Twelve teams meet in Kazan to decide who will be Europe’s representative at the Tokyo Olympics next year – and also which two other teams will have final chance to qualify at next year’s repecharge tournament.
Seven teams have qualified from this tournament from the first leg of the European Grand Prix two weeks ago in Marcoussis. In addition to the five European World Series teams – England, France, Ireland, Russia and Spain – this includes Poland and Italy.
Belgium and the Netherlands should have joined them, by declined to do so – officially – due to “non-compliance with the [player] eligibility criteria”, though in practice both unions have financial problems and refused an invitation from Rugby Europe to take part.
Their two places were offered to teams from the second tier Rugby Trophy. Germany and Romania – the top two teams in the Trophy – already had places, but last Tuesday Rugby Europe offered two additional places to Finland and Czechia, just 11 days before the tournament. Czechia took up their spot, but Finland were forced to decline as well, mainly because their amateur players could not change their plans in time. As a result a place was offered to Sweden, who did agree to take part.
Finally the winners of the third level Conference – Moldova – make up the dozen teams.
However, of those 12 teams realistically only five are likely to be in the running for the Olympic and repecharge spots – the five World Series teams. No full-strength World Series team has lost to a team from outside the series since the Dutch beat France in a famously remarkable game four years ago.
France - top seeds after winning in Marcoussis – have the clearest run to the final in Pool A. With no other World Series teams in their pool, France should win it with ease and are also likely to face a non-World Series team in the quarter-finals. Only in the semi-final will they meet a World Series team – the runner-up from Pool B or Pool C.
For the other four World Series teams things are rather more interesting, with crucial games at the end the first day.
In Pool B England will play Russia, and in Pool C Ireland will meet Spain with the loser of each game almost certainly meeting in a head-to-head quarter final at the start of the second day that will be the end one of their Olympic hopes. Whoever survives that can be expected to lined up for semi-final against France.
The winners of Pool B and C should meet in the other semi-final.
What can we expect? England are unchanged from Marcoussis two weeks ago where they lost an identically crucial game with Russia 22-7. Russia, however, are missing Elena Zdronkova who was injured in the same tournament, but - especially with home advantage - will be a massive threat to English (and therefore Great British) hopes. Even without Zdronkova for the latter stages Russia came close to winning the tournament in Marcoussis.
England lost to Ireland in the quarter-finals in Marcoussis by a single try in seven, and that could be the quarter-final again if Spain retain their form - the Spanish finished third in Marcoussis, beating Ireland 19-0 in what would be a death or glory meeting in Kazan.
However, England have been remarkably unpredictable this season, so a place in the final is by no means impossible.
France look the strongest team after two impressive years building up to this point. They have moved past Russia now to claim Europe's number one spot and with their helpful draw should retain Olympic hopes beyond this weekend.
England: Holly Aitchison; Claire Allan; Abbie Brown - captain; Heather Fisher; Deborah Fleming; Megan Jones; Ellie Kildunne; Alex Matthews; Celia Quansah; Helena Rowland; Emma Uren; Amy Wilson Hardy
France: Marjorie Mayans (Blagnac Women's Rugby / FFR); Anne-Cécile Ciofani (AC Bobigny / FFR); Chloé Pele (FFR); Nassira Konde (AC Bobigny / FFR); Valentine Lothoz (Stade Rennais); Fanny Horta (FFR); Coralie Bertrand (FFR); Camille Grassineau (Stade Francais Paris / FFR); Carla Neisen (Women's Blagnac Rugby / FFR); Caroline Drouin (Stade Rennais / FFR); Shannon Izar (FFR); Lina Guerin (FFR)
Ireland: Kathy Baker (Blackrock College/Leinster); Megan Burns (Tullamore/Leinster); Stacey Flood (Railway Union/Leinster); Louise Galvin (UL Bohemians/Munster); Eve Higgins (Railway Union/Leinster); Brittany Hogan (Railway Union/Ulster); Emily Lane (Mallow/Munster); Anna McGann (UCD & Old Belvedere/Leinster); Lucy Mulhall (Rathdrum) Captain; Amee-Leigh Murphy-Crowe (Railway Union/Munster); Deirbhile Nic a Bhaird (Old Belvedere/Munster); Audrey O’Flynn (Ireland 7s Programme); Hannah Tyrrell (Old Belvedere/Leinster)
Russia: Anna Gavrilyuk (RGUTIS-Moscow Region); Yana Danilova (RGUTIS-Moscow region); Marina Kukina (RGUTIS-Moscow Region); Marina Myasnikova (RGUTIS-Moscow region); Daria Noritsina (RGUTIS-Moscow region); Christina Seredina (RGUTIS-Moscow region); Snezhanna Kulkova (Yenisei-STM); Alena Mikhaltsova (Yenisei-STM); Anna Baranchuk (Kuban) ; Daria Lushina (Kuban); Bayzat Khamidova (Krasny Yar); Daria Shestakova (Without Club)
Spain: Patricia Garcia Rodriguez; Marina Bravo Bragado; Amaia Erbina Araña; Lide Erbina Araña; Anne Fernandez De Corres Del Rio; Olivia Fresneda Fernández; Paula Requena Zamora; María Garcia Gala; María Casado González; María Losada Gifra; Elisabet Martínez García; Bárbara Pla Vegué