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. We look at Pool B which will see Germany, Italy, Sweden and Russia cmpete in Alsace.
(Info thanks to Ali Donnelly and John Birch)
To the outsider, German womens rugby is something of a puzzle. Few nations in Europe certainly outside the Six Nations - have such a long history of womens rugby at both club and international level. They have had a womens league running since 1988 which now has three levels - a top division of six clubs playing full 15-a-side rugby, a second division of eight teams playing 10-a-side, and 25 other clubs playing in regional sevens leagues. It is a structure that is far superior in strength and depth to that found in most of Europe it compares well even with major countries such as Spain and Italy.
And yet Germany have never seemed to be able to translate all this into international success. The German national team have played regular international rugby since 1989 and have taken part in two world cups, as well as virtually every FIRA championship, yet their successes are few and far between. The Germans have played 15 games against Six Nations opposition (including Italy and Spain) and have lost them all, often by significant margins. In addition 17 matches against the Netherlands have brought them one single victory, and several massive defeats not the least being the 83-0 hiding the received in Maastricht last month.
It is another new beginning for Germany but, with so many new players, it may take a while before a new coaching regime has an effect.
As recently as 1957 all rugby union was banned in the then Soviet Union not just womens rugby, but mens too it is therefore quite remarkable that Russias women have such a long history of playing the game. They made their international debut (as the Soviet Union) in 1989, and took part in all of the first three World Cups.
However, after 1998 Russian rugby disappeared from the scene and it was not until 2005 that their women appeared in international competition again.
Russia face two major problems when playing international 15-a-side rugby. The first is that virtually all of their domestic club rugby is Sevens and the second is the vast distances that club sides have to travel to play in these competitions, from St Petersburg, across the water from Finland, to Prokopyevsk, close to the border with India. This makes bringing together a national team for training a costly and time-consuming business. The number of players available is also small. In 2009 only 11 clubs took part in the Russian Championship, giving selectors barely 100 players to select from.
Given all this, Russias performances on the field have been impressive. Since their return to international rugby in 2005 they have won 11 of their 17 games, dominating FIRAs B grade tournaments and giving them a place in last years World Cup Qualifier where they finished a creditable sixth.
Success in this years European Trophy for Russia would probably be finishing in sixth place again though there is a chance they could do better
Womens rugby in Italy has been on the rise since the national team entered the 6 Nations in 2006. The first years of the tournament proved tough for the Italians but slowly but surely they have been improving with this year proving their best yet. The exposure the 6 Nations has given to the game in Italy has had an effect on the club game with numbers on the rise and underage competitions being started up.
Italy come into this tournament on the back of a very positive 6 Nations by their standards. Victory over Wales and a tie with Scotland means that the Italians finished the tournament on three points, level with Scotland and above the table ahead of Wales.
Those results mean that Italy will come into this event confident of topping their pool as they will expect to beat Germany and Russia comfortably. Their big challenge in this pool will be against Sweden, a side they lost narrowly to this time last year. If they can beat the Swedes then they have a great chance of competing for a top two spot which would mark a successful season for the Italians who will be disappointed not to be at the World Cup.
Its been a big year for the womens game in Sweden with qualification for the World Cup last summer proving a real boost.
That qualification has given the Swedes much needed profile in a country where rugby is very much a minority sport. Sweden come to this tournament with their domestic season which takes place in the summer having just kick started.
The difficulty the sport faces is that in the winter all of the countrys rugby grounds are covered in snow so training is indoors for the top players until at least April when they can play on grass. That disadvantage didnt seem to hamper Sweden 12 months ago when they came to the FIRA European Championships and qualified for the World Cup so theyll be hoping that this time around will prove to be the same.
To warm-up for this event Sweden played and lost twice to Netherlands.
Sweden of course are using this tournament as preparation for the World Cup but nevertheless if they can beat Italy theyll feel that a final spot is well within their grasp.
Click here for a preview of Pool One
Pool One Fixtures:
Saturday May 8, 2010
Italy V Germany Slestat at 5pm
Sweden V Russia Slestat at 3pm
Monday May 10, 2010
Italy V Russia, Colmar at 4pm
Sweden V Germany, Colmar at 6pm
Wednesday May 12, 2010
Italy V Sweden, Haguenau at 5pm
Russia V Germany, Haguenau at 7pm