A Japanese princess and samurai were on hand to launch Japan's first Women's World Series event - but what can we expect from the teams this weekend?
Two wins from three, and finishing a place ahead of great rivals Australia in all three tournaments, and overall 17 wins in 18 games this season has the Ferns six points clear at the top and very much in the box seat to win back their title. The pool in Kitakyushu will hold few concerns. France have worried them in a couple of games, and Russia can be a threat, but realistically the Ferns will the pool comfortably, setting themselves up for a run to the final on Sunday.
Coach Allan Bunting has made two changes to the squad, Rebekah Cordero-Tufuga and Kat Whata-Simpkins returning.
New Zealand squad: Sarah Goss (captain), Michaela Blyde, Kelly Brazier, Rebekah Cordero-Tufuga, Theresa Fitzpatrick, Tyla Nathan-Wong, Cheyelle Robins-Reti, Alena Saili, Ruby Tui, Kat Whata-Simpkins, Niall Williams, Portia Woodman.
Travelling reserves: Lyric Faleafaga, Tenika Willison.
Despite being under new(ish) management, Russia have put in some consistent performances and have - by some distance – been the best European team this season and well-placed for automatic qualification for next year’s World Cup. A good result against (and a near quarter-final decider) against their great continental rivals – France – in their opening game will be key to continuing their run.
Audrey Kuzin has made four changes, with experienced players Ekaterina Skoromko and Marina Kukina returning to the squad while Yulia Ledovskaya attends her second tournament and Snezhanna Kulkova makes her debut.
Squad: Marina Petrova (28); Ekaterina Skoromko (26); Alena Mikhaltsova (23); Baizat Khamidova (26); Marina Kukina (23); Maria Perestiak (25); Yulia Ledovskaya (25); Daria Bobkova (21); Arina Bystrova (21); Elena Zdrokova (20); Snezhanna Kulkova (22); Daria Noritsina (20)
France have set themselves a target of reaching the semi-finals in Kitakyushu, a target their achieved twice last season but have yet to attain this. To achieve this Coach David Courteix still has not been able to select his strongest available squad as the tournament clashes with second leg of the Top 8 semi-finals, but it should be good enough to compete strongly for the last eight.
He has made six changes now that the Six Nations is over. Jade le Pesq, who had a great Six Nations in the unfamiliar position of scrum-half, returns along with Camille Grassineau, Lénaïg Corson and Pauline Biscarat. In addition Caroline Drouin and Séraphine Okemba make their World Deries debuts.
One more change sees the captaincy move to Rose Thomas after Fanny Horta was forced to drop out through injury.
Squad: Pauline Biscarat, Lénaïg Corson, Caroline Drouin, Laurelin Fourcade, Camille Grassineau, Lina Guerin, Clémence Gueucier, Elodie Guiglion, Jade le Pesq, Séraphine Okemba, Chloé Pelle, Rose Thomas (captain).
Fresh from winning the qualification tournament for next season’s series in Hong Kong three weeks ago, Japan should be in great form for this tournament, their only appearance in the 2016/17 series. That said, they looked likely to be a strong addition to the series when they last qualified, but in practice had poor year in 2015/16, failing to reach any quarter-finals and before missing out in the Olympics as well – and a tough pool means they are unlikely to break that run even in their home tournament.
There is only one change from Hong Kong, but thisis still a very inexpeienced - and very young - squad. Only four players have significant World Series experience in a squad that includes six teenagers. This will be a big step up from the qualifier.
Squad: Mateitoga Bogidraumainadave (32); Chiharu Nakamura (28); Ano Kuwai (27); Noriko Taniguchi (24); Mio Yamanaka (21); Honoka Tsutsumi (19); Mayu Shimizu (19); Iroha Nagata (18); Yume Hirano (17); Yuki Ito (20); Emii Tanaka (17); Raichieru Miyo Bativakalolo (19);
Second place is probably not where Australia would want to be, but it is likely to be where they will remain unless they can turn around their losing run against their trans-Tasman rivals. Six points is not an unbridgeable gap but Tim Walsh’s team cannot afford to finish behind the Fern again if they wish to retain their title.
However it may be that Australia’s targets are 2018, with home the Commonwealth Games followed by the Word Cup, because for this round Walsh has turned to the younger members of his squad. Dominique Du Toit, Demi Hayes and Brooke Walker are the new inclusions in the side from Las Vegas. In addition Sharni Williams is being rested allowing Mahalia Murphy to take on her place, while Shannon Parry takes over as sole captain.
Overall five players have less than five caps, making this the least experienced Australia team we have seen in recent years.
“We’re just over halfway and we are looking forward to finishing the season strongly, but also blooding some younger players and getting their experience up,” Walsh explains. “We’ve made a few tactical changes to really bring up some other players in key positions and I’m looking forward to seeing those younger players putting up their hand.”
The key pool game will be Australia’s final fixture with Fiji, and Walsh will be hoping that his youngsters will have seen off their nerves by then after what should be comfortable wins in their opening two games.
Squad: Shannon Parry (c) ; Mahalia Murphy; Chloe Dalton; Demi Hayes; Georgina Friedrichs; Evania Pelite; Charlotte Caslick; Alicia Quirk ; Emma Sykes; Brooke Walker; Emilee Cherry ; Dominique Du Toit; Ellia Green
Fiji have started to show the sort of form everyone expected of them this season. Three back to back “Plate” wins (if there were still a Plate) has them sitting roudly in fourth position in the table, with just Olympic medallists New Zealand, Australia and Canada ahead of them. The main question now is not will they make the quarter-finals, but rather can it be fourth time lucky and a place in the final four.
The success of the team is breaking down barriers at home, where almost uniquely the women rugby still comes under a separate union from the men, with pressure now building for women’s versions of the domestic Skipper and Farebrother Cup competitions. Funding remains tight but a domestic sevens tournament – the Fiji Bitter Marist 7s – at the end of last month has reportedly unearthed new talent for the squad.
With only one change from Las Vegas this is now a very settled and confident team who will be feared by everyone
Squad: Rusila Nagasau (29); Timaima Rosi Lulutai Ravisa (28); Viniana Naisaluwaki Riwai (25); Ana Maria Roqica (29); Asinate Ufia Savu (24); Pricilla Sauvavi Siata (30); Lavenia Tinai (26); Talica Vodo (31); Miriama Naiobasali (21); Raijieli Daveua (24); Ana Maria Naimasi (23); Merewai Cumu (19)
Ireland went for a high risk balancing act throughout the Six Nations period, and the gamble has paid off so far with the Irish well-placed in ninth place after two quarter-finals in the last two rounds. For once relegation is not a major worry – instead they have a chance to overhaul England and perhaps achieve a best ever World Series position.
They make four changes for this round. Kim Flood, Louise Galvin, Katie Heffernan and Emma Murphy have been called up by Anthony Eddy, with 19 year-old Heffernan making her series debut, though she played for Ireland at the European Grand Prix round in Malemort last year.
The draw gives Ireland a chance to repeat their great Day 1 in Sydney when they beat Brazil and Fiji, though the latter got their revenge in the last round.
"We have an experienced side travelling to Japan next week for the fourth stage of the world sevens series,” said Eddy. “We have managed to make the quarter-finals in the last two tournaments, so that will be a target for us again in Japan. Hopefully we can have a productive day two and achieve some really good results.
“The players have worked extremely hard and have shown good improvement all year, so I am sure they are looking forward to the Japan tournament to build on their performances.
“It will be a challenge, however, as we face the ever-improving Brazil, Fiji, who we are very familiar with having met them regularly throughout the series and Australia, who are the reigning series holders as well as Olympic gold medallists – but it's a challenge the players are excited about and looking forward to.”
Ireland squad: Ashleigh Baxter, Claire Keohane, Kim Flood, Stacey Flood, Louise Galvin, Katie Heffernan, Lucy Mulhall (captain), Amee-Leigh Murphy-Crowe, Sene Naoupu, Audrey O'Flynn, Hannah Tyrrell, Megan Williams, Emma Murphy.
Japan’s promotion for next season means one of this year’s core must drop out and at present Brazil at in poll position to drop out, with only Spain realistically catchable on current form. Two trips to the 11th/12th play-off are balanced with ninth place in Sydney, and that record needs to improve.
Realistically they will need to at least beat Ireland to achieve that - Australia and Fiji are currently playing at another level – and that will be tough.
"We come from a long break, the biggest in the season," says Beatriz Futuro Muhlbauer, one of Brazil's key payers, "and that allowed us to work on our shortcomings, more so after a tournament in Las Vegas that was not very good for us. We are now fully focused on this fourth tournament, which will be crucial ahead of the final stretch of the season and events in Langford and Clermont-Ferrand.
"This first full season on the women’s sevens series has been very good and important for our development, a time of huge growth. We have not taken as many points as we were hoping to, but we are very clear – we want to stay on the circuit next season. We don’t have much margin for error and we know it all depends on us."
Squad: Aline Furtado (USP), Beatriz "Baby" Futuro (Niterói), Bianca Santos (São José), Cláudia Jaqueline (Niterói), Cleice Lopes (São José), Edna Santini (São José), Haline Scatrut (Curitiba), Isadora Cerullo (Niterói), Luiza Campos (Charrua), Maíra Bravo (SPAC), Mariana Nicolau (São José), Milena Mariano (São José), Paulinha Ishibashi (SPAC), Raquel Kochhann (Charrua)
Coach John Tait makes two changes, Ashley Steacy and Julia Greenshields return to the squad to replace the injured Kayla Moleschi and Caroline Crossley.
The loss of Moleschi, Rugby Canada’s Women’s Sevens Player of the Year last year, is a huge blow to their hopes of repeating their win in closing the gap on New Zealand and Australia.
“Kayla epitomises our team-first mentality and has been so consistent for us over the past few years,” said Tait. “It definitely will be a big challenge to play without Kayla because she does so many different things really well for us.
“It’s always good to have the experience and calming presence that Ashley brings to the team. Julia has been in great form and the two of them coming in gives us more speed and versatility in the squad.
“This team has lots of ability and I am excited to see how we match up with some players taking on bigger roles through the second half of the series. The team has been sharp, working hard on and off the field and are keen to challenge for the gold in Japan.”
Canada squad: Britt Benn, Hannah Darling, Bianca Farella, Julia Greenshields, Sara Kaljuvee, Jen Kish, Ghislaine Landry (captain), Megan Lukan, Breanne Nicholas, Ashley Steacy, Natasha Watcham-Roy, Charity Williams.
Megan Sanders and Jordan Gray will make their HSBC World Rugby Women's Sevens Series debuts for USA. Both have caught the eye of coach Richie Walker in training as the Eagles look to build on their third-place finish last month – a result which leaves them lying sixth in the series with 34 points – but level with Russia and just two points behind Fiji in fourth. Another strong performance could catapult them up the standings, and after two visits to the semi-finals in the last two rounds it is hard to bet against them.
Eight of the 12-strong squad were involved in USA's loss to Canada in the two-test CanAm Series in San Diego, including captain Alev Kelter who continued to impress for the Eagles, while Kristen Thomas and Kelly Griffin made their 15s debuts in the two heavy defeats.
Squad: Joanne Fa'avesi, Kristen Thomas, Kelly Griffin, Nicole Heavirland, Ryan Carlyle, Alev Kelter (captain), Naya Tapper, Jordan Gray, Kelsi Stockert, Megan Sanders, Bulou Mataitoga, Nicole Snyder.
Spain are safe for the World Cup next year, but they could yet drop out of the World series unless they do something very special in the last three rounds, starting here. Just two points – one place – separates them from Brazil after three tournaments that have ended with them in the Challenge Trophy on Day Two. They are capable of springing a surprise, but on current form the Challenge may be their best hope for series points. Above all, they have to finish ahead of Brazil
Two new faces join the squad for this round – Nerea Aguirre and Raquel Garcia – replacing Cristina Song Puche and Anne Fernandez from Las Vegas.
Squad: Nerea Aguirre, Raquel Garcia, Uribarri Barrutieta, masia Casado, Iere Echebarria, Amaia Erbina, Olivia Fresneda, Patricia Garcia, Sabina Hurtado, Maria Losada, Barbara Pla, Maria Ribera.
It is slightly remarkable that the fourth placed team from Rio goes into the fourth round of this series nearer to the relegation zone than championship, but England’s first priority this year has been fifteens as well as building for the future with sevens.
Even so, they are taking the opportunities offered by the end of the Six Nations and the near end of their domestic season to include several players from the recent Grand slam squad - Katy Mclean, Emily Scott and Amy Wilson-Hardy all being called up along with Heather Fisher and Sarah McKenna, who return after missing the last round in Las Vegas through injury, and Megan Jones, who will make her series debut.
After failing to make the last two quarter-finals the last eight will be the very least this much-changed squad will hope to attain. Their target will be to close the gap on France and win that vital fourth spot for the World Cup
“Our goal remains to earn qualification for next year’s World Cup and next weekend is all about delivering a result to try to improve our overall standing,” admitted assistant coach James Bailey. “We are under no illusion as to the challenge we now face, but we have a strong squad of experienced players, adding to the youthful dynamic we’ve had this season so far.
“The additional five players that we have brought in have been training with us for a short time, have integrated well and quickly, giving us the largest squad we have had to select from so far this season.”
England squad: Abbie Brown (captain), Heather Fisher, Jo Watmore, Katy Mclean, Megan Jones, Emily Scott, Alice Richardson, Holly Aitchson, Sarah McKenna, Millie Wood, Deborah Fleming, Amy Wilson-Hardy