Fiji and Colombia will bring the curtain up on what promises to be an enthralling opening weekend of WXV 3 2023 at The Sevens Stadium on Friday.
And with qualification for the expanded Rugby World Cup 2025 in England a goal for each of the teams competing in the third level, every match in Dubai is guaranteed to be meaningful.
Once Fijiana have taken on Las Tucanes, Ireland and Kazakhstan will take to The Sevens Stadium pitch while Spain and Kenya complete the line-up on Saturday.
Here is everything you need to know ahead of the opening round of WXV 3.
Fijiana take on Las Tucanes
Fiji and Colombia meet in a women’s test for the first time on Friday as WXV 3 gets underway at The Sevens Stadium in Dubai (kick-off 17:00 local time, GMT+4).
Despite their encouraging appearance at Rugby World Cup 2021 in New Zealand last year, Fiji have won only two of their six tests in 2023.
Fijiana lost the decisive match of the Oceania Rugby Women’s Championship 2023 by a solitary point to Samoa, which consigned them to life in WXV 3 this year.
Inoke Male will hope his side can challenge for the title in Dubai over the next three weekends and they will need to get off to a winning start if they are to do that.
Fiji arrived in Dubai sitting 19th in the World Rugby Women’s Rankings powered by Capgemini, six places above their opponents on Friday, who are the lowest ranked team in the competition in 25th.
“The girls are now really looking forward to our first match against Colombia. We're well prepared and ready to go,” Fijiana captain Sereima Leweniqila said.
"It's a really exciting day to have this happening on Independence Day. We've also got the boys through to the quarter-finals of the World Cup, which is great motivation for us. It's big motivation, a big day for us and we're hoping to celebrate Fiji Week with a good outing against Colombia."
Las Tucanes had only played three tests in 2023 ahead of WXV 3, beating Brazil in both legs of their regional WXV 3 qualifier before slipping to a narrow 31-28 defeat to Hong Kong China at The Sevens Stadium last weekend.
Colombia captain Camila Lopera said: "We've been working hard both physically and also technically to get ready for this tournament. We played a number of games internally in the build-up to practice and get more minutes in our bodies before the tournament."
Fiji: Luisa Tisolo, Adita Milinia, Merewai Cumu, Vani Arei, Iva Sauria, Jennifer Ravutia, Setaita Railumu; Ana Korovata, Bitila Tawake, Karalaini Naisewa, Doreen Narokete, Mereoni Nakesa, Merevesi Ofakimalino, Sulita Waisega, Sereima Leweniqila (captain).
Replacements: Unaisi Navue Lalbalavu, Tiana Robanakadavu, Salanieta Nabuli, Nunia Delaimoala, Adi Fulori Rotagavira, Evivi Senikarivi, Salanieta Kinita, Merewairita Neivosa.
Colombia: Maria I. Arzuaga, Leidy García, Maribel Mestra, Isabel Ramirez, Juliana Soto, Camila Lopera (captain), Laura Villota Noguera; Tatiana Delgado, Camila Cardona, Carolina Naranjo, Paola Delgado, Laura Gutierrez, Valeria Muñoz, Angela Alzate, Valentina Álvarez.
Replacements: Silvia Olave, Natalia Barajas, Gisel Gomez, Sara Velez, Tatiana Hernandez, Stefania Sarmiento, Luisa Fernanda Zurique, Angie Manyoma.
Ireland and Kazakhstan attempt to rebuild
For Ireland, WXV 3 represents a chance to reset under new head coach Scott Bemand, the former scrum-half and Red Roses head coach who began working with the squad in July.
Ireland suffered their first Women’s Six Nations whitewash since 2004 this year but Bemand comes in with a fresh pair of eyes after replacing Greg McWilliams.
“What I’m seeing on the pitch is that the girls are becoming more confident,” he said.
“We’re really looking forward to the next three games to continue to build confidence in the test environment. A good game against Kazakhstan is the ideal place to start that.”
Little is known about Ireland’s first round opponents, Kazakhstan, especially as they did not play on the 15s stage between 2019 and 2022. WXV gives them a fresh opportunity to compete again.
Kazakhstan got to host this year’s Asia Rugby Women’s Championship in Almaty, where a core group of their players have been training full-time in recent months thanks to government support.
They finished as runners-up behind Japan, losing 72-0 in the final, having booked their place in the deciding match and WXV with a 27-23 win against Hong Kong China.
Bemand is focusing on how Ireland perform having not played for nearly six months.
“There will be an enormous amount we don’t know (about Kazakhstan) and will have to discover in-game,” admitted Bemand.
“We have some (footage of games) we can rely on, but this first game in a new competition with a new coaching group, with a newish team, I think most of the focus is going to be on ourselves.”
It is also something of a new dawn for Kazakhstan, who have named three debutants in their starting XV.
Captain Karina Sazontova recognises the significance of the occasion as Kazakhstan prepare to face Ireland for the first time since Rugby World Cup 2014.
“This is a big step in us being able to bring Kazakhstan women’s rugby back to the world rugby scene. Preparation has been pretty long and hard but we’re really excited to be here,” she said.
“We’ve been away from international rugby for a while and we’re now back with a new team, new girls and a giant fire in our eyes to play and bring our rugby back to the highest level.
“This is a really big moment for us and we want to make the game as successful in our country as it was for our ancestors, for my first coach and everyone else involved with Kazakhstan Rugby.”
Ireland: Meabh Deely, Natasja Behan, Eve Higgins, Aoife Dalton, Beibhinn Parsons, Dannah O’Brien, Molly Scuffil-McCabe; Linda Djougang, Neve Jones, Christy Haney, Dorothy Wall, Sam Monaghan (co-captain), Grace Moore, Edel McMahon (co-captain), Brittany Hogan.
Replacements: Sarah Delaney, Sadhbh McGrath, Meg Collis, Eimear Corri, Maeve Og O'Leary, Aoibheann Reilly, Nicole Fowley, Leah Tarpey.
Kazakhstan: Gulim Bakytbek, Liliya Kibisheva, Lyudmila Ivanova, Darya Tkachyova, Yeva Bekker, Kundyzay Baktybayeva, Daiana Kazibekova; Natalya Kamendrovskaya, Moldir Askhat, Tatyana Dadajanova, Ann Chebotar, Darya Simakova, Tatyana Kruchinkina, Karina Sazontova (captain), Symbat Zhamankulova.
Replacements: Yelena Yurova, Balzhan Akhbayeva, Karina Tankisheva, Yuliya Oleinikova, Daria Kuznetsova, Svetlana Malezhina, Alyona Melnikova, Kuralay Turalykova.
Lionesses meet in Dubai
Spain go into WXV 3 as reigning European champions having secured their sixth straight title earlier this year.
However, Las Leonas have failed to win since seeing off the Netherlands and Sweden in the Rugby Europe Women’s Championship 2023 and their current run of five straight test defeats is their worst in 17 years.
Spain’s starting XV contains three 19-year-olds in wingers Claudia Peña Hidalgo and Claudia Pérez and scrum-half Ariadna Vergara Piqueras.
Captain Cristina Blanco says their enthusiasm and energy can only help to raise standards across the board.
“Young girls are coming in stronger and stronger and this generates more competition and forces us all to get our act together,” she said.
Spain’s opponents on Saturday, Kenya (kick-off 17:00 local time), have won two and lost two of their tests in this year.
The Lionesses beat hosts Madagascar and Cameroon in Antananarivo in May to finish second behind South Africa in the Rugby Africa Women’s Cup 2023, their only defeat coming against the Springbok Women.
Kenya lost to South Africa for a second time in their only warm-up test ahead of WXV 3, but Enid Ouma is confident they can do well in Dubai.
Ouma said: "We're looking forward to the tournament, we're confident about the team and we're confident that we're going to do well. We're looking forward to the exposure, for the enjoyment and to learn as well.
"It's a big thing for us to be in this competition and play at this level. We're open to it, we're open to seeing what is going to happen and how we're going to perform here.
“There are a lot of women looking to play rugby in Kenya now and that is a very positive thing. We're very proud to be playing in this tournament.”
Spain: Amalia Argudo, Claudia Pérez, Alba Vinuesa, Icíar Pozo Eizaguirre, Claudia Peña Hidalgo, Ines Bueso-Inchausti, Ariadna Vergara Piqueras; María del Castillo, Cristina Blanco Herrera (captain), Sidorella Bracic Rodriguez, Anna Puig, Carmen Castellucci, Vico Gorrochategui Juste, Alba Capell, María Calvo.
Replacements: Maria Román Mallen, Inés Antolinez Fernandez, Laura Delgado, Leyre Bianchi, Nadina Cisa, Maider Aresti Felix, Zahia Pérez, Clara Piquero.
Kenya: Freshia Odour, Prisca Nyerere, Esther Juma, Laurine Otieno, Lewin Amazimbi, Ann Ochieng, Diana Omosso; Rose Otieno, Staycy Atieno, Natasha Emali, Naomi Kemei, Faith Livoi, Mitchelle Owuor, Diana Nyairo, Knight Otwoma (captain).
Replacements: Naomi Muhanji, Evelyne Luganu, Valentine Otieno, Hesslah Khisa, Maureen Chebet, Winnie Owino, Edith Nariaka, Jamari Agatha.