The wait is almost over with the eighth edition of Women's Rugby World Cup set to get underway in Ireland on Wednesday.
With Ireland 2017 promising to be the most competitive tournament to date, the 12 participating teams have left no stone unturned in their preparations over the last weeks and months.
England arrived in Ireland as the team to beat, being not only the defending champions and the only full-time professional squad, but also now the number one side in the World Rugby Women's Rankings.
However, four-time champions New Zealand, 2014 runners-up Canada, perennial semi-finalists France and host nation Ireland are among the teams with title aspirations of their own and no team can afford to be off their game even a little with only the three pool winners guaranteed a place in the semi-finals at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast on 22 August.
The action gets underway at 14:00 local time (GMT +1) with the Pool B encounter between England and Spain, with UCD Bowl also the venue for USA's meeting with Italy and hosts Ireland against Australia. New Zealand and Wales will kick-off proceedings at 14:45 at Billings Park with Canada then taking on tournament debutants Hong Kong before France meet Japan.
POOL A: NEW ZEALAND V WALES
Fiao'o Faamausili will spearhead New Zealand's bid for a fifth WRWC title – and fourth for her personally – and insists her side are hungrier than ever to get their hands on the coveted trophy once again, especially after losing their position at the top of the world rankings to long-time rivals England following a 29-21 loss to the Red Roses in the International Women's Rugby Series in June.
“Our team was always hungry,” admitted Faamausili this week. “We have a lot of pride in our jersey, in our country, we love this sport of rugby so that loss against England, yes it did hurt but it just makes us fight a lot more, not just for ourselves, but for each other and for our families and most of all for our country. We are out here to ensure that we set our mark and we don’t feel like we did at the end of the June series or the last World Cup.”
The Black Ferns' line-up is packed with experience throughout with World Cup winners, RWC Sevens winners, HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series champions and Olympic silver medallists selected to kick-off their campaign against Wales. Kendra Cocksedge, the World Rugby Women's Player of the Year in 2015, will be a key figure as she looks to unleash a backline that has no shortage of page with a back three of Renee Wickliffe, Portia Woodman and Selica Winiata.
The sides met three years ago when Wales felt the fury of a Black Ferns side that had failed to qualify for the semi-finals for the first time in WRWC history, conceding 11 tries in a 63-7 loss in their fifth place semi-final. Number eight Aroha Savage and full-back Selica Winiata were among the try-scorers that day in France and will line-up against Wales again in the opening match at Billings Park.
“They are going to be firing, all teams that come up against the black jersey are always going to be amping, they step their game up every time,” added Faamausili. “We expect them to be strong up front, especially coming off a Six Nations. Their home is closeto Ireland so they are going to come up for us, but we are just going to make sure that we are prepared and I am sure we will be.”
Wales boast the youngest captain in the tournament in Carys Phillips and could hand 17-year-old back-row Lleucu George her test debut, just weeks after she won a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Youth Games in the Bahamas. George isn't the only teenager named on the Welsh bench by coach Rowland Phillips as 18-year-old hooker Kelsey Jones is backing up her captain.
The Welsh, though, also have plenty of experience in the likes of flanker Rachel Taylor, number eight Sioned Harries, fly-half Elinor Snowsill and winger Elen Evans. However, they have lost the services of centre Rebecca De Filippo, who has been ruled out of the tournament with a foot injury suffered in training. She will be replaced by 18-year-old India Berbillion.
“We've set out a path to take women's rugby in Wales to new heights, and while that goes well beyond New Zealand tomorrow, the Black Ferns are an excellent team to test yourself against. They're one of the perennial favourites, and for good reason, but we'll be aiming to impose our game on them with the mindset of an 80-minute performance,” explained the coach.
POOL A: CANADA V HONG KONG
WRWC 2014 finalists Canada will take a step into the unknown with a first-ever meeting with Hong Kong, the side making their Women's Rugby World Cup debut in Ireland this month.
Canada coach Francois Ratier has selected 10 members of that 2014 squad in his starting line-up to face a side ranked 20 places them in the World Rugby Women's Rankings going into the tournament, including captain Kelly Russell and Magali Harvey, whose performances at France 2014 saw her named World Rugby Women's Player of the Year after their 21-9 loss to England in the final.
“We don’t know much about them, we do have a little bit of game film here and there, but whatever team we come up against the focus is to stick to our systems and our plan and of course we will do our analysis of what we have on them but for the most part, especially coming up against a team we don’t know that much about, we want to really focus on nailing down our stuff and keeping within our systems,” admitted Russell, whose sister Laura will also start the match.
Chow Mei Nam will captain Hong Kong as they make history and the second-row insists she and her team-mates will “take the challenge and then we will feel excited forever more” with pool matches to follow against five-time world champions New Zealand and Wales.
“It is the first time to be here and be in a World Cup. The Hong Kong team is ready for it. We want to take that challenge to see where we are,” she explained. “I think it is very important for the rugby development (that we qualified). Hong Kong is a small city but we want to develop this sport in Hong Kong, so we come here to create our legacy and then move back to Hong Kong and raise the level there.”
While the two sides have never met before, one player in the Hong Kong side will not be a stranger to some of her opponents with hooker Karen So having lived in Canada for 18 years and played provincial rugby with and against members of the Canadian squad.
POOL B: ENGLAND V SPAIN
This will be the third meeting between the two nations on the Women's Rugby World Cup and Spain have the honour of kicking off the 2017 edition against defending champions England at the UCD Bowl.
Spain may be ranked seven places lower than England in the rankings in eighth, but they will relish the opportunity to tackle the world champions and make the most of the raft of quick-thinking sevens players throughout a line-up captained by Aroa Gonzalez, the hooker who came out of retirement to lead her nation into her fourth World Cup.
The two sides met in the pool stages three years ago with England running out 45-5 winners and two of the try-scorers that day, Danielle Waterman and Kay Wilson, are among six WRWC 2014 winners in the starting line-up. All bar one of them – captain Sarah Hunter – can be found in the backline with the back three of Wilson, Waterman and Lydia Thompson certainly having plenty of pace to burn. The forward pack features a number of World Cup debutants with coach Simon Middleton opting to rest a number of his front-line forwards for this opening Pool B match.
“We are really happy with the way our tournament preparation has gone and the squad have worked really hard over the past number of months. Now it’s about translating that hard work and preparation and delivering performance on the pitch. We have a strong squad and want to use the full depth available to us throughout the World Cup. We are looking forward getting the tournament underway,” said Middleton.
Hunter was also quick to state the mindset the squad have for this tournament. “We are reigning champions, that has gone, we are very proud to have achieved that but this is new squad both players and management and the 28 here, we are one of 11 teams that are ultimately going on to try and win it, so we are very much of the mindset that we are here to win a competition not retain a trophy that we won in 2014.
POOL B: USA V ITALY
The USA won the inaugural tournament in 1991 and featured in the first three finals but have failed to reach the semi-finals since 1998 and Women's Eagles captain Tiffany Faaee believes increasing their physicality could be key to ending that sequence at Ireland 2017.
The prop knows they will face that physicality from an Italian side who are playing in their first Women's Rugby World Cup since 2002 and looking to bounce back from a Six Nations campaign that showed promise but ultimately ended with five defeats and the wooden spoon.
“They looked very strong in the Six Nations, we know they are very fit and very physical, this being their first World Cup for a while, we know they are going to be hungry. It is going to be a tough one, but we are just going to grind it out and see what happens,” admitted Faaee.
“That is something we know that being this current squad we have to up our game in certain aspects and we think physicality was probably one of the things that those older squads were really proud of and that is something we want to bring back this squad. Just get physical, stay on our feet and put the pressure on because our girls are fit and they are athletic, it is just that mental game of making sure we get in their faces from the first whistle.”
Only a handful of players in the Women's Eagles starting line-up have graced the WRWC stage before, among them half-backs Deven Owsiany and Kimber Rozier and their experience will be key to USA's hopes in Pool B.
Italy have plenty of experience in their ranks, including two players who were part of the Azzurre squad back in 2002 in flanker Silvia Gaudino and fly-half Veronica Schiavon. They are two of six players in the squad with more than 50 caps to their name and that number will swell by another on Wednesday with second-row Flavia Severin to reach a half century against the Women's Eagles.
Captain Sara Barattin will form a half-back pairing with Schiavon boasting 149 caps and the scrum-half can't wait for kick-off to come around. “It will be an emotional moment for me. It’s a dream to lead the Italian squad at a Women’s Rugby World Cup. We are ready for the match and we will do everything possible to get a great result.”
POOL C: IRELAND V AUSTRALIA
Ireland captain Claire Molloy is only too aware of Australia's desire to gatecrash the home crowd's party by defeating their hosts in the day's final match at the UCD Bowl and admits she would do the same if roles were reversed.
“They (Australia) are going to bring a lot of fight, they are going to be aggressive, they are going to be physical,” admitted Molloy, who captains Ireland for the first time after succeeding the injured Niamh Briggs. “They are going to look to spoil our party, it is a home World Cup. They want to have a big scalp, they want to take the hosts out, who wouldn’t? If I was Australian I’d be thinking the same thing, that would be exactly what I’d be rubbing my hands together about.
“We have got to be prepared for that and we are well aware what they are going to try to do. Try to take all the negatives and try to make it a pressure situation for us, but we have just got to remember it’s a game of rugby. We are the best rugby players in our country and we can go out and do it. We don’t have to do anything different, we just have to get our set-piece right, we have got to be accurate, we have got to be physical and it will happen. Just go and play rugby.”
Hannah Tyrrell will start at full-back in an experienced Ireland squad named by coach Tom Tierney, while by contrast his Australian counterpart Paul Verrell hands two players their test debuts in fly-half Trilleen Pomare and winger Mahalia Murphy, the latter one of three sevens contracted players in the Wallaroos squad for WRWC 2017. The two others, captain Shannon Parry and vice-captain Sharni Williams, provide key experience to a squad featuring a clutch of players who only made their international debuts in the last 10 months.
Another welcome returnee for the Wallaroos is Mollie Gray, the flanker making her first appearance in the national jersey since suffering an horrific knee injury in February when she damaged her anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and posterior cruciate ligament, dislocated her kneecap and suffered cartilage damage.
“I think for us we have got a huge first-up game against Ireland,” explained Parry. “We have got to start off our World Cup campaign on a positive note and from there anything can happen. We are definitely looking at a top-four finish but it starts with that first game. We are not distancing ourselves too far into the tournament, at this point in time we are just focusing on Ireland and everything is focused on that.”
POOL C: FRANCE V JAPAN
Twenty-six years have passed since France and Japan faced each other in their first Women's Rugby World Cup match, one Les Bleues won emphatically 62-0.
France will again be strong favourites to overcome a Japanese side making their return to the World Cup stage after 15 years and coach Samuel Cherouk has selected a familiar looking line-up, particularly the forward pack with the likes of captain Gaelle Mignot and number eight Safi N'Diaye certain to figure prominently.
Elodie Poublan and Caroline Ladagnous continue their centre partnership that has serve French rugby so well, while Montserrat Amedee will make her test debut at full-back.
Japan come into the tournament on the back of two emphatic victories over Hong Kong - 58-0 and 60-19 - in the Asia Rugby Women's Championship last month and will be looking to use their agility and pace against a French side that has a clear size advantage. Number eight Mateitoga Bogidraumainadave and captain Seina Saito will be key members of their back, behind which will sit the youngest player at WRWC 2017 in 17-year-old scrum-half Moe Tsukui.
The Sakura 15 showed plenty of pace in their backline against Hong Kong and coach Goshi Arimizu will be eager to see how his charges fair against a European powerhouse like France in the final match of day one at Billings Park.