WXV 2 2023 should come to an enthralling conclusion in Cape Town this Friday and Saturday.
Four teams begin the third and final round at Athlone Sports Stadium with a chance of ending the tournament as champions.
Hosts South Africa and Samoa, meanwhile, meet in the second of the three matches needing a victory for very different reasons, as the teams bid to avoid relegation for their regions.
Here is everything you need to know ahead of what should be a thrilling finale to the inaugural tournament.
Scotland, Japan eye crown
Scotland head into the final round in Cape Town with two wins from two, and in the knowledge that a third could seal the inaugural WXV 2 title.
To finish the weekend on top of the second level, Bryan Easson’s side must better Italy’s result against USA. That means victory in Friday’s opening match (kick-off 14:00 local time, GMT+2) is paramount.
Easson has named an unchanged starting XV for the second week in a row, the only alterations to the 23-player squad coming on the replacements’ bench where Sarah Bonar and Coreen Grant return.
The Scotland head coach is taking nothing for granted against a Sakura 15s side that could put themselves in title contention with victory at Athlone Sports Stadium.
“I’ve been impressed by Japan in the competition,” Easson said. “A tough start against Italy in the opening round but they had a really physical test against Samoa last week and they fronted up well.
“They provide a different threat to South Africa and USA as we are expecting them to attack with width and their kick attack has been impressive as well but we’ve prepared accordingly.”
For Japan to be crowned champions they need to secure a bonus-point win against Scotland, while denying their opponents one, and for the result of USA v Italy on Saturday to go their way.
Sakura 15s head coach Lesley McKenzie has made two personnel changes to her starting line-up as loose-head prop Sachiko Kato and scrum-half Moe Tsukui come into the team.
“Scotland are a very good side,” Japan high-performance advisor, Simon Middleton said. “They have some very good, experienced players with real strengths, including an attacking back three with lots of pace, as well as an experienced pack, particularly with their back row.
“So, for us, it’s about looking at how we played against Samoa and how we can build on what was a very good performance.”
Scotland: Chloe Rollie; Rhona Lloyd, Emma Orr, Lisa Thomson, Francesca McGhie; Helen Nelson, Mairi McDonald; Leah Bartlett, Lana Skeldon, Christine Belisle, Emma Wassell, Louise McMillan, Rachel Malcolm (captain), Rachel McLachlan, Evie Gallagher.
Replacements: Elis Martin, Anne Young, Lisa Cockburn, Sarah Bonar, Jade Konkel, Caity Mattinson, Meryl Smith, Coreen Grant.
Japan: Sora Nishimura; Misaki Matsumura, Haruka Hirotsu, Kanako Kobayashi, Komachi Imakugi; Ayasa Otsuka, Moe Tsukui; Sachiko Kato, Kotomi Taniguchi, Yuka Sadaka, Masami Kawamura, Otoka Yoshimura, Sakurako Korai, Iroha Nagata (captain), Seina Saito.
Replacements: Hinata Komaki, Asuka Kuge, Nijiho Nagata, Jennifer Nduka, Ayano Nagai, Kotono Yasuo, Minori Yamamoto, Nao Ando.
Hosts, Samoa target vital win
The stakes could not be higher for South Africa and Samoa ahead of their meeting at Athlone Sports Stadium on Friday (kick-off 16:30 local time).
Without a win, and with only one point between them from their opening two matches the hosts and Manusina have prepared this week for a de-facto relegation play-off in Cape Town.
The winner of Friday’s match will secure their region’s place in WXV 2 for 2024, while the loser knows their place will slip into the third level for next year’s competition.
Should the match end in a draw then the try bonus-point that Samoa picked up earlier in the tournament could prove decisive.
The hosts can leapfrog their opponents in the event of a stalemate, but they would need to secure a bonus point of their own and deny Manusina from getting one.
Springbok Women head coach Louis Koen has made four personnel changes for the crucial match as Lindelwa Gwala, Sinazo Mcatshulwa, Uname Tose and Unathi Mali come in.
Utility forward Rights Mkhari, meanwhile, has been called into the squad in place of the suspended Aseza Hele and will start on the bench against Samoa.
“We are playing against a formidable opponent in Samoa and will need all the experience we can get. Rights brings good experience and athletic ability to the squad,” Koen said.
“This is our final match and opportunity to test ourselves against top-class opponents and we want to conclude the inaugural WXV 2 with a solid performance.”
Samoa coach Ramsey Tomokino has made five changes from the team that lost to Japan last time out.
Props Angelica Uila and Avau Filimaua, blindside flanker Ti Tauasosi, scrum-half Saelua Leaula and centre Hope Schuster come into the team.
South Africa: Byrhandrè Dolf; Veroeshka Grain, Shaunique Hess, Piwokuhle Nyanda, Unathi Mali; Libbie Janse van Rensburg, Unam Tose; Sanelisiwe Charlie, Lindelwa Gwala, Babalwa Latsha (captain), Nolusindiso Booi, Danelle Lochnar, Lusande Dumke, Sinazo Mcatshulwa, Catha Jacobs.
Replacements: Roseline Botes, Asithandile Ntoyanto, Yonela Ngxingolo, Vainah Ubisi, Rights Mkhari, Nompumelelo Mathe, Rumandi Potgieter, Chuma Qawe.
Samoa: Karla Wright-Akeli; Linda Fiafia, Hope Schuster, Hasting Leiataua, Michelle Curry; Cassie Siataga, Saelua Leaula; Angelica Uila, Sosoli Talawadua, Avau Filimaua, Olalini Tafoulua, Easter Savelio, Ti Tauasosi, Sui Pauaraisa (captain), Nina Foaese.
Replacements: Lulu Leuta, Rereglory Aiono, Maletina Brown, Faalua Tugaga, Utumalama Atonio, Sinead Ryder, Bella Milo, Lutia Col Aumua.
Title in Italy and USA sights
The picture facing USA and Italy will be a lot clearer by the time they arrive at Athlone Sports Stadium on Saturday (kick-off 17:00 local time, GMT+2).
For the Women’s Eagles, their title aspirations may have already ended depending on the result between Scotland and Japan the previous day.
Italy begin round three, though, knowing that they need to at least match Scotland’s result to end the weekend as WXV 2 champions.
Should both the Azzurre and Scotland finish the tournament on the same number of points, then the Italians will hope their superior points difference (+31 compared to +24) at the start of the round will carry them through.
USA and Italy have only met three times prior to Saturday’s meeting in Cape Town, with the Women’s Eagles leading the head-to-head with two victories.
However, the Azzurre won their most recent encounter, Aura Muzzo scoring two of her side’s four tries in a 22-10 at Rugby World Cup 2021.
Muzzo has three tries to her name in South Africa but is not part of the Italy squad to play USA as head coach Giovanni Raineri makes seven personnel changes to his starting line-up.
Silvia Turani will start a test at hooker for the first time, while number eight Elisa Giordano takes the captaincy from Beatrice Rigoni, who moves from centre to fly-half.
Interim USA coach Milton Haig, meanwhile, has made five personnel changes to the USA starting XV following their defeat to Scotland last Friday.
Hooker Paige Stathopoulos and tight-head prop Keia Mae Sagapolu come into the front row, while scrum-half Taina Tukuafua, centre Katana Howard and winger Summer Harris-Jones have been added to the backline.
USA: Tess Feury; Summer Harris-Jones, Kate Zackary (captain), Katana Howard, Lotte Clapp; Gabriella Cantorna, Taina Tukuafua; Catherine Benson, Paige Stathopoulos, Keia Mae Sagapolu, Hallie Taufoou, Erica Jarrell, Freda Tafuna, Tahlia Brody, Rachel Johnson.
Replacements: Kathryn Treder, Alivia Leatherman, Charli Jacoby, Jenny Kronish, Rachel Ehrecke, Carly Waters, Kristin Bitter, Emily Henrich.
Italy: Beatrice Capomaggi; Vittoria Ostuni Minuzzi, Michela Sillari, Emma Stevanin, Alyssa D’Incà; Beatrice Rigoni, Sofia Stefan; Gaia Maris, Silvia Turani, Lucia Gai, Valeria Fedrighi, Giordana Duca, Sara Tounesi, Giulia Cavina, Elisa Giordano (captain).
Replacements: Laura Gurioli, Emanuela Stecca, Alessia Pilani, Isabella Locatelli, Alissa Ranuccini, Nicole Mastrangelo, Veronica Madia, Sofia Catellani.