The Oceania Rugby Women’s Championship gets underway on Monday with four teams – hosts Fiji, Samoa, Papua New Guinea and Tonga – vying for a place at Rugby World Cup 2021 in New Zealand.
Australia A and a New Zealand Black Ferns Development XV are also competing in the tournament that will be played over four rounds from 18-30 November at Churchill Park in Lautoka, Fiji.
The highest placed of the non-qualified teams will join the eight teams who have already confirmed their presence at RWC 2021.
A top-seven finish at the last Rugby World Cup in Ireland two years ago guaranteed New Zealand, England, USA, France, Canada, Australia and Wales their place, while South Africa became the first regional qualifier back in August.
The New Zealand Black Ferns Development XV are accompanied in Pool A at the Oceania Rugby Women’s Championship by Samoa and Tonga, while Fiji, PNG and Australia A come together in Pool B.
The first round will only feature two matches – Samoa v Papua New Guinea and Fiji v the Black Ferns Development XV – after Australia A v Tonga was cancelled on health grounds and declared a draw.
M A N U S I N A XV's.— Oceania Rugby (@oceaniarugby) November 15, 2019
Welcome to Fiji and all the best for the #OceaniaRugby Women's Championships.#EqualPlayingField #OceaniaWomens
Watch it LIVE here on @oceaniarugby
18, 22, 26 and 30 November, 2019. pic.twitter.com/2kpBYamRss
World Cup dream
Fourteen of the Samoan squad, which also includes 10 debutants, have already tasted success at Churchill Park this year after winning the Asia-Pacific Championship campaign in May and June.
Despite going undefeated at that tournament with wins over Hong Kong and Fiji, head coach Ramsey Tomokino is remaining level-headed.
“Last year was the first time since 2014 that we’d had a 15s programme, so we have blooded a whole new group of players and rebuilt the team really.
“Obviously, we had the opportunity to come here in May and blood more players. I think we’ve had 39 debutants over those two tournaments and we’ve another 10 in this tournament.
“We are missing some key girls, but it comes down to coaching and what we can do with the girls we have available.
“Our expectation is to come here and do the best we can; we’re also under no illusion how tough this is going to be as everyone wants to go to the World Cup.”
Players based in five different countries make up a diverse Manusina squad that, Tomokino points out, is still getting to know each other.
“We were fortunate to have a light scrimmage against the New Zealand A team earlier in the week, as an intro to the girls, and to see where we are at.
“It is probably the first time we have had a couple of days together. Every other time we’ve landed in Fiji before, that’s been it, and we’ve played three days later. So, we are a little bit better prepared this time.”
Fiji are chasing a hat-trick of titles having won in 2016 and in 2018 when they defeated Samoa 43-12 on the final day.
For Tonga, last year’s tournament marked the first appearance of a women’s 15s side in international rugby since the Women’s Pacific Tri-Nations in 2006.
As well as doubling as a Rugby World Cup qualification tournament, the inclusion of the two invitational teams adds an extra layer of competition and the chance for New Zealand and Australia to test the depth of their talent pool.
Twelve capped Black Ferns are included in coach Wayne Maxwell’s squad which also features a number of new faces.
“We’ve come over with a view to developing more players in our high performance programme,” said Maxwell.
"We’ve got some really good talent coming off our NPC, our national provincial tournament, who have been selected for this tour.
“So, I’m excited about having a look at some new girls and giving some more game time to girls who played in the super series and the test series against Australia.
“I’ve watched a bit of Fiji and Australia’. I’m not sure what Papua New Guinea are like, but the quality of rugby has got better and better in the women’s space.”