By Brendan Cole
The Women’s Rugby World Cup is about to get under way in France and 2013 Six Nations Grand Slam champions Ireland are among the 12 teams who will compete for the title.
Only the winners of each pool are guaranteed to progress to the semi-finals. The fourth semi-final place will go to the best runner-up, which will be decided by points total and then points difference.
Ireland’s task is a difficult one as they have been drawn in the hardest pool along with New Zealand, USA and Kazakhstan.
New Zealand, who have won the last four WRWC tournaments and are favourites to add a fifth crown this year, are expected to top the pool.
The Black Ferns have beaten England in the last three finals and also whitewashed the same opposition over three Tests in 2013.
But results like their pair of modest wins over Canada in New Zealand in June of this year, and the fact that England were competitive in that series on New Zealand soil, indicate that they are not invulnerable.
That said, New Zealand will be at full-strength with their best sevens players, including potential star winger Honey Hireme, in harness and a stated aim of using a strong and quick backline to power their challenge.
USA, winners of the inaugural tournament in 1991, are not at the same level and are hindered between tournaments by logistical challenges and a relatively bare fixture list. But the USA’s results over the last couple of years against the likes of France and England indicate that Ireland can expect a very even battle against a side of similar quality to their own.
Ireland beat USA in the pool stage in 2010, but were soundly beaten in the 5th-8th decider clash later in the tournament. Given their achievements since then, Ireland will go into the match as slight favourites.
If they can’t beat New Zealand, Ireland will also need a big win against Kazakhstan in the final round. That should be achievable against one of the weakest teams in the competition.
Can they do it? The Grand Slam in 2013 and strong showings in defeats against France and England in the Six Nations season this year are good omens.
Ireland’s ability to play an expansive game and their relative strength in depth are also positives. They have high-quality operators across the team with the back five of the scrum and outside backs particularly strong.
As they showed against Scotland in the opening round of this year’s Six Nations, they can rack up a big score when they hit their straps and that could prove vital with points difference likely to be key.
With Canada in Pool A and one of France or Australia in Pool C likely to finish second in their pool on the 10-point mark (at least) Ireland have it all to do.
But a bonus-point victory over USA, a near-perfect performance against New Zealand, possibly with a bonus point, and a big win over Kazakhstan would give them every chance of progressing to the knock out stages and – just possibly – a meeting with an England team they have made huge strides against in the last two years.
New Zealand v Kazakhstan
Canada v Spain
Australia v South Africa
USA v Ireland
England v Samoa
France v Wales
USA v Kazakhstan
Australia v Wales
England v Spain
Canada v Samoa
New Zealand v Ireland
France v South Africa
Ireland v Kazakhstan
Spain v Samoa
England v Canada
Wales v South Africa
New Zealand v USA
Australia v France