The countdown to Women's Rugby World Cup 2017 continues with the return of the Six Nations this weekend with Scotland kicking off proceedings against Wales on Friday before France tackle Ireland on Saturday and England host Italy in the climax to round three on Sunday.
The most mouth-watering of the three matches is undoubtedly the meeting between Ireland and France at Donnybrook, the two sides having each won two titles in the last four years, one of them with a Grand Slam to boot.
Les Bleues, the defending champions, sit fourth in the World Rugby Women's Rankings, one place higher than their hosts and both teams will be eager to lay down a marker against an opponent they will face again in the pool stages of WRWC 2017 in August.
England will also face one of their WRWC 2017 opponents this weekend in Italy, while Wales and Scotland will both be eager to bounce back from heavy losses in the previous round.
SCOTLAND (13) v WALES (9)
Scotland coach Shade Munro has made only one change to his starting line-up for the visit of Wales with flanker Jemma Forsyth coming in for Karen Dunbar, who has been ruled out of the rest of the Championship with the knee injury she suffered in the 55-0 loss to France in round two.
“The players are a tight-knit group and are determined to keep improving together. As a squad we remain focused and determined on making progress in this campaign and competing hard against all opposition,” said Munro. “Wales pose a different challenge but one we are familiar with, having played them last October in a friendly as part of our increased training and game schedule.”
Wales, desperate to bounced back from their 63-0 mauling at the hands of world champions England in round two, will hand winger Jasmine Joyce and scrum-half Rhiannon Parker their test debuts among four changes coach Rowland Phillips has made to his starting line-up for the visit to Cumbernauld.
The other two changes see Rebecca de Filippo return from injury to start at inside centre with prop Cerys Hale the only change in the forward pack. Elen Evans also moves from the left to the right wing to make space for Joyce, the only Welsh player in the Team GB squad from the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
“The response of the players following the England match has been outstanding,” insisted Phillips. “From the Sunday following the game, our focus immediately moved to Scotland. Scotland's last two performances in the competition – losing to a last-minute play from Ireland and being very competitive in the first 20 minutes against France – shows how much they have improved this season. We will need to be ready for this challenge.”
- Scotland have not tasted victory since 6 February, 2010 when they beat France 10-8 at Hawthornden
- Wales have not won successive away games in the Six Nations since 2013
- The head-to-head record stands as 16 wins for Wales to Scotland's 13 – but Wales have won the last 13 meetings between the nations dating back to when Scotland triumphed 22-5 at Murrayfield in 2005
- Wales comfortably won their last meeting on Scottish soil two years ago 39-3 with Sioned Harries, Dyddgu Hywel, Carys Phillips and Elinor Snowsill among the try-scorers that day who will also start Friday's encounter
- Scotland are yet to taste victory at Broadwood Stadium, the closest they have come in six previous encounters in Cumbernauld being the 22-15 loss to Ireland in round one. Those 15 points were more than they had managed in their first five matches at the venue
Wales can only make minimum gains with victory over Scotland, a win by more than 15 points at Cumbernauld is only worth 0.35 points given the difference between the two nations. By contrast, Scotland can improve their rating by as much as 2.66 points, but it still won't be enough to lift them above South Africa. Wales could win and still slip a place in the rankings if Italy pull off one of the biggest shocks in women's rugby history and beat England.
ENGLAND (2) V ITALY (10)
World champions England have rung the changes for the visit of Italy to the Twickenham Stoop, coach Simon Middleton making eight changes to the starting line-up with winger Lydia Thompson and full-back Danielle Waterman – with six tries between them in two matches – both rested. They are replaced by Kay Wilson and Sarah McKenna respectively.
Flanker Alex Matthews has recovered from injury for her first start of the Championship, while Rachael Burford, Emily Scott, La Toya Mason, Justine Lucas and Vicky Fleetwood also come into the starting line-up with Emily Scarratt and Amy Wilson-Hardy the only two members of the backline to retain their place from the 63-0 rout of Wales a fortnight ago.
“We are working to improve continually through the competition and that is our aim,” insisted Middleton. “Saturday will provide players who have trained hard week in, week out, with an opportunity to show what they have to offer on the pitch. We must respect Italy as a side and that is reflected by the depth of our preparation for Saturday’s game.”
Italy coach Andrea di Giandomenico has, by contrast, made only five changes, two of which are positional. Prop Marta Ferrari, second-row Elisa Pillotti and centre Paola Zangirolami step in from the bench with Sofia Stefani moving from inside centre to the right wing shirt vacated by Michela Sillari as she moves to join Zangirolami in the centres.
- Italy have never won two successive away games in succession, but tasted victory on their last road trip to Wales last March
- This will be the third time the teams have met at the Twickenham Stoop with England having been victorious in 1993 and 2015
- Italy have scored only one try so far in 2017, England have crossed for 13 in comparison
- England have won all 16 of their previous meetings with the Azzurra
- The teams will meet again in Pool B at Women's Rugby World Cup 2017 at Billings Park UCD on 13 August
With 13.67 rating points separating England and Italy in the rankings, before the weighting for home advantage is applied, a victory for the Red Roses will have no impact on their rating of 88.52. A first ever win for the Azzurra, though, would see Canada replace England in second, with the Red Roses dropping to third, while Italy are able to climb as many as two places, moving above Spain and Wales once more.
IRELAND (5) V FRANCE (4)
The absence of Alison Miller, Sene Naoupu and Hannah Tyrrell is the biggest news among the five changes Ireland coach Tom Tierney has made to the side that started the 27-3 win over Italy a fortnight ago, a result which sees them top the standings with a perfect 10 points after two rounds.
The trio have all been named in Ireland's squad for the third round of the HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series 2016-17 in Las Vegas next weekend and their absence is a blow to the 15s side ahead of their meeting with defending champions France. Eimear Considine, Claire McLaughlin and Kim Flood come in to replace them.
The other changes made by Tierney see Sophie Spence, a try-scorer against Italy, come into the second row, and Mary Healy replace Aisla Hughes at nine.
“We made things hard for ourselves at times in Italy, especially in the first half where we weren't as accurate as we needed to be. We now head into a tough test on Sunday against the French. They recovered well from their defeat to England on the opening weekend to show why they are defending champions as they beat Scotland well.
“We've got a couple of players getting their first Six Nations starts of this season, and we're looking to continue to give players more game time as we continue to develop depth in the squad ahead of the Women's Rugby World Cup in August. It's our first home game of the Six Nations so we're hoping to see a big turnout of fans on Sunday in Donnybrook.”
With Elodie Guiglion also heading to Las Vegas on sevens duty, France coach Samuel Cherouk was going to have to make at least one change to the squad that beat Scotland 55-0 in round two for the trip to WRWC 2017 hosts Ireland.
Camille Grassineau, who scored the first ever Olympic sevens try in Rio last August, returns from injury for her first Six Nations appearance since 2014 to replace Guiglion, while Camille Cabalou steps up from the bench to form a new half-back pairing with the impressive Jade le Pesq, who scored two tries against Scotland.
- Ireland will continue to be without their captain Niamh Briggs for the rest of the Championship after a scan confirmed the full-back has a hamstring injury. Briggs has played only one test for Ireland – against New Zealand in November – since the 2016 Six Nations
- Ireland have started the season with two bonus point victories, albeit only after tries at the death against both Scotland and Italy
- The only other time Ireland have won three matches at the start of the Six Nations Championship was in 2013 – the year they won the Grand Slam
- France won 25-18 when the sides met in the third place play-off at WRWC 2014 in Paris
- France have only lost twice in 24 previous meetings with Ireland, ironically both on Irish soil in 2009 and 2013
- France have not lost back-to-back away games in the Six Nations since 2009
This is the fixture most likely to result in changes to the World Rugby Women's Rankings this weekend with the teams separated only by 1.77 rating points. France's cushion could grow to more than five points if they leave Donnybrook with a victory margin of more than 15 points, but lose by the same margin and they will surrender fourth place to their conquerors. An Ireland victory by a smaller margin will see the two sides separated by one hundreth of a rating point.
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