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: 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 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.