As “Thunderstuck” played over the speakers of an otherwise empty Tokyo Stadium, the U.S. women’s rugby sevens team and Whitefish’s Nicole Heavirland had one last opportunity to end their Olympic tournament on a win.
But instead, the defending champions Australia ended the U.S. campaign and finished ahead 17-7. With the result, Australia placed fifth and the USA Eagles were sixth.
Throughout the match, Australia made it difficult for the Eagles to get possession and were up 10-0 at halftime off tries from Faith Nathan and Madison Ashby.
The U.S. gained some hope in the second half when Naya Tapper broke through and was sprinting down the field. Kristi Kirshe followed just far enough away that Tapper was able to dump it off before being taken down with a one-handed pass that Kirshe turned into a try. Heavirland converted to make it 10-7, but Australia came back with a Demi Hayes goal that turned out to be the 17-7 final.
Both the U.S. men’s and women’s teams finished sixth in their Olympic tournaments.
It wasn’t the tournament either the U.S. or defending champion Australia had imagined coming in as both had medal hopes, but both rebounded from quarterfinal losses to earn the matchup and with it a chance for Australia to earn some revenge for a defeat in the final pool play match to the Eagles. Both teams had also first come through Pool C where the U.S. finished atop the standings 3-0.
Team USA fell to Great Britain (21-12) in the quarterfinal, but recovered to defeat China 33-14 to get to the fifth-place game. They had defeated both China (28-14) and Australia (14-12) just days before in pool play where they also earned victory against hosts Japan (17-7).
Heavirland finished the tournament, having appeared in all six matches and started in five, with 22 points converting on 11 of 13.
It was just the second time women’s rugby sevens had been featured at the Olympics. Heavirland had been a traveling alternate for the 2016 Rio Games, but worked for five years in order to make the Tokyo squad.
Fiji earned the bronze medal with a 21-12 defeat of Great Britain. New Zealand won the gold with a 26-12 win against France who earned silver.
Heavirland, USA Eagles Defeat China in Olympic Rugby Sevens, Play for Fifth
The U.S. were disappointed to fall to Great Britain in the Olympic women’s rugby sevens quarterfinals Friday evening in Tokyo, but came back Saturday morning to defeat China 33-14, posting their highest score of the tournament so far.
“We’re here to show how resilient and powerful we are,” USA’s Kristi Kirshe said after the match via release. “This is an amazing squad and we play for each other every step of the way. We want to go out on a high note and make everyone who’s supporting us proud. That’s all we need.”
It was their second time facing the Chinese team in three days, but Kris Thomas scored a try just nine seconds into the match to get things started quickly. She followed it up with another less than two minutes later carrying from one end of the pitch to the other. Naya Tapper added a try just before half to put Team USA up 21-7.
In the second half, Ilona Maher came up with two tries for the Eagles as she shrugged off multiple Chinese tackles to break through.
Whitefish’s Nicole Heavirland converted four of the five U.S. tries to finish with eight points.
China got tries from Wang Wanyu and Chen Keyi.
With the win the U.S., which had finished atop Pool C in the tournament, is now trying to match their fifth-place finish from 2016 in Rio. They will face a familiar opponent Australia for fifth place July 31 at 5:00 p.m. local time.
Team USA had defeated China (28-14) just days before in pool play where they also earned victories over defending champions Australia (14-12), and hosts Japan (17-7).
The Eagles have kept their eyes on their goals throughout the tournament which is just the second time a women’s rugby tournament has been held at the Olympics.
After falling in the quarterfinals, co-captain Abby Gustaitis said via release, “I think we showed America how incredible of a sport rugby sevens is. And we were growing the following there and I just hope little girls and boys around the country go pick up a rugby ball now because they’ve seen us women play out there.”
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