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Eagles begin journey back to the top

We preview the upcoming Autumn International tour by the USA women's rugby side. The Eagles, led by Pete Steinberg, will play France twice and Italy once on their three test tour, as they attempt begin a new journey back to the top of the global rankings.

On 14th November 1987, what was then the worlds leading international womens rugby team played their first ever test match, and this week - 25 years later almost to the day since that first test - the US Eagles gather to begin their campaign to return to the top, writes John Birch.

The USA is one of the birthplaces of the modern game only France can claim a longer history of organised womens rugby. Inter-university rugby began forty years ago, with club championships starting a few years later. With the advantage of a decade or more of development (compared with most of the rest of the world) American teams of the period were to be feared. An unofficial but near fully representative - US team, playing as the Wiverns, returned unbeaten from a ground-breaking tour of Britain and France in 1985, and in 1987 the US's North American rivals, Canada, invited them to play a test match in Victoria, BC.

The womens team was not yet fully recognised by the US RFU (official recognition would not come until 1990) and so - although referred to by almost everyone the Womens Eagles - the team was not yet allowed to wear the Eagle logo. Nevertheless they won that first test, in what was to become an annual series, by 22-3. Following on from the Wivern tour, it was another key step than would eventually lead to the USs World Cup win just under four years later.

Now a new generation of American women have been tasked with returning the top table of womens rugby as part of the Final in 14 campaign. As a target it is without doubt far more challenging than that faced by the pioneering players of a quarter of a century ago. The US was one of the first Unions in the world to fully adopt and support their womens team, but in the past two decades most of the rest of the world - including all of the larger, traditional rugby nations - have embraced the female game, with the result that the US have not played in a World Cup final since 1998, and in 2010 slipped to 5th place.

In response to this new coach Pete Steinberg has arranged an impressive and challenging programme Our goal is to provide the players going to the World Cup with more than 25 elite-level games with around 15 test matches and 10 EPS (Elite Performance Series) matches, he said last month. We believe that this will prepare the players to perform at their best in Paris in 2014.

The programme begins this month with what is one of the most taxing tours the Womens Eagles have ever embarked upon. Outside of tournaments such as the World Cup, no previous overseas tour has included more than two test matches but this month, after they arrive in Europe, the Eagles will play three tests in a week.

The tour begins in Rome where the Eagles will play Italy on 18th, and then continues to France where there are two tests on 21st and 24th November - the latter in front of a full house and live TV cameras at the Stade de France. It is a punishing programme, but mirrors very well what the Eagles will be faced with in 2014.

This will be Italys only Autumn test and, remarkably, the first time the sides have met. It will also be the first time that any US team has played in France host of the 2014 World Cup - since the Wivern tour 27 years ago.

The French will be building from their recent test against England, and the squad announced this week confirmed that they will be fielding a similarly young and largely experimental side. For both teams the experience of having to play two or three games in a week, and the individual performances in those tests, that will be more important than actual results. It will also give all three teams a chance to play against opposition and players that they never normally meet, and for the USA in particular give them a flavour of what is expected by European match officials and law interpretations an important consideration in tournaments when a single yellow card has the potential to derail years of preparation.

Previous US Eagles tours:

1985: Wiverns tour to UK and France (unbeaten)
1990: RugbyFest in Christchurch, New Zealand (runners-up, losing 9-3 to New Zealand)
1991: World Cup in Wales (winners)
1994: World Cup in Scotland (runners-up)
1997: Tour to Australia (one test won 28-24)
1998: World Cup in Netherlands (runners-up)
1999: Tour to New Zealand (triangular series, finished 3rd)
2001: Tour to UK (two tests, v Wales (won) and Scotland (lost))
2002: World Cup in Spain (finished 5th)
2004: Tour to Scotland (one test, won 12-6)
2005: Tour to England (no tests beat England A)
2006: Tour to British Isles (two tests, beating Scotland and Ireland)
2007: Tours to England (summer - no tests, beat Nomads; winter one test, lost 34-0)
2008: Nations Cup in England (finished 3rd)
2010: World Cup in England (finished 5th)

US Squad: Kate Daley (Chicago North Shore); Mel Denham (Beantown); Lynelle Kugler (Twin Cities Amazons); Laura Miller (DC Furies); Shaina Turley (San Diego Surfers); Sharon Blaney (Oregon Sports Union); Stacey Bridges (Twin Cities Amazons); Helen Rose Miesner (NY Rugby Club); Emily Van Gulik (Berkeley All-Blues); Lisa Butts (N. California Triple Threat ); Kittery Wagner (Glendale); Katy Augustyn (Berkeley All-Blues); Jamie Burke (Raleigh Venom); Sarah Chobot (Glendale); Jessica Davis (American Int'l College); Rachel Reddick (N.California Triple Threat); Sarah Wilson (Glendale Raptors); Ashley Kmiecik (Emerald City Mudhens); Jennifer Lui (Chicago Northshore); Caroline White (Seattle Breakers Sadie Anderson (Penn State University); Hannah Stolba (Glendale); Amy Daniels (Beantown); San Juanita Moreno (Oregon Sports Union); Samantha Pankey (James River); Valerie Griffeth (San Diego Surfers); Kaelene Lundstrum (USA Rugby); Ashley Okonta (Univ. of Notre Dame); Amelia Bizer (Unaffiliated); Kimber Rozier (USA Rugby)

Italian squad for US test: Debora Ballarini (ASD Rugby Riviera del Brenta); Sara Barattin (Rugby Casale ASD); Melissa Bettoni (Fed. Francese); Giuliana Campanella (Red&Blu Rugby ASD); Chiara Castellarin (Rugby Colorno FC SRL SSD); Vanessa Chindamo (ASD Rugby Monza 1949); Maria Grazia Cioffi (Red&Blu Rugby ASD); Michela Este (Benetton Rugby Treviso); Marta Ferrari (ASD Rugby Riviera del Brenta); Manuela Furlan (Benetton Rugby Treviso); Lucia Gai (ASD Rugby Riviera del Brenta); Silvia Gaudino (ASD Rugby Monza 1949); Cristina Molic (ASD Rugby Riviera del Brenta); Anita Nespoli (ASD Rugby Riviera del Brenta); Valentina Ruzza (Valsugana Rugby Padova ASD); Veronica Schiavon (ASD Rugby Riviera del Brenta); Flavia Severin (Benetton Rugby Treviso); Michela Sillari (Rugby Colorno FC SRL SSD); Michela Tondinelli (Benetton Rugby Treviso); Alice Trevisan (ASD Rugby Riviera del Brenta); Maria Diletta Veronese (Valsugana Rugby Padova ASD); Paola Zangirolami (Valsugana Rugby Padova ASD); Sara Zanon (Benetton Rugby Treviso); Cecilia Zublena (Federazione Italiana Rugby)

French squad for US tests: Manon Andre (Saint Orens); Aurlie Bailon (Montpellier); Julie Billes (Perpignan); Laurne Camoin (Sassenage); Lucie Canal (Rennes); Christelle Chobet (Lons); Lenaig Corson (Rennes); Marine DeNadi (Montpellier); Coumba Tombe Diallo (Bobigny); Hlne Ezanno (Rennes); Lucille Godiveau (Rennes); Laetitia Grand (Lons); Camille Grassineau (Stade Bordelais); Elodie Guiglion (USAP); Cline Heguy (Bayonne); Assa Koita (Stade Bordelais); Sandra Metier (Bobigny); Galle Mignot (Montpellier); Safi NDiaye (Montpellier); Audrey Parra (Montpellier); Elodie Portaires (Montpellier); Sandra Rabier (Caen); Laetitia Salles (La Valette); Jessy Tremouliere (Romagnat); Aurlie Vernhet (USAP); Marie Alice Yahe (USAP).