The memory of 2014 in France might still be fresh with us but women’s rugby has moved on apace and, a year earlier than normal, the top teams are beginning to gather in Ireland for the showpiece event in the women’s calendar.
For various strategic reasons – mainly to now situate the tournament at the midway point the four yearly cycle of the men’s World Cup – the women have brought forward their eighth World Cup to 2017 but will revert to every four years thereafter with the next tournament schedule for 2021 and so on.
That way will also allow nations to fully concentrate on the Olympic Sevens event every four years before reverting to fifteens.
Enough of the logistics, a cracking rugby tournament – based initially in Dublin before moving to Belfast – beckons with the bar having been set very high in France where big crowds and a high level of media interest added considerably to a competition that in any case saw standards in the women’s game make a giant leap forward.
The rugby should be exceptional and if England – reigning champions and top-ranked in the world – are the side to be shot at they are no more than marginal favourites.
Only once in the last five years have England won the Six Nations tournament so Ireland and France in particular will have no fear of the champions while Canada – losing finalists three years ago – went close to beating England in the summer. New Zealand meanwhile will be smarting from a rare home defeat against Simon Middleton’s team.
It was that 29-21, five tries to two, win over the Black Ferns in Rotorua in a curtain raiser to the Lions’ match against New Zealand Maori that really established England’s credentials as tournament favourites but experience lock Tamara Taylor, right, insists nobody is getting carried away.
“It was a fine performance but in reality it shows nothing more than how well we can play if we execute properly in a big game,” says Taylor who will be playing in her fourth World Cup. “We’ll happily ‘bank’ the confidence such a win gives you but after that you shelve the memories. They will count for nothing come the World Cup.
“The New Zealand team that turn up in Ireland will be a very different opponent and that’s if we even meet them. Who knows how the tournament will pan out.”
The Kiwis will be skippered by Fiao’o Fa’amausili playing in her fifth World Cup. The experienced hooker has identified three dangerous opponents. “The biggest threats for us will be England, Canada and the home side Ireland. Being the Women’s Rugby World Cup you have to play every game like it’s your last. England have done their homework and been together for quite a while. With England we have to make sure to shut them down early – particularly upfront.
Fa’amausili is right to name-check Canada who arrive in Ireland with 18 of their silver medal winning squad returning from three years ago.
“It is great to have the same core group of girls. We were very close back in 2014 and those relationships have grown and grown since then,” says skipper Kelly Russell. “The great thing about this squad is that everyone is on the same page, everyone has the same goals, which is to take home the cup, and there is that belief we can do it.”
Russell will again be playing alongside her younger sister Laura who is the Canadian hooker and pack leader. “It is always incredible playing with her, we just know each other so well on and off the pitch,” says Russell.
“We have a special connection out there, we are able to read what each other is doing. I don’t have to look for her, I’ll know she is right there and vice versa. She is such a hard player who brings passion and energy and gets us going forward.”
A small army of over 200 family and friends have already booked for the trip to Ireland and that is sure to grow if Canada can beat New Zealand in their pool game and make it into the semi-finals. The Black Ferns won 28-16 when the sides last met six weeks ago in Wellington at the International Women’s Rugby Series.
Canada also lost narrowly to reigning world champions England while in New Zealand but recorded an emphatic win over the USA.
“It was important for us to go down to New Zealand at that point and play the best teams two months out from the World Cup. It gave us a good understanding of where we are at and what was going well and what we needed to work on,” Russell pointed out.
“Obviously, we were disappointed with the results because we know that we definitely didn’t play the way we exactly wanted to but it was a big learning curve for us and exactly what we needed.”
Hosts Ireland caused a huge stir with their win over New Zealand three years ago and 12 of that squad return including captain and full-back Niamh Briggs who has been battling a serious hamstring tear for much of the year.
“This is by far our best prepared squad in terms of strength and depth and the time we’ve had together,” says Briggs.
“Having the tournament on home soil is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and it’s important that we make the most of it, but we can’t get too high or too low – we have to keep focusing on our next game.”
Joining Ireland in a joint training camp in Cork this week will be Spain who include 11 of their squad from the Sevens at the Rio Olympics while they have also persuaded former national captain Aroa Gonzalez out of retirement.
They are, however, sweating on the fitness of their outstanding player, scrum-half Elisabet Martinez who has been on the comeback trail after a serious leg injury although a cameo performance against England A recently suggest she might just be good to go come the first match.
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