Glendale hosts the opening round of the HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series 2019 this weekend with hosts USA ready to unveil their latest crossover star.
Stephanie Rovetti, a former college basketball player at Brigham Young University, has joined the USA Women’s Sevens residency programme and is being tipped to emulate team-mate Alev Kelter, who excelled at football and ice hockey before picking up a rugby ball.
It hasn’t taken long for Rovetti to master her new sport, being named MVP at the 2018 Club Sevens National Championships just three months after her introduction to rugby.
That performance led to her national team call-up and Emilie Bydwell, USA Rugby’s General Manager of Women’s High Performance, is excited by what the future may hold.
“She came out to the San Diego Surfers, which is the San Diego club team, didn’t really know anything, had very limited rugby experience, didn’t know anyone on the team and three months later she was the MVP at our Club National Championship,” Bydwell said.
“(She was) top-scorer, 13 tries, MVP of the tournament and that’s after just three months of rugby. She’s already one of the most dominant club players in the country.”
Bydwell, who first played rugby at school in Canada, knows the life of a crossover athlete well, having reignited her passion for the sport initially as an off-season hobby while on an ice hockey scholarship at Brown University.
Rugby provided a perfect antidote to the pressurised, near-professional environment of college hockey, although later in life it would be the ice rink that offered solace from the pitch.
Bydwell was named Collegiate Player of the Year in 2007 and made her USA Women's Eagles debut a year later, but her early experiences were not all positive.
“Probably the biggest challenge that I had,” she said. “You get this second-year slump a little bit.
“At first if you’re a really good athlete you just go in the field and you express yourself and you don’t think too much about it, whether it’s the rules or the intricacies of the game or anything, and you just go and play.
“I did struggle a little bit with the transition from that into my second and third year of playing a little bit more rugby, when I was starting to understand things or try to understand things a bit more.”
Bydwell, along with new head coach Chris Brown, will be there for Rovetti should she experience similar difficulties, just as coaches like Richard Ashfield, Kerri Heffernan and Ric Suggitt were there for her.
“There really is a shift with the crossover athletes,” she added. “Their athleticism will reach a point when it’s not enough and having the right people around that athlete, supporting them, makes such a big difference. I had that, which helped the transition.”
Crossover athletes are hugely important to USA Rugby, especially in sevens. Only two of the 13 women who travelled to Glendale played rugby seriously prior to university, most transitioning at college following impressive high school or varsity stints in other sports.
Bydwell admits her own experiences help her “remember that there’s this other tier of athleticism available in the United States that we only get glimpses of or access to in a really small window”.
However, she is also well aware that she cannot afford to alienate the country’s traditional base, those women who have been playing with an oval ball since an early age.
“You have to be so careful in how you message the value of talent recruitment and crossover athletes,” she said.
“Because it is really disenfranchising to the current rugby community if we say ‘guys, we’re not even gonna worry about club nationals, it doesn’t matter, we’ll just bring in all these crossovers to the full-time environment and they’re going to comprise our women's sevens team'. We know we do have talent developing in the traditional game that has the potential to breakthrough to national team and getting this balance right will be extremely important to our future success.
Fifteens is important
“The way the game is changing so quickly, we can’t have 12 crossovers on the field. You need to have those players who have played for 10-plus years in key play-making positions.”
Bydwell’s proudest achievement in rugby came at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2013, where the USA won bronze. Without a contract she had been forced to quit her job in order to attend training and win a place on the squad.
Fifteens rugby had always been a more natural fit, and having represented her adopted country at the 2010 and 2014 Women’s Rugby World Cups, she understands its importance.
USA Rugby has told its internationals hoping to play test rugby next month – when the Women's Eagles play world champions New Zealand in Chicago before travelling to play England and Ireland – that they must be playing 15s at club level.
In her role on World Rugby’s Women’s Advisory Committee, meanwhile, Bydwell and England international Rachael Burford made it clear that “sevens could be the poster child but you need to have 15s because it includes so many different types of people”.
Photo credit: Travis Prior