Canada, England, South Africa and hosts USA will step up their preparations for Women's Rugby World Cup 2014 by taking part in what should prove to be a competitive Women's Nations Cup in Colorado.
With four matches in a 12-day period in Colorado, the Nations Cup will provide the participating nations - three of whom have already qualified for WRWC 2014 - with a schedule like they will face at France 2014, which runs from 1-17 August next year.
England arrive in Colorado as the defending champions, but have brought a largely development squad with them this time with 11 uncapped players supported by the likes of captain Sarah Hunter and experienced front rowers Rochelle Clark and Emma Croker.
The Red Roses will be desperate to find some form, having just been on the end of a series whitewash by world champions New Zealand and a disappointing Women’s Six Nations campaign which saw them beaten comprehensively by both Ireland and France. England also failed to secure the RWC Sevens crown that had been their major focus for 2013, finishing sixth.
The USA women, by contrast, come into the tournament looking to build on a “great foundation” laid during their three Test series with France in California in June, which saw them win the first 13-10 before slipping to narrow 27-25 and 18-12 defeats.
Head coach Peter Steinberg has made eight changes to his squad from that series, five of them members of the USA squad that finished third at RWC Sevens 2013 in Moscow at the end of June, including Jill Potter who has not played for the Fifteens national side since injury ruled her out before WRWC 2010.
“This is an opportunity for new players to show what they can add on the field and how they fit in off the field,” explained Steinberg. “There are a number of players not selected to the Nations Cup that are still a main focus for the World Cup team, but this is a chance for new players to showcase what they can do.
“We built a great foundation for the team culture when we played against France and now we can really grow on that with these matches. With the schedule resembling a World Cup schedule, it helps us in setting player expectations and how we need to handle ourselves on and off the field at a major competition.”
USA will open their campaign at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley against South Africa on Tuesday, with the Nations Cup providing an important building block in the Springbok women's team's quest to qualify for Women's Rugby World Cup 2014.
South Africa will face Uganda on 7 September in East London for the right to represent Africa in the showpiece tournament in France and caretaker coach Aslam Abrahams is keen to see them improve their record of one win - against USA - in their previous Women's Nations Cup appearances in 2009 and 2011.
“We are confident about the competition. The team is gelling well and we have been able to gain some match fitness after warm-up matches against Boland and the Blue Bulls, so it is now a case of believing in ourselves and our abilities, and making the most of this occasion,” Abrahams said.
“One of our main objectives is to qualify for the World Cup and doing well in this tournament will set us in good stead for the World Cup qualifier, but our focus first and foremost is to perform well in the Nations Cup, and that entails starting our campaign with a victory against the USA and then hopefully defeating England.”
Mandisa Williams will lead the South African charge and is one of seven players in the squad who played at Rugby World Cup Sevens 2013 in Moscow, a campaign which did not see them reach the heights of the inaugural tournament four years earlier when they were semi-finalists.
Canada, who lost to England 41-19 in the 2011 final, also come into the tournament under new head coach Francois Ratier on the back of some success for their women’s teams, their Under 20s having gone unbeaten to win their Nations Cup equivalent in England recently.
A handful of the squad that reached the RWC Sevens final in Moscow will turn their attentions to Fifteens and the Nations Cup, including Magali Harvey, Bianca Farella and Arielle Dubissette-Borrice, a try-scorer in that loss to New Zealand.
England acting head coach Graham Smith is eager to see whether the younger players in the squad can put their hand up for future selection and improve the strength in depth, but knows they will face a big challenge in Colorado.
“Canada and the USA are always physical, have some big athletes,” explained Smith. “In the recent series between France and the USA, the USA pushed them very close. The final score was 2-1 to France, who brought a very strong side.
“That was very tight so we are under no illusions as to how difficult this is going to be. South Africa have had some recent success on the Sevens circuit as well, and while their forwards have traditionally lacked a bit of fitness, they hit very hard.”
Women's Nations Cup fixtures
Tuesday, 30 July
Canada v England (16:00 local time, 22:00 GMT)
USA v South Africa (18:00 local time, 00:00 GMT)
Saturday, 3 August
England v South Africa (16:00 local time, 22:00 GMT)
USA v Canada (18:00 local time, 00:00 GMT)
Wednesday, 7 August
Canada v South Africa (16:00 local time, 22:00 GMT)
USA v England (18:00 local time, 00:00 GMT)
Saturday, 10 August
Third place play-off (16:00 local time, 22:00 GMT)
Final (18:15 local time, 00:15 GMT)
Matches will be streamed live at usarugby.org/tv