s hockey team, before his current role with Pennsylvania State University men and women’s rugby and field hockey squads.
While funding has been a constant thorn, motivation hasn’t been. Since January, seven of the Eagles squad have trained full-time with Jones at Penn State, while another dozen worked out of Glendale, Colorado. After several camps and the CanAm Series with Canada, the squad travelled to the UK in June, beating Wales by three points, before losing to England by four.
It was then back to camp State-side for 11 days, before leaving for Granville in France. They’ve now moved again to the IRB hotel closer to the World Cup base near Paris.
Because geography means the players are not able to train as a unit regularly – though several of the player have played sevens rugby together – the time together in the run-up to the upcoming competition has been invaluable.
“This time really helped the players improve patterns and continuity, as the extended period together with the coaches allowed for greater understanding, familiarity and cohesion as a team,” says Jones.
The US squad has a second connection with Cork, with skipper Shaina Turley, a flanker with the San Diego Surfers, falling for the sport when she spent a year studying in UCC.
It’s an experienced squad – a dozen arrive in France with previous World Cup experience. However, they were handed the toughest pool draw, beginning against last year’s Grand Slam Six Nations champions Ireland on Friday in Marcoussis – a small town south of Paris that’s well known in France as being the training centre for the national rugby teams – and ending against tournament favourites New Zealand. Between those eight days, they also have a date with Kazakhstan.
Regardless, the American squad have adopted “Final in 14” as their motto for the tournament.
“We are confident in our ability to compete with any team in the world if we can play to our ability,” says Jones. “We’re definitely aware that the group is the toughest – with Ireland and New Zealand. We’re certainly not taking Ireland for granted, as it is clear the improvements they have made over the last few years.
“Energy is high and competition for places is still also high, so practice is intense and we need to reel them in a little bit sometimes to make sure we come in fresh. You can definitely sense the girls are ready to get to Paris and start.”