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Merchant: 7s focus means a stronger England pack

Former England wing and World Cup winner Kat Merchant looks at her nation's chances at the World Cup, and says that the focus on 7s in recent years has resulted in a much improved England pack. Merchant scored 44 tries in her 58-cap England career. 

Kat - first of all,how do you think England are shaping up for the World Cup and what do you make of their form over the last year?
England are in fantastic form leading into this tournament. 

They are Grand Slam Champions and put in some impressive 6 Nations performances against Ireland and Wales. 

In the summer, beating the Black Ferns in New Zealand was another impressive display of how far they have come.

They will be wanting to come through the pool stages as number 1 seed and I expect that they will do this. 

The nature of the tournament with only four days between games means England will be looking to rotate players in the pool stages, giving less experienced players more game time and allowing more experienced players the opportunity to rest their bodies. 

I'd like to see the full strength team play a game together before the Semi-Finals though so they can be ready, as the other pools arguably each have tougher matches before getting to the knockout stages. 

How much do you think the game in England has progressed since the last World Cup?

With the Olympics and 7s taking priority, we have seen a depleted England side since 2014.

One result of this is that England relied on their pack more and that is now paying off. The England forwards are dominant and capable of bullying other teams physically up front as well as being mobile.

Now that the the focus is back on 15s we now have a back line back to full strength. 

Katy Mclean was in the form of her career over the 6 Nations, controlling the game well and creating great tempo with Natasha Hunt inside her at scrum-half.

The wider threats threats such as Emily Scarratt and Danielle Waterman have added another threat to opposition. So while the 7s  focus caused short term damage to the 15s team, it has helped allowed a world class pack emerge. 

This will allow them to have different game plans which will be crucial in the later stages. 

Do you think the 15s game as a whole has improved around the world in that time?

Definitely. There are a lot more competitive sides which makes for much more interesting games.

Canada seem to get better every year and shouldn't be taken lightly at this World Cup. Ireland seem to have improved their strength and conditioning work a lot and that's made a difference on the pitch for them.

I'm looking forward to watching Japan as well. Their 7s team went from strength to strength so seeing how they do in 15s will be good to watch. 

England have arguably the best pool of all of the top seeds but what are they to expect against Italy, Spain and USA?

Italy are a dynamic side that are difficult to predict. They have good pace and strike runners.

Spain are a team with great line speed and intensity and they never give up and will put in a good shift for first half hour and England just need to be patient. 

 USA are physical and strong. They put in some great hits in defence so England will have to be ready to soak that up. 

They will be favourites to retain their title - how much added pressure is on them as reigning champions and the fact that probably everyone will point to the fact that they "should' win given their professional status?

There is huge expectation on them and they will all be aware of the 'professional tag’.

But I think that World Cups are about playing who is in front of you, so while the preparation has been more structured leading into the competition, it will come down to 80 minute performances.

Most countries have had more time together leading into 2017 than ever before so hopefully it will mean some excellent rugby on display!

Do you think the recent coverage of player contracts will have been a distraction?

The players were aware their contracts were short-term so I don't think it will affect their performance. I think on a media scale, it's obviously been a huge story but the players will just be focused on the World Cup.

Of the relatively less experienced England players, who are you excited about seeing perform?

Late call-up Poppy Cleall is a big strong carrier with raw talent so I am very excited to see her play.

Meg Jones is another very talented up and coming player so it will be good to see what she can add.

Asides from England what teams are you most looking forward to watching?

New Zealand, Canada, France and Ireland.

What's your prediction for the final?

England vs New Zealand

Kat Merchant will be commentating on BBC 5Live throughout the Women’s Rugby World Cup.