The Women's Rugby World Cup 2017 semi-finals have a sense of déjà vu about them as they are a repeat of those from the inaugural tournament back in 1991.
On that occasion in Wales, USA edged past New Zealand 7-0 and England overcame France 13-0. Four-time champions New Zealand and France, bidding to reach their first final, will hope that history does not repeat itself to end their title dreams prematurely in Ireland.
The attention inevitably will be on the two semi-finals at Kingspan Stadium, but there is still plenty for the other eight teams to play for on the penultimate match day of Ireland 2017, be it automatic qualification for Women's Rugby World Cup 2021 or simply to achieve the best ranking they can.
The top seven teams will secure direct passage to WRWC 2021 and avoid the global qualification process. For hosts Ireland, Australia, Canada and Wales that means if they can taste victory on Tuesday they will confirm their place and avoid the winner-takes-all seventh place play-off on Saturday.
The action gets underway with the ninth place semi-final between Italy and Japan at 12:00 local time (GMT+1) at Queen's University in Belfast, followed by the other tie involving Spain and Hong Kong and the fifth place play-off between Canada and Wales. The fifth place play-off between hosts Ireland and Australia will open proceedings at the Kingspan Stadium at 14:00 with attention then turning to the two semi-finals, with New Zealand taking on USA before England meet France.
In the knockout stages, there can be no draws so if any of the matches are level at full-time, sudden death extra-time will be played in two 10-minute halves with the first score by any team the winning score, be that a penalty, drop goal or try. If that additional 20 minutes fails to produce a winner, then a kicking competition will take place.
SEMI-FINAL: NEW ZEALAND V USA
New Zealand captain Fiao'o Faamausili has achieved her first goal for WRWC 2017 by reaching the semi-finals, but there is one more thing she wants to add to her already impressive resume before she brings the curtain down on her international career.
That, inevitably, is a fifth title for the Black Ferns and fourth for her personally after being part of the 2002, 2006 and 2010 winning teams.
And while many will view top seeds New Zealand as strong favourites to progress against USA, the best runner-up across the three pools, Faamausili is taking nothing for granted and knows the number one side in the World Rugby Women's Rankings will have to produce their best rugby to beat the Women's Eagles in the first semi-final at Kingspan Stadium.
“It was a massive relief (to make the semi-finals after 2014),” admitted Faamausili, who will take her place in an unchanged starting line-up from the 48-5 win over Canada in their Pool A decider.
“Some of the girls don’t know how it felt because you don’t bring it up, but it was a massive relief and to know we have got into the semi-finals and every game is a final for us now. That is what we tell our girls, you come off that field crawling, you leave it all out there.
“I quite like pressure on us, you kind of like being that one that everyone is talking about. It is how you go on the field and absorb it, there is always going to be talk out there but at the end of the day it is about us, our team on the day, and how we perform and how we work as a team.
“I can say we haven’t seen the best yet. We are happy with how we are progressing but we know there is a lot to work on and that is good for our team, we are always wanting to learn new things and the best is yet to come.
“We are going to expect pretty much the same again from USA. Everyone picks up their game when they play the black jersey. We are going to expect a wide game from them, we are going to expect their forwards to be brutal.
“We are just going to make sure we stay on top of our game, focus on us, get our set pieces right, get our connections between our backs and forwards right and then we should be all right. We have got a lot of respect for the USA team, we last played them in 2015 and we can see their level of rugby has picked up and that is awesome for women’s rugby in general.”
This will be the fourth time the sides have met on the World Cup stage, two of them coming in 2014 when New Zealand won emphatically in the pool stages and the fifth place play-off in France. New Zealand won the WRWC 1998 final against the Women's Eagles just as comfortably (44-12), but USA can lay claim to being one of only two teams to beat the Black Ferns in the tournament's history, 7-0 in the inaugural semi-final in 1991.
That is USA's only win in 10 meetings with New Zealand and captain Tiffany Faaee knows her side will need to show the same determination they did in securing a try bonus point with the last play against England if they are to maintain the Women's Eagles' perfect record in WRWC semi-finals, having won their three previous appearances in the last four.
“Twenty years is a long time (between semi-finals) and especially with the current squad finally meeting some of the alumni, I think coming here we started to build that bridge and we were interacting and it was nice to put some names to faces of those legends. To come here and be able to make history ourselves is something that is going to be memorable, especially for the squad because I think they deserve it and to put our name on the map too, to contribute to the legacy of the Eagles before us is amazing and we are very proud of the achievement,” said Faaee, who will lead an unchanged starting line-up from their 47-26 loss to England.
“There is still a lot more to go so we will see what happens. Our best is definitely still to come, even after England. England was a different opposition (to Italy and Spain) so they tested us in a different way. They kicked behind us a lot so now we have to go back and work on that transition which is something I look forward to so we can implement that against New Zealand because I would imagine they will have a similar game plan as well.
“I really like the way New Zealand, play, I like their style. I think individually they are all very strong players and I know they are going to try and move us around and are probably going to kick behind us as well, so I think we are going to stick to our structure, which is lots of pressure up front, force them to kick behind us and then just work on that transition of how we can bring that ball back and keep it in their territory.
“We haven’t played a team like New Zealand for a couple of years so if we again trust in our structure, I think the pressure we apply on defence and just keeping that possession when we do get it we should be able to put some points on and just take it each ruck at a time. It's very exciting stuff, I think we’re prepared, the girls are ready.”
SEMI-FINAL: ENGLAND V FRANCE
Two familiar rivals meet in the second semi-final in England and France, but their records in Women's Rugby World Cup knockout matches could not be more different.
Defending champions England are bidding to reach their seventh final in eight tournaments, while France have fallen at the semi-final stage on six occasions and will hope their form at Ireland 2017 will see them finally reach a first title decider.
England, who ended Les Bleues' hopes in the WRWC semi-finals in 1991 and 1994, won 26-13 when the rivals met in the Six Nations in February and nine of the starters that day will line-up again at Kingspan Stadium, including try-scorer Danielle Waterman and Emily Scarratt, who kicked 16 points in the win at Twickenham. France have 10 players from that match, among them try-scorer Shannon Izar and captain Gaelle Mignot.
The Red Roses have made only two changes to their starting line-up from the 47-26 win over USA. Rachael Burford replaces Amber Reed at inside centre to renew her long-standing partnership with Scarratt, while Lydia Thompson has recovered from a knee injury to replace Amy Wilson-Hardy on the right wing.
“They (France) have obviously been probably the team in form, their forwards have got them on the front foot and given them good ball to play off and their backs have put some good combinations and really looked very threatening with ball in hand,” admitted England captain Sarah Hunter, the World Rugby Women's Player of the Year in 2016.
“We know they will pose some threats, but we will be looking at areas that we can take advantage of as well. The French will always turn up in a semi-final, so we know it will probably be one hell of a game out there.
“This is the biggest World Cup there has been, probably the most competitive. We have seen some really tight games out in the pool stages and France have probably led the way in some of their performances as well.
“Everyone wants to get out of a semi-final and into a final, they have that ambition to get to their first World Cup final but we have that ambition to get to our seventh World Cup final and to go on and win it. As much as they will keep pushing for that, we have also got that desire to get into a World Cup final again.”
France coach Samuel Cherouk has also kept his changes to a minimum, the most significant of them being the absence of flanker Romane Menager who has been outstanding in the tournament but misses out as a result of a head knock she suffered in the 21-5 win over Ireland. She is replaced in the back-row by Julie Annery, while Elodie Guiglion replaces Chloe Pelle on the right-wing.
“We achieved our goal which was to finish top of our pool, with three matches and three victories. We've done what has been asked of us, so we are satisfied,” Mignot said.
“We are confident in our chances. I think there is a possibility to go beyond this step. We now need to be focused because we are going to have a tough match.
“It's a semi-final where the chances are 50-50. It's up for grabs to both teams. We really hope that we can go to the final for the first time.
“We believe it's going to be a great rugby match with two teams who will give it their all, who will do their best to go through to the final. England will do everything to defend their title. It's going to be engaging, with a lot of action. I think it's going to be a great rugby match on Tuesday.
“England is a capable team, which is able to produce a high performance, they play just as well in front as behind, scoring great tries on carries. They've scored beautiful tries with movements and passes with their half-backs. They've got good footwork. It's a well-rounded team, and it will be very difficult to get the better of them. We will need to be very clean, making no mistakes if we want to win.”
FIFTH PLACE SEMI-FINAL: IRELAND V AUSTRALIA
Only two points separated Ireland and Australia when the sides met on the opening day of WRWC 2017 at UCD Bowl and the carrot of qualification for the 2021 edition will ensure another tough battle in the first match at Kingspan Stadium.
Ireland coach Tom Tierney has made three changes to the starting line-up from the loss to France as the hosts look to salvage fifth place with a strong finish to the tournament. Cliodhna Moloney gets the nod at hooker with Ciara Cooney coming into the second row alongside Marie Louise Reilly, while Louise Galvin takes her place on the left-wing in the only change in the backline.
“We know what the Australians will bring to the game tomorrow, and we will have to be ready to match their physicality from the start,” said Tierney. “We've reviewed our own games and looked at areas where we can improve in both attack and defence.
“There is huge pride in this team and we're looking to finish this tournament with two performances.”
Australia will again be captained by Sharni Williams, her fellow Rio 2016 Olympic gold medallist Shannon Parry having returned home after an ankle injury suffered against France cut short her tournament.
Williams moves in one position to inside centre with Sarah Riordan shifting to outside centre to accommodate Ashleigh Hewson at fly-half, the experienced versatile back having recovered from the injury that has kept her sidelined for the last two matches. Rebecca Clough comes into the second-row with Millie Boyle dropping into the back-row as a result.
FIFTH PLACE SEMI-FINAL: CANADA V WALES
Canada's dreams of bettering their runners-up finish in 2014 disappeared with the heavy loss to New Zealand, but victory over Wales for the second time in 10 days will preserve their record of never finishing outside the top six at a Women's Rugby World Cup.
Coach Francois Ratier has taken the opportunity to make two changes to both his forward pack and backline. Prop Olivia DeMerchant and second-row Cindy Nelles come in for DaLeaka Menin and Kayla Mack respectively, while Brittany Waters makes her first start of WRWC 2017 at inside centre in place of Alex Tessier. The only other change sees Frederique Rajotte replace WRWC 2017 top point scorer Magali Harvey, who is unavailable for selection, on the left wing.
“I feel that we have to wake up and remember what this game is all about. It’s a physical game and I think we’ve been a bit too tentative and we can’t be anymore,” insisted Canada assistant coach Gary Dukelow.
“The two words we’ve been using in our sessions are ‘next’ and ‘connect.’ We have to let the past go and do the best we can with what we have right now. Physicality is at the heart of our game and it will come back against Wales. We can’t be fancy at this point.
“What we do is what we leave for the next group. We recognise that these are important games for ourselves, but bigger than ourselves is Canadian rugby and certainly the women’s programme.”
Wales field the same starting line-up from their 15-0 loss to Canada in their Pool A encounter, only six of whom began their 39-15 win over Hong Kong last Thursday – among them try-scorers Sioned Harries, Jess Kavanagh-Williams and captain Carys Phillips.
Coach Rowland Phillips labelled his side's performance against Hong Kong as “unacceptable” and knows Wales must “be at our best” if they are to avenge that pool loss to Canada.
“We competed well in our last match against Canada and we know their quality, which is reflected in their world ranking,” says Phillips of a Canadian team now ranked fourth in the World Rugby Women's Rankings. “Our positive performance against them gives us a lot of confidence as we move forward – not only in the Women’s Rugby World Cup, but as we continue to build the Welsh women's game for the future.”
“What makes this game even more compelling is that we are now familiar with each other’s threats. I'm sure Canada will have learnt a lot about us in that game, and they'll prepare accordingly, but the key for us coming out of that encounter, and the pool stage as a whole, was that we gained belief in ourselves and our structures.”
NINTH PLACE SEMI-FINAL: ITALY V JAPAN
Two teams searching for their first win of WRWC 2017 will get the action underway at Queen's University in what is their first meeting since the 2002 tournament in Spain.
Italy won 30-3 that day and two members of their current squad were involved 15 years ago in fly-half Veronica Schiavon and flanker Silvia Gaudino. The former comes back into the starting line-up for this encounter with Japan, with the younger Beatrice Rigoni moving back to inside centre as a result, with Gaudino on the bench just as she was in Spain.
Schiavon is one of four players returning to a starting role following the 22-8 loss to Spain, the others all in the forward pack in prop Elisa Cucchiella, second-row Flavia Severin and flanker Ilaria Arrighetti. Centre Maria Grazia Cioffi will become the third Italian player to reach 50 caps during WRWC 2017, while captain Sara Barattin plays her 75th test for the Azzurre.
“Japan are a very tough team that fights for every ball,” said Italy coach Andrea Di Giandomenico. “They challenged Ireland and Australia on many occasions of those matches. For us it will be crucial not to think about the pool stage, we only have to think about the next opponent and bring home the victory.”
The Sakura 15 are not only targeting their first win of this tournament but also only their second in WRWC history, having only tasted victory over the Netherlands back in 2002.
Coach Goshi Arimizu has only made a handful of changes to the starting line-up after their 29-15 loss to Australia, all of them in the backline. Honoka Tsutsumi returns on the left wing with Riho Kurogi shifting from inside centre to the opposite wing, making space for Ayaka Suzuki to return alongside Iroha Nagata in the centres.
NINTH PLACE SEMI-FINAL: SPAIN V HONG KONG
Spain came into the tournament targeting a top eight finish but, with that no longer possible, Las Leonas will be looking to build on their performance against Italy and finish the World Cup strongly with three wins in a row.
Coach Jose Antonio Barrio has made five changes to his starting line-up from that 22-8 victory, three of them in forwards with Isabel Macias replacing captain Aroa Gonzalez at hooker with Berta Garcia and Elena Redondo forming a new second-row partnership. Prop Isabel Rico takes over the captaincy for this match with Hong Kong. The other changes see Amaia Erbina start at outside-centre with Uri Barrutieta coming onto the wing.
“We did not achieve our initial goal coming to the WRWC which was to play for fifth to eighth, but we did achieve a very important win against a Six Nations team in Italy that has gotten better with each year. The manner in which we won was also important, in a very difficult situation,” Barrio said.
“We had to reinvent ourselves against Italy and we are happy with the win but also with the way we played. We wanted to return to playing the way Spain plays and that we did, which comes at the right time as we head into two important games against Hong Kong and then probably Japan. We have to enjoy these games.”
Hong Kong, buoyed by scoring their first points in WRWC history against Wales, will look to continue their progression through the tournament against a Spain side ranked 15 places above them in the World Rugby Women's Rankings and who beat them 41-18 in Valladolid in June.
Try-scorers Chong Ka Yan and Natasha Olson-Thorne retain their places in a backline with Adrienne Garvey, the scorer of Hong Kong's first WRWC points through a penalty, switching from full-back to outside centre as Laurel Chor and Colleen Tjosvold come into the back three.
Two of the other three changes made by Hong Kong coach Jo Hull see Wong Yuen Shan and Karen So take their place at loose-head prop and hooker respectively, while Amelie Seure will pack down at number eight.
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