Between now and August 26, Ireland will resonate to the sound of the world’s elite women’s rugby teams going toe-to-toe in their quest to be named World Champions 2017.
The tournament, which kicks off in Dublin, is now challenging its male equivalent in terms of profile and hype, and a lot has changed since its humble beginnings back in 1991. It’s also the oddity of being a global rugby competition in which New Zealand are not the runaway favourites.
On this occasion it’s England who begin the tournament as the bookies’ favourites, not least because they are the only professional side of the 12 competitors, and few will be surprised if it’s them lining upon August 26 in Belfast’s Kingspan Stadium in the final.
But if they expect it to be plain sailing then they’re in for a rude awakening with France, Canada and Ireland all making a genuine case as potential trophy winners. Australia too cannot be discounted and will look to advance deep into the tournament’s knock-out stages even though their starting XV is compromised by their continued focus on the sevens format of the game.
Having won the inaugural Olympic gold medal at Rio 2016, the Aussies have thrown everything at the sport’s reduced-format competitions and in the final countdown may ultimately cost them a place in the last four.
Others who consider themselves outsiders but yet still contenders are Italy, Wales, Spain and the USA – the champions back in 1991 – while, with the best will in world, Japan and Hong Kong will regard progressing beyond the groups stages as a decent degree of progression.
What is guaranteed is that this is by some way the most competitive line-up in the tournament’s history.
England begin their Pool B campaign against Spain, who qualified for the tournament by beating Scotland in a play-off, and have opted to rest a number of senior players in the opener with a view to keeping them fresh for tougher tests that lie ahead. Twelve of the England team who will face Spain are making their World Cup debuts and so it’s one that coach Simon Middleton is using to help his team find their tournament feet.
For England, said tougher tests are not likely to arrive until the knockout stages, with Italy and the USA making up their pool, and while they initially find themselves based in Dublin, it will all really kick off when the relocate to Belfast for the semi-final stage.
Pools A and C are far more difficult to call, especially when you consider that only the pool winners go through to the semis automatically, with the best runner-up in the three groups also making it through to the last four.
Pool A is particularly intriguing with New Zealand, winners of four consecutive World Cups from 1998 to 2010, coming up against Canada, the losing finalist to England last time out in 2014. Wales and Hong Kong make up the group and while the Welsh have enough in their country’s rugby heritage to make life difficult for their opponents it’s all about the big two – one of whom could miss out on a semi-final place.
And Pool C pits the French, the Irish and the aforementioned Australians against each other, with Japan also in there looking to spring an upset along the way. Again we’re set for a battle royal with the format meaning that no games are ‘nothing’ games. Some big team are going to bite dust in this pool.
What the format has also ensured is that the action in the group stages will come thick and fast in what will be a positive feast of rugby for the watching pubic in Ireland and the traveling fans. In a manic three days of action, six matches are scheduled for Wednesday, another six on Sunday and six more next Thursday, which is when New Zealand meet Canada and Ireland face France.
Before that, however, on opening day the hosts entertain Australia in the pick of the opening matches at University College Dublin, while the New Zealand Black Ferns, buoyed by the return of sevens specialist Portia Woodman, find themselves up against Wales in what will be an early test for both. The previously imperious New Zealand failed to reach the knockout stages three years ago, while the Welsh are steadily improving so it could be closer than some expect.
Elsewhere, Japan and Hong Kong, who come up against Canada and France respectively, will be hoping to emerge with at least their confidence still intact, while the USA go toe-to-toe with Italy in the day’s other fixture.
So, the scene is set for some thrilling rugby with the big question being if anyone can stop the English retaining their title, the key to which is how others can cope with the Red Roses’ powerful set piece.
We’re about to find out.