History will be made on Friday as Italy and Japan enter Danie Craven Stadium to contest the first-ever WXV match and kick-off a thrilling weekend of action in the competition’s second level.
Stellenbosch will also be the picturesque setting for hosts South Africa’s meeting with Scotland later on Friday and Saturday’s encounter between USA and Samoa.
The six teams have arrived in South Africa’s Western Cape with their sights set firmly on ending WXV 2 2023 as champions.
Here is everything you need to know ahead of the opening round of WXV 2 matches this Friday and Saturday.
Italy target revenge against Japan
Italy take on Japan at Danie Craven Stadium on Friday (kick-off 14:00 local time, GMT+2) less than a fortnight after suffering their first defeat in five meetings with the Sakura 15s.
Komachi Imakugi, Kotono Yasuo, Ayano Nagai and Otoka Yoshimura scored the Japanese tries at Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi on 30 September, while Ayasa Otsuka struck a 56th-minute penalty that proved decisive in a 25-24 win.
Victory was Japan’s fifth win in 2023 and they head into WXV 2 unbeaten since a 21-8 defeat to Italy at Rugby World Cup 2021, 12 months ago.
Both teams have rung the changes for their encounter in Stellenbosch, however. Japan’s most-capped player Seina Saito returns to the Sakura 15s back-row as one of five alterations to the team that won in Parma.
Italy head coach Giovanni Raineri, meanwhile, has made five personnel and two positional changes for the match at Danie Craven Stadium, including a reunion for the experienced midfield partnership of Beatrice Rigoni and Michela Sillari.
And it is not only WXV 2 standings points on the line in Stellenbosch. Japan will climb above Italy in the World Rugby Women’s Rankings powered by Capgemini if they secure a second successive win against the Azzurre.
“We’ve been in the WXV mindset since we left Japan,” Sakura 15s head coach Lesley McKenzie said. “We had a really good warm-up game in Italy, with a really strong contest and our first ever test win against them.
“We knew this second game against Italy would be the first game of WXV, so we’re already well and truly in the mindset, in the process and on the journey.
“We’ve named a slightly different starting line-up this week and expect Italy to do the same. They beat us last year at the World Cup and with the challenge that we’ve issued in Parma, we’re anticipating a really tough game from them.”
Italy: Francesca Granzotto, Aura Muzzo, Michela Sillari, Beatrice Rigoni, Alyssa D’Inca, Veronica Madia, Sofia Stefan (captain); Silvia Turani, Vittoria Vecchini, Sara Seye, Valeria Fedrighi, Giordana Duca, Alessandra Frangipani, Alissa Ranuccini, Giulia Cavina.
Replacements: Laura Gurioli, Gaia Maris, Lucia Gai, Alessia Pilani, Sara Tounesi, Emma Stevanin, Beatrice Capomaggi, Gaia Buso.
Japan: Sora Nishimura, Misaki Matsumura, Mana Furuta, Kanako Kobayashi, Komachi Imakugi, Ayasa Otsuka, Megumi Abe; Sachiko Kato, Asuka Kuge, Yuka Sadaka, Masami Kawamura, Otoka Yoshimura, Seina Saito, Iroha Nagata (captain), Ayano Nagai.
Replacements: Kotomi Taniguchi, Hinata Komaki, Nijiho Nagata, Jennifer Nduka, Sakurako Korai, Kotono Yasuo, Mei Yoshimoto, Minori Yamamoto.
Something has to give as Scotland face hosts
Springbok Women captain Babalwa Latsha is looking forward to showing Scotland exactly how far her team has come in the four years since the teams last met.
Hosts South Africa face Scotland in Friday’s second match (kick-off 16:30 local time, GMT+2) at Danie Craven Stadium looking to take the edge in the teams’ head-to-head.
Scotland and South Africa have met four times in women’s tests, having contested two-match series in 2010 and 2019. Interestingly, the home team has never triumphed in the fixture with the Springbok Women winning twice in Bonnyrigg 13 years ago and Scotland repeating the trick in Cape Town nine years later.
Current Scottish squad members Jade Konkel, Rhona Lloyd, Chloe Rollie and Lisa Thomson all breached the South Africa try line during their series win in Athlone – which is due to host the second and third rounds of WXV 2 – while Sarah Law kicked 10 points across the two matches.
A third successive victory in the fixture by more than 15 points would improve Scotland’s rating by just over one point but they would need either Italy to lose or USA to do so by at least 16 points to move up the rankings.
The hosts cannot improve on 12th place but regardless, Latsha and her team-mates are determined to beat Scotland on home soil for the first time. They warmed up for the tournament with a victory against Kenya and draw with Samoa.
Latsha said: “It’s quite exciting to be playing Scotland again. We last played them in 2019. I think the Springbok Women have grown tremendously throughout that period, and we’ve had a good amount of preparation.
“Our game last weekend against Samoa was the last of our preparation. The stage is set, and we’re really excited to [enter the] pitch on the day against Scotland.”
Scotland captain Rachel Malcolm, whose side head into WXV 2 on the back of three successive victories, added: “South Africa are a team who are extremely physical. They have had a lot of games in the lead up to this, so I think what’s important for us is to make sure that we’re game ready and switched on from the first minute, because we know that they are going to bring a lot of heat straight off bat.
“They are really an incredible team and it’s an honour to get to play them in their home country as well so it will be a very exciting match.”
Scotland: Chloe Rollie, Rhona Lloyd, Emma Orr, Lisa Thomson, Francesca McGhie, Helen Nelson, Mairi McDonald; Leah Bartlett, Lana Skeldon, Christine Belisle, Emma Wassell, Sarah Bonar, Rachel Malcolm (captain), Rachel McLachlan, Evie Gallagher.
Replacements: Elis Martin, Anne Young, Lisa Cockburn, Louise McMillan, Jade Konkel, Caity Mattinson, Meryl Smith, Liz Musgrove.
South Africa: Chuma Qawe, Maceala Samboya, Veroeshka Grain, Piwokuhle Nyanda, Shaunique Hess, Libbie Janse van Rensburg, Tayla Kinsey; Sanelisiwe Charlie, Lindelwa Gwala, Babalwa Latsha (captain), Vainah Ubisi, Danelle Lochner, Lusanda Dumke, Sinazo Mcatshulwa, Aseza Hele.
Replacements: Roseline Botes, Yonela Ngxingolo, Amber Schonert, Nolusindiso Booi, Catha Jacobs, Micke Gunter, Rumandi Pogieter, Mary Zulu.
USA and Samoa to make history
The opening round of WXV 2 action will conclude on Saturday when USA meet Samoa for the first time in a women’s test, at Danie Craven Stadium (kick-off 14:00 local time).
USA come into the tournament as the highest ranked team in the second level, sitting seventh despite losing their only warm-up match 38-18 against Wales in Colwyn Bay a fortnight ago.
Interim head coach Milton Haig believes his side has the quality to win WXV 2, and he will be keen to see the Women’s Eagles get off to a triumphant start in Stellenbosch.
Haig has handed a debut to centre Atumata Hingano while second-row Jenny Kronish, who was a late call-up to the squad, has been included among the replacements.
“We are pretty pleased with how the players are performing. There is a good mix of experience and youthfulness,” Haig said.
“Samoa are a big team, so we really want to move the ball and play some exciting rugby. That’s going to be one of our key fundamentals for winning this game, but we also know that with a team like Samoa who brings physicality and big ball carry, we have to defensively make sure we tackle low and get them on the ground as soon as possible while giving ourselves time to steal the ball or slow the game down.”
Samoa booked their place in WXV 2 by beating Fiji in the Oceania Rugby Women’s Championship 2023 decider and their only test since that ended in a 17-17 stalemate against South Africa.
Captain Sui Pauaraisa said: “This is a really good opportunity for us to get more games, especially because we missed out on the last World Cup as well due to COVID because we couldn’t get to [the] qualifiers.
"So, for young girls coming up, it’s really exciting for our little nation.”
USA: Bulou Mataitoga, Tess Feury, Kate Zackary (captain), Atumata Hingano, Lotte Clapp, Gabriella Cantorna, Carly Waters; Catherine Benson, Kathryn Treder, Charli Jacoby, Hallie Taufoou, Erica Jarrell, Freda Tafuna, Tahlia Brody, Rachel Johnson.
Replacements: Paige Stathopoulos, Mona Lise Tupou, Keia Mae Sagapolu, Jenny Kronish, Rachel Ehrecke, Taina Tukuafu, Meya Bizer, Emily Henrich.
Samoa: Karla Wright-Akeli, Linda Fiafia, Hope Schuster, Utumalama Atonio, Allison Futialo, Cassie Siataga, Bella Milo; Ana Mamea, Lulu Leuta, Rereglory Aiono, Olalini Tafoulua, Easter Savelio, Sinead Ryder, Sui Pauaraisa (captain), Nina Foaese.
Replacements: Sosoli Talawadua, Avau Filimaua, Maletina Brown, Faalua Tugaga, Ti Tauasosi, Fogamanono Tusiga, Hasting Leiataua, Michelle Curry.