Friday marks two months to go to the start of Women's Rugby World Cup 2017 in Ireland and is also the first opportunity to get a glimpse of what four-time champions New Zealand, Australia and 2014 runners-up Canada will bring to the party when the International Women's Rugby Series kicks off.
New Zealand will host Australia, Canada and world champions England for a round robin tournament that will mirror the four-day turnarounds of the pool stages of WRWC 2017, which takes place in Ireland from 9-26 August. The opening day of the series sees England tackle Australia and New Zealand meet Canada in a precursor to their Pool C meeting at the showpiece event.
We caught up with England legend and WRWC 2014 winner Maggie Alphonsi to get her thoughts on a tournament featuring four of the top six sides in the World Rugby Women's Rankings.
Maggie, what are you expecting to see from the four teams over the next nine days?
"I think we can expect some competitive rugby, especially with the second game, the Black Ferns versus Canada. That’s going to be quite interesting as they are in the same pool as each other for Women’s Rugby World Cup, so people will be keeping an eye on that to see who performs. It is also an opportunity for us to see how the sides are doing so close to the World Cup.
"England had a really good Six Nations but it’ll be interesting to see how they sort out their combinations. They have got two key players returning from injury – Emily Braund and second-row Abbie Scott – so it’ll be interesting to see how they fit back into the squad. When it comes to the Black Ferns, they have got three key players who have come back into 15s from the sevens circuit in Portia Woodman (pictured), Sarah Goss and Kelly Brazier and they will have a huge impact.
"Canada have kept sevens and 15s very much separate. Australia are an unpredictable side and a bit of an unknown quantity. The last time I really saw them play was back in October in a two-test series against New Zealand. Two key sevens players are going back to their squad, Shannon Parry and Sharni Williams, and it’ll be interesting to see how they fit into the 15s set-up."
How much of a guide to what we will see in Ireland is this tournament going to be?
"I am very much looking forward to seeing the four teams and what they can do. For teams like England, the Black Ferns and Canada, I think we’re going to see a lot of what we are going to see at the World Cup. This is going to be the last chance they get to compete at the highest level. Coaches will be wanting to test their combinations and make sure the team familiarises with each other in terms of how they play and to also test their attacking styles and defensive structures. With Australia, I think it will be really good for them because they’ll get some regular rugby. We’ll see the building of their foundations going into the World Cup.
"I think it will be a good chance for all the teams to get a good look at each other, as whoever gets an advantage here, it could serve them in good stead at the World Cup. You don’t want to show your cards too early ahead of a World Cup but at the same time you need to try out attacking plays and game plans. When else do you get to do it? While they’ll hold some things back, there will definitely be elements of what we can expect to see from them at the World Cup in this series.
"The thing about the World Cup, it is a quick turnaround and you have to be able to back up performances over a short timeframe. So, they’ll get to replicate that and rotate players but also make sure they are able to maintain consistency. If a team loses a game I don’t think they’ll be too disappointed about that. It’s not just useful for the players but the medical staff too, to be able to replicate what they are going to go through the tournament and how to make sure they put in the right recovery principles and make sure players are back fit for the following game."
Australia haven't traditionally had many games going into a tournament but this series is invaluable preparation for them surely?
"It will be very good for them to play three incredibly good sides. England are the current Six Nations Grand Slam champions and New Zealand and Canada are one and three in the world rankings. Australia have to put up a good performance against them. It will be a real learning period for them. I don’t see it being about them beating one of those three sides, it is more about them trying to develop a foundation to work on. If they come out with a win, it would be absolutely fantastic.
"Australia are the sort of side that gets better and better the more they play. We saw that in 2010. They hadn’t played too much before that tournament yet they reached the semi-finals. That’s why I wouldn’t count them out. This international series will give them an opportunity to build their squad. I think they will have a strong set-up and there are some players in there who will make a big difference."
The final day will see a familiar match-up to you in New Zealand against England, what is makes this rivalry so special?
"It goes way back in both the men’s and the women’s. There’s always the potential for the sides to meet in a World Cup final. For me, it was that way in 2006 and 2010. We lost both but I have no regrets there. Understandably, I think the Black Ferns were very disappointed when they didn’t make it to final in 2014 and I think they’ll be going to the tournament to right that wrong in their eyes. They are going to use this international series to really show what they are capable of. When they came over to Ireland last November they were very, very strong and I think they will carry on from there."
How important is this series as a showcase of women's rugby?
"It is absolutely brilliant. It brings credibility to the women’s game that we’re going to be seeing the best teams in the world coming up against each other like we see in the men’s game. Having fixtures like this, and Ireland were involved back in November too, makes it really entertaining because you now that we’re going to get some good rugby to watch. For those unaware of women’s rugby, they can also relate to it because they know these are strong nations. It is important that we are increasing the standard of competition. The players are getting better and they need to have regular tough competitions to ensure the overall standard improves. Coming just before just before the World Cup, it will really help raise the profile of the women’s game."
There are only two months now until the World Cup, how excited are you?
I am gutted I won’t be playing but I am massively excited nonetheless. It is going to be broadcast more than ever before and there are 12 incredibly strong sides competing in it. It is a close one to call. Previously, you’d always say it would be an England versus New Zealand final, but now there are several teams who can go all the way and it is much more competitive. You cannot count out Canada, USA and Australia or Ireland, the hosts, who are going to have huge support and were incredibly threatening in the Six Nations, pushing England to the last fixture. I am looking forward to being part of the team that commentates on it because I’m sure the tournament will show how great the sport is."
You can watch the action unfold in New Zealand as the International Women's Rugby Series will be streamed live on www.worldrugby.org.
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