Eastern Conference Kickoff Preview
After nine months, Premier Rugby Sevens 2023 season is finally here, and the stakes are bigger than ever. The Eastern Conference is set to Kickoff in Austin on Saturday, June 17, and all four Eastern Conference franchises are embarking on their road to the championship.
The men and women will play a knockout-style tournament, with the winners of the first semi-final matches advancing to play in the finals. Teams will earn points depending on their finish, with 1st taking 13 points, 2nd with 6, 3rd with 3, and 4th with 1.
While more is needed to qualify for the DC Championship, the points will be a massive advantage heading into the Eastern Conference Finals in Pittsburgh on July 23. Semi-finals will be aired live on CBS Sports Network, with the remainder of the matches being carried on the @prsevens Youtube channel live. Watch it HERE.
The franchises have assembled impressive lineups, and the competition promises to be fierce. Below is a quick preview featuring some notable figures and players who may significantly impact their teams.
TEXAS TEAM MEN
The first-ever home Team (pun intended) could not be more ready for the big stage of Q2 Stadium. Playing in their first PR7s tournament since 2021, the Team features an entirely new squad, albeit with some recognizable faces. Most notably, Rhodes Featherstone, New Zealand All Blacks Sevens star, brings serious cache and experience on the international circuit. He is bolstered by Jerome Nale, who joins the Team from the Headliners. Amir Lancaster, a speedy and exciting talent, comes local to Austin, having played several seasons for the Austin Blacks club.
TEXAS TEAM WOMEN
The Team will also have their first-ever women’s side competing from the get-go. New Zealand Black Ferns Sevens Alena Saili will bring a lot of experience to the side, along with Tyshia Ikenasio. The Team will be without Angie Olukunmi, who joins the Team after a breakout season with the Loggerheads but will be looking to the pace from Erica Legaspi to replace the tries. Kimber Rozier, a long-time veteran of USA Rugby fifteens and participant in three World Cups (two for 15s and one for 7s), will be a veteran presence as she makes her first PR7s appearance.
The Headliners men return after coming up just shy of a championship in 2022 and looking for a bounce back. Kitiona Vai “headlines” as the other men’s All Black on the squad, looking to fill the hole left by Brady Rush after his breakout 2023 international campaign. Coleson Warner returns for his third PR7s season after a successful 2022 campaign. Jasper Green makes his rookie debut after standout performances for Dartmouth College in the National College Rugby CRC’s in 2021.
The reigning champions are ready to rock and defend their title, and boy, did they bring reinforcements. United States Olympian and star Naya Tapper rejoins the squad after an absence in 2022, reuniting with fellow Olympians Abby Gustaitis and Alena Olsen. The Headliners will be without roster stalwarts Grace Kukutai and Emma Farnan to begin in Austin. However, breakout players Monique Coffey and field-hockey convert Laura Hurff will bring the tempo on the wings to make an extremely dangerous squad ready to repeat.
Pittsburgh’s first men’s professional rugby sevens team will bring a strong squad into Austin. American rugby fans are buzzing to see the return of USA Rugby legend Ben Pinkelman, who will make his first appearance since retiring in 2021. The Steeltoes will also feature the returns of Aki Raymond and David Hightower, the current PR7s speed record holder. Local Pittsburgher Misha Shorin will delight the home crowd in the conference finals next month but will have his work cut out in the Kickoff Tournament.
The self-titled “Women of Steel” look to make the Steel City proud as they take the field for the first time. The Steeltoes will count on World Rugby Sevens Rookie of the Year Nominee Sammy Sullivan, who joins the STs from the Headliners, and Team USA star Kayla Cannett. The Steeltoes women will also feature breakout social media darling Abbie Winchester, whose story of picking up rugby after concluding her D-1 basketball career at Oklahoma State has won fans worldwide.
The Locals men make their first tournament appearance since the Memphis Inaugural Championship in 2021. The strong squad will feature USA Olympian Cody Melphy making his first PR7s appearance and Fijian International standout Alasio Naduva, whose stepping ability promises to light up the stage. Americans Grayson Hanes and Eric Sykes Jr. look to have breakout seasons.
Can you begin any preview of the Locals without going straight to Stacey Waaka? The Black Fern World Cup champion and Olympic Gold Medalist is a global star coming to PR7s with a smile, but no opponent will be deceived. Stacey will be joined by former Loggerhead Megan Pinson-Neyen, who has had a standout season for Beantown RFC and earned a first call-up to the USA fifteens side. Nene Weathers returns to the squad after a year of absence and a baby in tow.
Full Schedule for June 17th at Q2 Austin, TX