With less than one year to go until Rugby World Cup 2021, playing in 2022, kicks off in New Zealand, it was fitting that October and November featured a packed schedule of women’s test matches.
Eight of the 11 teams that have qualified for next year’s showpiece tournament were in action across four weekends as bragging rights, as well as World Rugby Women’s Rankings powered by Capgemini rating points, were on the line from Pau to Edinburgh, via Glendale.
It was England who were the big winners of the end-of-year window, scoring 239 points and conceding just 39 to win four successive matches and consolidate their place at the top of the Women’s Rankings.
The first two of those victories came against RWC 2021 hosts – and defending champions – New Zealand, both by record margins, which should stand the Red Roses in good stead less than 12 months out from the tournament.
Coach Simon Middleton was able to rotate his squad during October and November. Only Zoe Aldcroft and Abby Dow started all four matches while the likes of Holly Aitchison, Heather Cowell, Sadia Kabeya and Maud Muir impressed on debut.
It will not have escaped the attention of the Red Roses’ Women’s Six Nations and Rugby World Cup rivals, either, that England stretched their winning run to 18 matches without the team’s most dangerous player, Emily Scarratt.
“We've shown what's possible when you back the girls and you're given the resources and you put them in the right environment,” Middleton said following England’s 89-0 defeat of the USA on Sunday.
Aldcroft, captain against the Women’s Eagles, added: “We're not going to stop until we're perfect. We're never going to get perfect in a game of rugby. We're never going to stop working towards that.”
France send strong message
If the Black Ferns were looking for some respite with back-to-back matches in France, they didn’t find it as the hosts made it four wins in a row against the five-time world champions.
Les Bleues had warmed up for the two-test series with victory against South Africa and made sure of a perfect November with 38-13 and 29-7 wins against New Zealand, in front of vociferous crowds in Pau and Castres respectively.
“We wanted to send a strong message to our opponents to show them that we will have to be counted on,” France captain Gaëlle Hermet said.
“We wanted consistency in our performance. I think the goal is achieved.”
Although the Black Ferns will return home from a European tour winless for the first time since 2012, both coach Glenn Moore and captain Les Elder insisted there were reasons for hope.
Moore handed 13 players their test debuts in England and France, and Elder said the experience the squad had gained across the last four weekends would prove invaluable in the lead-up to RWC 2021.
“The more we expose them to this level, the more they'll know about what they need to do,” she said.
“That's been a huge positive and understanding that level of detail with their coaching they might not get in their provincial unions.”
Ireland will not be in New Zealand but put the disappointment of failing to qualify for RWC 2021 behind them as they beat the USA and Japan on consecutive weekends.
Following a hard-fought 15-12 defeat of Japan in Dublin on Saturday, the team’s captain Ciara Griffin bid an emotional farewell to the international game.
“That was a lovely way to go out and I will take a lot of solace from that. I want to relish this moment,” Griffin said, having helped Ireland overturn a nine-point deficit.
“I’m immensely proud”
Japan’s place at RWC 2021, where they will play Canada, USA and Italy in Pool B, was confirmed last month and they will have learned a lot from their three matches in Europe.
Following a 23-5 defeat to Wales, the Sakura 15s led Scotland and Ireland at half-time – 12-10 and 12-3 respectively – before being overhauled in both matches.
Wales, meanwhile, who have been drawn in Pool A alongside the Black Ferns, Australia and the winner of the Final Qualification Tournament at RWC 2021, beat South Africa 29-20 but were denied a clean sweep in November by Canada.
The hosts had not tasted victory for almost two years prior to their win against Japan but led Canada 7-0 at half-time in Cardiff before the visitors rallied to win 24-7.
“I'm immensely proud of the girls and how far we've come in just a short space of time,” Wales captain Siwan Lillicrap said.
Canada had begun the month by ushering in a new era for women’s rugby when they faced the USA in the inaugural match of the World Rugby Pacific Four Series in Glendale.
Sandro Fiorino’s side made sure of North American bragging rights – and laid down a marker for their meeting in Pool B at RWC 2021 – by beating their hosts 15-9 and 26-13 at Infinity Park.
Canada’s only blemish in November came during a 51-12 loss to England. But there were positives for coach Fiorino to take in defeat, having watched his side cause their hosts problems for the first hour at Twickenham Stoop.
“I’m very impressed with the resiliency our players showed [against Wales],” Fiorino said. “I’m happy we were able to end this run of fixtures with a positive result.”
South Africa, who secured their first win of November when they beat England U20 38-5 in London, will end their European tour with a match against the Barbarians on Saturday.
How valuable the lessons learned over the past four weekends prove will only become clear in New Zealand next October. But Scotland will hope they can maintain the momentum from victory against Japan, their third in a row, into February’s RWC 2021 Final Qualification Tournament.
With just one ticket to New Zealand still up for grabs, the countdown to RWC 2021 is well and truly on.