By Ali Donnelly
With the Women's Rugby World Cup just four months away, we look at how each team will put the finishing touches on their preparations. A flurry of international games will take place in the coming months as head coaches seek to determine their best squad and starting teams. We look at the twelve teams competing and outline their plans for the summer ahead.
After impressing at the Nations Cup last year against some of the world's leading sides, South Africa are not taking their World Cup build-up lightly with four tests planned against other sides they will see in London this year. As well as a number of intense camps on home soil over the coming months, South Africa will play Kazakhstan twice in April in Dubai and will travel to Scotland for two weeks in June to take part in two planned games against the Scots currently in the pipeline for June 5 & 12. In between the Dubai and Scotland Tests, the SA squad members will be released to play for their provinces in the SARU Inter-Provincial tournament before getting together for another training camp from May 24-30.
Though they Scottish Rugby Union haven't been able to confirm their final schedule, we understand that as well as two games against South Africa, the Scots are also hoping to play Ireland in July. After a tough 6 Nations campaign the games against South Africa and Ireland will certainly stand Gary Parker's side in good stead as he works out which 26 players will best serve his side at the World Cup. Having beaten only France in this year's 6 Nations, Parker will welcome the chance to chalk up some confidence boosting victories.
Two games against Wales will form part of England's World Cup build-up. The games are currently planned to be played as training fixtures and will be behind closed doors but they will offer England's top players the last opportunities to get into Gary Street's squad of 26 which he is set to name on May 5. Street will already have an idea of his top 22 players having given his overall squad lots of game time during the 6 Nations but there are still spots up for grabs. There were 32 England players used in the 6 Nations this year so there will be bad news for some after these two games.
The sad news for the World Champions is that there are no planned tests for them ahead of the World Cup. The cancellation of the Canada tour as well as the NPC will give the Black Ferns scant preparation for the World Cup. New Zealand will come to London with just four tests since the last World Cup in 2006 - a statistic that will surely make their stay at the top of the world rankings, somewhat unsustainable long term. The NZRU has planned a regional tournament for the country's top 100 players to be played in April and that will form a basis for selection for the World Cup squad.
Wales may well look to add more fixtures down the line to their schedule than just two training games against England which are pencilled in for early summer. The Welsh side finished bottom of this year's 6 Nations table after just one win over Scotland and some games against less highly ranked sides may be in order to boost confidence. Wales will also take part in a number of intense training camps and will need as much time as possible together to work out the wrongs of the season so far.
After playing and losing two friendly matches against the Netherlands last week - Sweden will be the only team taking part in the FIRA-AER European competition this May in France. They will face the likes of Spain and Italy at the event and this will serve as excellent preparation for them for a World Cup which is also spread out over a similar time frame. The Netherlands games were lost 19-0 and 20-7 as the Swedish coaches tried out a number of combinations and there will have been many lessons learned.
The USA will work on building from their positive Nations Cup campaign last year with two test matches against Canada in June on the 15th and the 19th. These two sides also played each other twice in January and they are awfully familiar with each other. Despite this though, these are two good fixtures for both teams as there is never much between them. The USA won their last fixture against Canada 11-10.
The Canada players have been working recently together in a ten-day camp in Alberta as a replacement for their planned tour to New Zealand which was pulled due to money reasons. Though the tour cancellation was disappointing for both sides, it was always a surprising series with Canada having already shelled out to travel to France at the end of last year. As above, Canada now have two tests to look forward to in June. Those two games are likely to feature Heather Moyse, the top try scorer from the 2006 World Cup and her return will be a boost. Canada beat the USA 18-8 in January before losing to them a few days later so this series could go either way. After their tour of New Zealand.
France have yet to confirm any fixtures in the buid-up to the World Cup. Head coach Christian Galonnier said after the final 6 Nations game against England that he felt that his team had closed the gap on the English and that he already knew his top 20 players. There are a number of training camps planned in July for the World Cup squad, with those who miss our forming the France A team at the FIRA-AER European competition which the French will host.
Australia's players have been busy on the 7s circuit of late with a glut of their players part of the Amazons team that won the Hong Kong 7s but they have no plans to play any 15 aside games ahead of the World Cup. This is a strange decision as there are teams that the Australians could play without too much fuss (New Zealand, Samoa, any of the Asian teams etc) and it means that they will play their first World Cup match having not played at 15s for well over a year as a national team.
The Kazakhs have chosen their warm-up games well with two matches against South Africa this week likely to be the right challenge for them. We never see Kazakhstan play these days - they rarely compete in friendly games away from World Cup years - but their performances at the Asian Qualifiers last year tells us that they will offer stiff opposition for their pool rivals.
The IRFU have been unable to confirm fixtures for us in time for this article though we understand there are some planned.
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