With eight of Europe's up and coming international women's teams ready to compete for FIRA's European Trophy in France this weekend, we preview each national side. First up we look at Pool A which will see France A, Netherlands, Belgium and Spain compete in Lorraine. France A are the home side and early tournament favourites.
(Info thanks to Ali Donnelly and John Birch)
Womens rugby in Belgium is a small sport but a rapidly expanding one. Over the past six years the number of clubs competing in the National League has more than doubled the league has grown from a single division of eight clubs to a two divisions with seventeen members making a significant impact on the national team, which now has over 300 players to choose from instead of barely 100.
Unfortunately that remains a tiny player base for any international team and Belgium have generally struggled. After 10 years playing international rugby, in 2006, they finally recorded their first win - against Norway - since when they have won four more games against opposition such as Serbia, Luxembourg, and Romania.
However, success against higher ranked opposition remains elusive. They have finished within a single score of Germany twice in recent years, but have a long way to go before they can match the likes of the Netherlands, who beat them by 100-0 in last years European Trophy.
Belgium remain ambitious and training camps and been combined with matches against the French regional team Flanders, with the Belgian national team winning 24-19 away last November before recording a dominant 22-0 win at home two weeks ago.
Of their three opponents in Alsace, Belgium have only previously played Netherlands - six times in all, losing all six, five by a margin of over 60 points. They lost to the full French team 66-0 in 1988 but have never played the second string XV, and have no previous experience against Spain.
Disappointed they did not qualify for the World Cup itself, the Dutch management have targeted this tournament as a way to make a real statement about their country's progression in the women's game.
If they can manage a top three finish - and that is well within the current side's ability - the country with one of the proudest histories in the women's game will well have announced themselves.
Back in 1982 it was due to initiative of the Dutch Rugby Union that the first womens international (against France at Utrecht) took place and it's safe to say that this Dutch team is one of the strongest European sides outside of the 6 nations. Preparation for this tournament has been taken very seriously with two games against Sweden, who are also at this tournament as well as the World Cup, as well as one against Germany, all of which were won comfortably.
At the Europeans, Netherlands will also play their 100th full international when they play Belgium, a game they will expect to win. Despite recent good form though, they will face tough tests against Spain and France A. The Dutch girls played and lost to France A earlier this year but feel they have learned from the experience.
Probably the favourites before the competition begins, these are the top players in France who have missed out on World Cup squad selection, so to say they have something to prove would be something of an understatement. The France A side has been in regular competition this year in the build-up to this event with victories over England A, Holland and Scotland A. Being the home team will also give the French, notoriously bad travellers, an extra edge and they will fancy their chances against all of the teams in their group
Of the teams in their pool, they most recently played and beat Netherlands 37-3 back in February and this coupled with the 20-0 victory over England A in March means this side are confident.
However like all A sides, the squad will have been hit with defections to the full France squad and unavailability so their preparation may not be as smooth or their combinations as settles as the full international sides they will face. They are still favourites.
Since losing their position in the 6 Nations, FIRA competitions have represented the best opportunity for Spain to win any silverware and they'll certainly be targeting this as a competition where they can do well. Despite playing much fewer games in the past few years than when they were part of the major European circuit, Spain ran a talented England A side very close this year losing 10-5 so there are signs that they haven't lost their competitive edge.
Spain will be another side disappointed not be to competing at the World Cup this summer, so like lots of other sides at this event, this event will assume significance.
Of the teams they will play at the pool stages, they have only played Netherlands most recently back in 2007 which they won 37-0. Perhaps though it was their performances at last years FIRA event where they narrowly failed to qualify for the World Cup which point towards how tough a team they should be.
At that event they were beaten by just two points against Scotland and lost narrowly to Sweden before beating Italy and Germany. If they can turn those tight losses into slim wins then they will be a threat at this event.
(see tomorrow for the Pool Two preview featuring Italy, Sweden, Russia and Germany)
Pool One Fixtures:
Saturday May 8, 2010
France A V Belgium, Longwy at 6pm
Netherlands V Spain, Longwy at 4pm
Monday May 10, 2010
France A V Spain, Verdun at 7pm
Netherlands V Belgium, Verdun at 5pm
Wednesday May 12, 2010
France A V Netherlands, Metz at 6pm
Spain V Belgium, Metz at 4pm