The Women’s Rugby Super Series gets underway in Calgary this weekend and England head coach Simon Middleton admits the competition has a 'mini World Cup' feel to it such is the quality on show.
Reigning world champions England will be competing against hosts Canada, the team they beat 21-9 in last year’s final, a Black Ferns side looking to rediscover former glories and the rapidly-improving USA in a mouth-watering round-robin tournament (27 June-5 July).
Falling in the short three-year cycle between Women’s Rugby World Cups, the Super Series gives all nations the chance to blood new talent and try different combinations with one eye on WRWC 2017.
England’s squad includes three debutants - Megan Jones, Lark Davies and Under-20s centre Rachel Lund, who was a late call-up for Abi Brown (concussion).
But Middleton still has a core group of experienced players he can call upon, after England achieved automatic qualification for Rio 2016 through a top four finish in the Women’s Sevens World Series.
Had they failed to do so, many sevens/15s crossover players would have been unavailable to him. Instead, the likes of Emily Scarratt (main picture) can look forward to their first 15s action of the season.
“We’re really pleased with our selection for this tour, we think we have got it absolutely spot on in terms of the players that we’d like to have here," Middleton said.
“The picture would have been totally different for us if we hadn’t made the top four. We’ve probably got at least eight players here who wouldn’t have been had that not been the case because they would have just competed in the Euros and would potentially be preparing to play in another tournament.
“Qualifying through the World Series has enabled us to bring the likes of Heather Fisher, Alex Matthews, Sarah McKenna, Emily Scarratt and Emily Scott, all experienced players who are going to be core part of the team going forward. To be able to bring those players to this tournament to really start working on the synergy with the younger players and to add the experience you need in tournaments like this you can’t put a price on the value of it.”
Middleton is now being supported by lead 15s coach Scott Bemand and Matt Ferguson (forwards), while New Zealand’s coaching team has had a shake-up too with Blues assistant coach Glen Moore temporarily taking charge of the Black Ferns.
“I think everybody has the perspective that we’re all in a rebuilding process after the World Cup with different coaches and different players," Middleton added.
“But if you look at the teams out here, with the exception of France and Ireland, all the big-hitters are in town, and I think people will still be looking to put a marker down. It does have that (mini World Cup) feel to it.”
For England's opening match against USA the cpatain's armband goes to Lichfield’s Sarah Hunter. Hunter will captain a young England side that includes newcomers Davies and Lund on the bench. Amy Cockayne, Abbie Scott and Bianca Blackburn will also get the chance to get more caps under their belts after making their first England starts in this season’s Six Nations.
At the other end of the scale, Rochelle Clark will become England Women’s most capped player of all time with 101 caps if she comes off the bench. Hunter is joined by fellow World Cup winners Laura Keates, Marlie Packer, Ceri Large, Amber Reed and Kay Wilson in the starting line-up.
Middleton is expecting a full-on encounter. "They’ll be physical, they’ll be very good athletically, they’ll come at you when they’ve got the ball and when they haven’t and they won’t knock off, that’s one thing you can guarantee from the States."
Both Canada and New Zealand will be taking to the field for the first time since Women’s Rugby World Cup 2014 when they face off in the second match of day one.
Laura Russell takes over from her elder sister Kelly as Canadian captain and is one of 13 survivors from the team that finished runners-up in France.
“We have strong leaders from the World Cup last year,” Francois Ratier said. “It makes sense to pick Laura as she’s young and is the future of the team if you think long term. She’s also a leader and fits well into the role.
“She leads by example, we can trust her. That’s wonderful to have in a captain. She has a great relationship with the staff and we can talk about game plans."
The Black Ferns team includes eight new caps, four in the starting line-up – Toka Natua , Charmaine Smith, Charlene Halapua and Stacey Waaka –and four on the bench.
Head coach for the series, Glenn Moore said the team had settled in well in camp and was focussed on winning matches.“Every day since we’ve been here the women have been stepping up more and more. They are very well prepared and there's a high level of desire to win. They’ve really been putting in the extra yards, on and off the field.”
Women’s Rugby Super Series fixtures:
June 27: USA v England, kick-off 16:00, New Zealand v Canada, kick-off: 18:30,Calgary, Calgary Rugby Park
July 1: New Zealand v England, kick-off 16:00, Canada v USA, kick-off 18:30, Red Deer, Red Deer Rugby Club
July 5: New Zealand v USA, kick-off 16:00, Canada v England, kick-off 18:30, Edmonton, Ellerslie Rugby Park,
*all kick-offs local time