By Chad Wise - March 26, 2017
UPDATE | March 27
Due to injury, Katy Augustyn will be unavailable for the remainder of the Can-Am Series. Joanna Kitlinski will start at hooker Tuesday and Phaidra Knight will move onto the bench.
CHULA VISTA, Calif. - Prop Tiffany Faaee will captain the USA Women's Eagles in their first match against Canada at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center Tuesday, March 28.
The 35th overall meeting between the border rivals is set to kick off the two-game Can-Am Series in Southern California, which will culminate with a second test Saturday, April 1, in front of a paying crowd. Tuesday's match will be played behind closed doors, but can be viewed live online via USA Rugby's Facebook page from 7 p.m. ET.
"While there is always a learning aspect to come from every game, we have selected what we believe is our best team from the players available," Head Coach Pete Steinberg said. "We will then have a couple of days of training and the players will have a chance to compete for selection in the next game ahead of final determinations for a traveling World Cup squad."
Women's Rugby World Cup veteran front-rower Katy Augustyn garners her sixth consecutive start at hooker for the Eagles between the team's captain and young Catie Benson. Benson partnered Augustyn twice at last year's Women's Rugby Super Series - including the rivalry match against Canada. Faaee will fulfill the scrummaging and leadership roles vacated by the injured Hope Rogers in her sixth cap.
Another World Cup veteran in the squad, Stacey Bridges is also the most experienced member of the team with a total of 27 international caps to Augustyn's 26. The Women's Premier League's Twin Cities Amazons' second-rower will lock the scrum beside the powerful Alycia Washington, who registered a try against reigning World Cup champion England in Salt Lake City.
Chicago North Shore's Christiane Pheil has not been left out of a starting XV since making her international debut against France last year, and retains a spot at flanker for Tuesday's match. Jordan Gray found success with ball in hand against Canada in 2016, and will look to continue her progression at No. 8 alongside Pheil and fellow D1 Elite graduate Nicole Strasko.
Four backs in Tuesday's XV helped the USA Women's Eagles Sevens to second- and fourth-place finishes at the two most recent HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series stops. Scrum half Joanne Fa'avesi earns her first starting role at scrum half following a substitute's debut appearance on the November Tour, while sevens captain Alev Kelter receives a third nod at center outside World Cup veteran Sylvia Braaten.
Megan Foster has not yet been capped on the Series, but possesses the qualities suited for an international half back in both forms of the game. She will earn her fourth cap Tuesday from the No. 10 position behind Fa'avesi. Wing Naya Tapper leads the sevens program in tries scored through three of six legs of the 2016-17 season, and will look to strike quick and often with debutant Kristen Thomas threatening on the opposite wing. Jess Wooden, who has been playing consistent, professional rugby in England, will protect the try zone and unleash counterattacks from the full back position.
"Though we've had some unfortunately-timed injuries in the half back positions, it's afforded newer players the opportunity to stake a claim for selection," Steinberg said. "There will be a learning curve, but the only way they will learn is through international competition.
"It is exciting to have the amount of sevens talent that we do in the back line. The continuity and familiarity between those players will allow us to play a wide game without losing momentum in decision-making. More importantly, we will be able to convert chances, which has been a challenge for us over the last couple of years."
Despite averaging just one try per match through five tests in 2016, the Eagles gave their opponents fits when they went forward. An even stronger developmental environment with the National All-Star Competitions and improved domestic competitions at the club and college levels has provided additional depth for the program, as well.
Two-time World Cup selection Naima Reddick and 10-cap Molly Kinsella lead a predominantly-young bench, which includes potential debutants Kayla Canett, 18, and Annakaren Pedraza, 20.
Though the roster has not yet been announced for Tuesday's match, Canada's 26-player team for the Can-Am Series includes 16 members of the 2014 World Cup's runner-up squad. The Canadians have won four of six matches in the past 12 months, splitting two matchups against England and falling to New Zealand abroad.
Just six players in Steinberg's starting XV lined up against Canada from the first minute of their 2016 matchup.
"I am excited to see how the squad does against the experienced Canadians," the head coach said. "There is a great opportunity for us to be tested against a bunch of players that reached and played in a World Cup Final - not an easy feat. This first-up game will be a good marker for where we are and what we need to work on for August."
Tuesday's match will kick off at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center at 7 p.m. ET, and can be viewed live online via USA Rugby's Facebook page.