Women's Rugby World Cup 2017 kicked off on Wednesday with more tries and points scored than the opening day in France three years ago as England, New Zealand, Canada, USA, France and hosts Ireland all tasted victory.
The tournament has certainly captured the imagination of fans in Ireland and around the world with fans from 196 countries and territories visiting the official website, rwcwomens.com, with a traffic increase of 550 per cent on WRWC 2014. The official hashtag #WRWC2017 trended in the UK and Ireland, while there were 4.4 million views of content across @WorldRugby social and digital channels.
There will be more of the same on Sunday with the second round of pool matches with teams eager to keep themselves in the hunt for semi-final places given only the three pool winners guaranteed to keep their title hopes alive.
The action gets underway at 12:00 local time (GMT+1) with the Pool A encounter between New Zealand and Hong Kong at Billings Park, followed by England v Italy in Pool B and the remaining Pool A match between Canada and Wales. USA and Spain will kick-off proceedings in UCD Bowl at 14:45 with the Pool C matches, Ireland v Japan and France v Australia, closing out the day.
With points doubled to reflect the importance of Women's Rugby World Cup matches, the second round of matches could also result in plenty of changes to the World Rugby Women's Rankings when they update at 12 noon UK time on Monday.
POOL A: NEW ZEALAND V HONG KONG
New Zealand captain Fiao'o Faamausili will draw level with Anna Richards and Emma Jensen as her country's most-capped player when she wears the jersey for the 49th time against Hong Kong.
The hooker is one of only five players retained from the 44-12 win over Wales as coach Glenn Moore looks to keep his squad fresh ahead of the challenges to come. Half-backs Kendra Cocksedge and Victoria Subritzky-Nafatali continue their partnership with sevens stars Sarah Goss and Portia Woodman the others, although Goss moves across the back-row.
“The four-day match turnaround puts a lot of pressure on players and we want to ensure they are in the best possible shape for the entire tournament,” explained Moore.
“This is an important game for us. There were certain things we were really pleased about in our match against Wales, but there were also a couple of areas we were disappointed in. We need to improve on those and further build in the areas we did well in. Everyone is looking forward to getting out there again and doing New Zealand proud.”
Hong Kong coach Jo Hull expects New Zealand to be “at another level” and “tougher” than a Canadian side that beat her charges 98-0 on day one, so she knows that their tackling must approve to ensure they don't give the Black Ferns the space and chance to build momentum.
Only four players will back-up from that opening loss, including captain Chow Mei Nam and centre Natasha Olson-Thorne, with veteran forwards Royce Chan and Christine Gordon coming in along with promising teenager centre Kelsie Bouttle.
“We’re feeling positive and excited to play New Zealand. We’ve had two tests against non-Asian opponents in our history and now we’re playing the second and third ranked teams in the world within the space of a week. For the 23rd ranked team in the world it’s a huge honour and a real positive for us,” insisted Hull.
“There’s a lot of pride in the locker room over our spirited performance against Canada, but we aren’t satisfied with how we played. We take heart from our performance, but we know we still have a lot to improve on. Mentally we’re in a good place. We’re not okay with losing 98-0 and personal accountability in our performance is hugely important and has to improve. That’s the challenge for us over the next few days.
“Some real positives are emerging. We showed warrior toughness against Canada, but it’s not good enough to leave it at that. We have to back that up now. We need a better performance than last week and against another world-class team.”
World Rankings watch: With 21 places and 40.54 rating points separating the two nations in the World Rugby Women's Rankings, New Zealand cannot improve their rating with any margin of victory and will only return to top spot if England are handed a shock defeat by Italy.
POOL A: CANADA V WALES
Canada, unlike their main Pool A rivals New Zealand, have elected to retain virtually the same starting line-up from the record 98-0 defeat of Hong Kong for this meeting with Wales, the only change sees try-scorer Elissa Alarie move from full-back to the left wing with Julianne Zussman filling the vacated 15 jersey. The player to drop out of the squad is Frédérique Rajotte.
The Welsh match will bring up a personal milestone for captain Kelly Russell as she becomes the third Canadian to reach 50 test caps, following in the footsteps of two legends of Canadian rugby in Gillian Florence – a veteran of five World Cups – and Maria Gallo, who presented the team with their jerseys ahead of the Hong Kong match.
“It was a good start. I think the score reflected that we played as a team and we had a great flow,” admitted Magali Harvey, Canada's five-try scorer against Hong Kong. “That was our first game and every game from now on are going to get harder. It was very exciting to see that we were able to keep going for 80 minutes, that said we are also aware that we are in a tough pool. We just want to put all the odds on our side, so the more points we score the better it is for us and the harder it is for teams to catch up to us.
“I think Wales will be more of a technical team (than Hong Kong) and a bigger team too so it is going to be more of a physical game and we have to bring it to them so they know we are not messing around either.”
Wales coach Rowland Phillips, meanwhile, has made two changes from the side beaten 44-12 by New Zealand on the same Billings Park pitch with Sian Moore given the nod at scrum-half this time and Jess Kavanagh-Williams named on the wing for her first taste of World Cup action. Replacement hooker Morfudd Ifans is in line to make her debut, while experienced back-row Shona Powell-Hughes takes her place on the bench after recovering from injury suffered in a warm-up match.
“We’ll be looking to cut out the unforced errors against Canada, who are a well-organised, strong and very athletic side,” said Phillips. “We’ve spoken a lot about taking positives out of the game against New Zealand, and that's something we’ve been working on in the build-up to tomorrow’s match.
“We’re lucky as coaches to be overseeing a highly motivated group of players. Almost as soon as we came off the pitch on Wednesday, we started looking at what we needed to do to challenge what is clearly a very good Canada side. That preparation – which has included a lot of hard work on the training pitch – means we’ll take to the field full of confidence tomorrow.”
Rankings watch: Canada cannot improve their rating with victory over a Welsh side ranked seven places below them in 10th, but if they suffer a first loss to Wales since 2006 and France are victorious in their Pool C match with Australia, then the WRWC 2014 runners-up will drop below France into fourth place. Wales can rise one place even in defeat if Italy lose to England, but victory could improve their rating by as much as six points and a couple of places.
POOL B: ENGLAND V ITALY
England coach Simon Middleton had always planned to ring the changes and give everyone a run-out across the opening match days and so only five players are retained from the 56-5 win over Spain for the defending champions' second meeting with Italy this year.
The Red Roses were pushed hard by a determined Italy in the Six Nations with Amy Wilson-Hardy among their try-scorers that February day and the winger comes in for her World Cup debut in place of Kay Wilson, who takes a well-earned rest after her four-try haul against Spain.
Danielle Waterman and Rachael Burford keep their places in the backline and are joined in the starting line-up by England's two other players in their fourth tournament in prop Rochelle Clark and second-row Tamara Taylor. Emily Scarratt assumes the captaincy with Sarah Hunter starting on the bench against the Azzurre.
“We have options available to us in terms of selection and running different combinations. We want to take full advantage of the depth, talent and experience in the squad. Our aim is to continually build and improve on performance, the team have recovered well and have been working hard over the past two days to ensure we are fully prepared for the next challenge,” said Middleton.
“We are expecting a tough and physical encounter. Italy have caused us plenty of problems in the past and are an incredibly talented side.”
Italy coach Andrea Di Giandomenico has largely kept his backline intact with the talented Beatrice Rigoni's selection at inside-centre in place of Sofia Stefan the only change. He has, though, rung the changes in his forward pack, one of which was enforced after hooker Lucia Cammarano suffered a double leg fracture during their 24-12 loss to 1991 champions USA on day one.
Melissa Bettoni moves from tight-head to hooker to replace her in a new look front-row with Marta Ferrari and Lucia Gai, while Valeria Fedrighi comes into the second-row for her first start and Ilaria Arrighetti takes her place in a re-jigged back-row.
Captain Sara Barattin and Manuela Furlan were among Italy's try scorers in that Six Nations meeting and will be eager for the Azzurre to give the defending champions plenty of food for thought in this meeting as they look to bounce back from that day one loss.
“Facing England is always challenging,” admitted Barattin. “They made a great start in the first game against Spain and are here to defend the title. In the last two matches against them in the Six Nations, we played well and put them in trouble. We will give 100 per cent to follow our game plan.”
Rankings watch: England cannot improve their rating if they add victory over Italy to their defeat of Spain earlier this week. Italy will slip one place to 10th – with Wales the beneficiaries – on the back of 1.23 rating points lost after their 24-12 loss to USA on day one, unless they can beat England for the first time.
POOL B: USA V SPAIN
USA coach Pete Steinberg is very aware of the threat Spain pose with many of their players switching between sevens and 15s on a regular basis and knows his players must put them under pressure defensively if they are to continue their perfect record against Las Leonas, having won both previous World Cup meetings, 28-16 in 1998 and 23-5 four years later.
“One of the things I feel like we can be really good at is line speed,” explained Steinberg. “Spain loves to move the ball, so we really need to put them under some defensive pressure. Line speed and really getting after the contest at the tackle area will be the big things on defence.”
“Our structure wasn't quite right (against Italy), so we weren't able to source the rucks when it got wide the way we wanted to. We'll have to make sure our structure is right, but we're pretty happy with where we are.”
Steinberg has made only three changes to his starting line-up, Sam Pankey coming in at hooker and Abby Gustaitis, a try-scorer against Italy, getting the nod in the second-row. The other change comes at inside-centre where USA Sevens captain Alev Kelter is rewarded for her performance off the bench with a place alongside Nicole Heavirland in a backline with a strong sevens flavour.
His Spain counterpart Jose Antonio Barrio has also freshened up his squad with a number of changes, some of them positional for this meeting between the sides ranked seventh and eighth in the World Rugby Women's Rankings.
Isabel Rico and Rocio Garcia bring plenty of experience into the forward pack, while Uribarri Barrutieta and Vanesa Rial come in for their first WRWC 2017 start in the backline.
Rankings watch: If USA can build on their win over Italy and beat Spain then they will gain a minimum of 2.76 rating points over the seven-day period and will climb one place to sixth if Australia also lose to France. They cannot climb any higher, unless France suffer a heavy loss to Australia, because even with a victory by more than 15 points against Las Leonas as that would still leave them 2.70 points behind an Ireland side victorious over Japan.
POOL C: IRELAND V JAPAN
The two teams will know what to expect from each other having played two trial matches at UCD back in June with Ireland coming away with narrow 24-22 and 24-15 victories over a side that has since been crowned Asian champions once again.
Ireland will know they must win by a more comfortable margin to bolster their semi-final hopes, having been the only one of the six victorious teams on day one not to collect a bonus point following a narrow 19-17 win over Australia.
Two of the try-scorers in that match, Sophie Spence and Ciara Griffin, come into the starting line-up for this match among a number of changes up front, while Nicole Cronin will make her test debut, partnering the experienced Nora Stapleton at half-back. Hannah Tyrrell switches to the wing to make way for Mairead Coyne at full-back, while Katie Fitzhenry will line-up alongside Sene Naoupu in the centres.
“We had a really tough encounter with Australia on Sunday evening in the opening game, and while we came away with the win, there a number of areas that we've focused on over the past two days that we will need to improve on for tomorrow's test with Japan,” admitted Tierney.
“We know that the Japanese are going to throw everything at us tomorrow evening. They're very fit, they like to move the ball wide and they are very quick to the breakdown.
“We've made a number of changes to the side from the Australia game with a view to giving some players a rest from what was a very physical game, but we also want to give the other members of the squad the opportunity to show what they can do against a fast and agile Japanese team.”
Japan, meanwhile, have been dealt a huge blow with the loss of their talisman number eight Mateitoga Bogidraumainadave (pictured), who fractured her leg in the loss to France on Wednesday and has been replaced in the tournament squad by hooker Chihiro Kobayashi.
This tournament-ending injury and the three-match suspension for centre Makiko Tomita following her red card in that defeat are the only changes coach Goshi Arimizu has made to his starting line-up for this meeting with hosts Ireland.
Maki Takano is given the unenviable task of replacing Bogidraumainadave at number eight, with Riho Kurogi coming in for Tomita at inside-centre.
Rankings watch: Ireland picked up nearly eight tenths of a rating point for their narrow win over Australia on day one, but cannot make any further gains even with an emphatic victory over Japan, a side ranked nine places below them in 14th.
POOL C: FRANCE V AUSTRALIA
Fresh from a 72-14 win over Japan on day one, France coach Samuel Cherouk has rung the changes for their meeting with Australia, a side ranked two places below them in the World Rugby Women's Rankings coming into the tournament.
With Gaëlle Mignot dropping down to the bench, centre Elodie Poublan takes over as captain for what will be her 67th test outing for Les Bleues and will have Carla Neisen as her centre partner with hat-trick scorer Caroline Ladagnous named as a replacement.
Flanker Romane Menager, who impressed with two long-range run-ins against Japan, continues in the back-row with Safi N'Diaye and Marjorie Mayans, who comes into the starting line-up. Two others retaining their place are half-backs Yanna Rivoalen and Caroline Drouin.
Australia coach Paul Verrell, though, is eager to build combinations and has therefore kept his changes to just one in his starting line-up, Sarah Riordan coming in to partner Olympic gold medallist Sharni Williams in the centres with Kayla Sauvao dropping to the bench.
“Our forwards competed well against an experienced Irish pack and they’ll face a similar challenge this Sunday against the French,” said Verrell.
“Our backline showed they can be very dangerous with the ball in hand, but we need them to continue to build as we lead into the match against the French. The addition of Sarah Riordan will provide us with another strong ball running option in the midfield.
“The team proved to themselves what they’re capable of in that match against the Irish and now we need them to continue to perform at that level, whilst also looking to grow and develop as a collective unit.”
Rankings watch: France can climb into third if Canada are beaten by Wales, but they could equally slip to seventh if they suffer a heavy loss to Australia and the outcome of the USA v Spain match in Pool B. A second loss in the space of a week for Australia could see them swap places with the USA below them, if the Women's Eagles overcome Spain. On the other hand, the Wallaroos will climb above France if they win the encounter and could close to within just seven hundredths of Ireland if they win by more than 15 points.
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