The last time the United States won the Women’s Rugby World Cup was the first time it was ever held.
Whitefish’s Nicole Heavirland is looking to change that.
Heavirland and the Eagles kick off their pursuit of a world title this morning, when they open pool play against Italy. The match kicks off at 9:30 a.m. today and will be streamed online through NBC Sports. A reair of the match will run on NBCSN at 9:30 p.m. on Saturday.
The 22-year-old Heavirland was a star on the U.S. sevens team, the Olympic version of the sport which uses fewer players and features faster play, captaining the team in its final fixture in June. A few weeks after finishing the sevens season, she was named as one of the final 28 players to travel to Ireland for the World Cup.
“It was a surprise,” Heavirland said. “I felt very honored, just to be able to represent the United States.”
Transitioning to the full 15-player game takes some getting used to, she said.
“It was really tough on the body. We finished our tournament in France in June, then we were at it the next week with 15s. It was a tight turnaround. My body definitely felt it for a couple of weeks.
“For 15s camp, the pre-World Cup camp, I was pushed to my limits for fitness. We were doing a lot of fitness and running around.
“A lot of contact throughout the week. It’s worth every second, though.”
Heavirland will suit up at outside center for the Eagles, a position that acts as a secondary playmaker during play and kicker after scores. While still in the backfield, it’s a lot different than the position she’s played for the last few months.
“15s, you might only touch the ball four or five times. That’s your only chance because the ball might never get out to you. It’s tough to capitalize on those moments.
“With 7s, you get the ball so much. If you make a mistake or drop the ball you’re going to get another chance. With 15s, that might not be another 10 minutes before you get to touch the ball again.
“Bouncing between the games is kind of hard. Once you get used to one you switch to the other. Then once you get used to that one you switch back. It takes a bit to get used to within practices. Come Ireland, I should be ready to go.”
The U.S. takes on Italy, Spain and England in pool play over the next week before advancing to the knockout rounds. England is the defending World Cup champion. If everything works out, the Americans could play until the end of the month, when the championship match will be held on Aug. 26.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the support they have in the country for rugby and women’s rugby,” Heavirland said. “I’ve been told that this is going to be pretty packed. There should be a lot of people supporting and a lot of fans. I’m also excited to be around my teammates. We’re going to be there for a month. We’ll be pretty tight by the end.”
Heavirland is part of a youth movement in USA Rugby that has revived the team’s fortunes on the international level.
She was one of just four players named to all six fixtures this sevens season, and will likely be a key piece for the Eagles as they advance towards the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
It’s there she has her hopes set on a medal, preferably gold, as the team continues to mesh.
“I think it takes a culture. We’re getting to that point. I think come 2020 in Tokyo we’ll be competing for (championships). It takes some time to get a set of girls that are going through the Training Center and working together every day. This past season we didn’t have a full roster at the Training Center. We had to pull from different schools, from different clubs. As long as we have a set culture and a set group of girls, we’ll be fine.”
The circuit has taken her around the world. This season alone the the team traveled to Dubai, Japan, Australia and France with nearby fixtures in Las Vegas and Victoria, British Columbia.
“It was loads of fun. Being able to go to Dubai at first, then Australia, Las Vegas, it was unbelievably fun. I got even closer with my teammates. I’m excited to hit this next year hard. Hopefully we’ll become contenders for first and second place.”
The U.S. had its best finish in Australia, where it beat eventual champion New Zealand and nearly toppled Canada to take the championship.
“That was amazing. We were the only team to beat New Zealand this year. They went 16-1, or however many games we play. That was pretty cool to beat them and almost beat Canada in the final.
I don’t know if it’s because we did so well, but, Sydney was my favorite stop this year.”
Her hard work and top-end play led the staff to name her captain ahead of the team’s final series stop of the season, in France.
“That was a good experience. I didn’t know I was going to become captain until we got to France. (U.S. coach Richie Walker) asked me if I wanted to become captain in one of our one-on-one meetings. He asked if I’d be OK with it and I said, ‘Yes.’”
Heavirland had one of her best performances of the season in France, scoring three tries on the weekend while the team finished sixth overall.
“It was a great experience. To be able to lead a group of girls and know that they trust me, it was great. I want to continue, hopefully, in the next few years to be that role on the team.
“They all know me pretty well. They know my intentions are good. It’s not about what you say in huddles. Obviously they need to hear stuff in huddles, but I believe in leading by example. If I’m out there working hard, they’re going to follow.”