Over the next two weeks Canada, England, Ireland and New Zealand embark on a fascinating round-robin series this weekend.
It’s a mouth-watering series. Four of the top five from the last World Cup (and in the latest rankings) are due to play each other over 14 days from the 13th-27th of November. Only France is missing from what is a mini-World Cup, and a near dress rehearsal for next August.
The only snag is that officially it is no such thing. The games in London are part of the Old Mutual Wealth series, whereas the games in Dublin are not, so there will be no official table, no official champion.
But we’ll be treating it as if it were a series, if only because it’s much more exciting that way!
The games are:
13 November Ireland v England (Dublin: UCD Bowl). LIVE STREAM on Irish Rugby TV. KO 2pm GMT
19 November England v New Zealand (London: Twickenham Stoop). Likely to be streamed live by RFU.TV (TBC). KO 12.00 GMT
19 November Ireland v Canada (Dublin: UCD Bowl). Likely to be streamed live by Irish Rugby TV (TBC). KO 2pm GMT
23 November Canada v New Zealand (Dublin: Donnybrook), KO 1pm GMT
26 November England v Canada (London: Twickenham). LIVE TV on Sky Sports. KO 5pm GMT
27 November Ireland v New Zealand (Dublin: UCD Bowl). Likely to be streamed live by Irish Rugby TV (TBC). KO 2pm GMT
Canada come into this after a great 2016 so far. Not only an Olympic bronze but a massive Super Series triumph that saw them record big wins over England, France and the United States – a huge turnaround from 2015 when they lost all three games in that Super Series – and they now sit in an unprecedented second in the World Rankings.
However they travel to London and Dublin having left behind almost all of their big sevens names, plus players like Mandy Marchak and Amanda Thornborough who were declared unfit to travel. Only they, Australia and Fiji are maintaining separate squads dedicated to sevens and fifteens and the next few months will also be a measure of how successful specialisation is, compared with most of their opponents who have gone down the unified squad route.
This series will therefore be a measure of how deep Canadian talent is – and whether next year they can match their performance at the 2014 World Cup.
Elissa Alarie (Westshore) Trois-Rivieres, QC; Emily Belchos (Westshore) Barrie, ON; Tyson Beukeboom (Aurora Barbarians) Uxbridge, ON; Latoya Blackwood(Westshore) Montreal, QC; Andrea Burk (Capilano RFC) North Vancouver, BC; Olivia DeMerchant (Woodstock Wildmen) Mapledale, NB; Julia Folk (UVic/Castaway Wanderers), Regina, SK; Fabiola Forteza (Club de Rugby de Quebec) Quebec, QC; Jacey Grusnick (Aurora Barbarians) Alliston, ON; Chelsea Guthrie (Stratchona Druids) Edmonton, AB; Magali Harvey (Club de Rugby Quebec) Quebec City, QC ; Mackenzie Higgs (Aurora Barbarians) Aurora, ON; Anais Holly (TMRRFC) Montreal, QC; Jane Kirby (Highland RFC) Brampton, ON; Kayla Mack (Wild Oats) Saskatoon, SK; Carolyn McEwen (Burnaby Lake Rugby Club), Vancouver, BC; DaLeaka Menin (Calgary Hornets) Vulcan, AB; Barbara Mervin (Westshore) Peterborough, ON; Brianna Miller (SABRFC), Pointe-Claire, QC; Karen Paquin (Club de Rugby Quebec) Quebec City, QC; Frédérique Rajotte (Sainte Anne de Bellevue RFC) Sainte Anne de Bellevue, QC; Laura Russell (Toronto Nomads) Bolton, ON; Kelly Russell (Toronto Nomads) Bolton, ON; Demi Stamatakis (SFU) Vancouver, BC; Alex Tessier (Montreal Barbarians) Sainte-Clotilde-de-Horton, QC; Brittany Waters (Castaway Wanderers) Vancouver, BC; Julianne Zussman (Castaway Wanderers) Montreal, QC
England have a major advantage in that they have already blown off the cobwebs with their test against France during the week. While that will inevitably lead to some sore bodies - Simon Middleton makes just five changes - it will also have given them a much clearer picture about their strengths and weaknesses, with France surely proving ideal warm-up for the tests to follow.
England were solid without being spectacular on Wednesday night, but there will be positivity in the camp that they won regardless, that their lineout was excellent (leading to two pushover tries) and that their defence was in good nick, with an error leading to the French try. They will want to show more in attack however and given how central Katy Mclean was again against France, it will be well worth keeping a close eye on Emily Scott and her ability to kickstart England's offensive play.
It is a big game for Rochelle Clark who in taking to the field will surpass Jason Leonard’s record and become England’s most capped player with 115 games while at the same time, equalling Donna Kennedy’s record in the women’s game.
As well as Clark starting, the other changes see Amy Cokayne move to the bench, with Vicky Fleetwood coming into the starting line up alongside Harriet Millar-Mills, La Toya Mason and Emily Scott. Bristol flanker Poppy Cleall comes onto the bench.
England: 15 Danielle Waterman (Bristol, 61 caps)14 Kay Wilson (Richmond, 37 caps)13 Claire Allan (Saracens, 33 caps)12 Rachael Burford (Aylesford Bulls, 57 caps)11 Fiona Pocock (Aylesford Bulls, 30 caps)10 Emily Scott (Saracens, 13 caps)9 La Toya Mason (Darlington Mowden Park Sharks, 57 caps)1 Rochelle Clark (Worcester Valkyries, 114 caps)2 Vicky Fleetwood (Saracens, 52 caps)3 Laura Keates (Worcester Valkyries, 53 caps)4 Tamara Taylor (Darlington Mowden Park Sharks, 95 caps)5 Harriet Millar-Mills (Lichfield, 35 caps)6 Alex Matthews (Richmond, 25 caps)7 Marlie Packer (Bristol, 37 caps)8 Sarah Hunter (Bristol, 82 caps) (c) Replacements: 16 Amy Cokayne (Lichfield, 17 caps)17 Vickii Cornborough (Aylesford Bulls, 18 caps)18 Sarah Bern (Bristol, 3 caps)19 Poppy Cleall (Bristol, 4 caps)20 Izzy Noel-Smith (Bristol, 21 caps)21 Natasha Hunt (Lichfield, 30 caps)22 Katy Mclean (Darlington Mowden Park Sharks, 78 caps)23 Ceri Large (Worcester Valkyries, 51 caps)
Ireland will be the rustiest of all four sides, having not played since the end of the 6 Nations, and a warmed-up and strengthened England side, fresh from a mid-week test, will surely prove a tough ask.
The Irish will miss captain Niamh Briggs who is injured and their side features Nicole Fowley who will win her first cap at the UCD Bowl, with two other uncapped players, Leah Lyons and Chloe Pearse, on the bench.
Speaking about Ireland's first game in the November Series, Irish coach Tom Tierney said: "This weekend marks the first game of what is arguably going to be the biggest season in the history of Ireland's Women's Rugby. The Women's Rugby World Cup is now less than nine months away, and while there a lot of rugby to be played between now and then, the players are very eager to run out at UCD this Sunday and get things underway in our first ever November Series. We're without some of our more experienced players this weekend, but this gives other members of the squad the opportunity to develop their game and get some much needed experience themselves. Starting this weekend, we'll play three games in three weeks against some very competitive opposition and this is important as we prepare for the pool games of the World Cup in UCD."
Ireland (v England): 1. Lindsay Peat (Railway Union / Leinster); 2. Cliodhna Moloney (Railway Union / Leinster); 3. Ailis Egan (Old Belvedere / Leinster); 4. Maire-Louise Reilly (Old Belvedere / Leinster); 5. Orla Fitzsimons (St. Mary's / Leinster); 6. Ciara Griffin (UL Bohemians / Munster); 7. Claire Molloy (Bristol / Connacht); 8. Paula Fitzpatrick (St. Mary's / Leinster) Captain; 9. Larissa Muldoon (Railway Union); 10. Nora Stapleton (Old Belvedere / Leinster); 11. Alison Miller (Old Belvedere / Connacht); 12. Sene Naoupu (Aylesford Bulls); 13. Nicole Fowley (Galwegians / Connacht)*; 14. Niamh Kavanagh (UL Bohemians / Munster); 15. Mairead Coyne (Galwegians / Connacht)
Replacements; 16. Leah Lyons (Highfield / Munster)*; 17. Fiona Hayes (UL Bohemians / Munster); 18. Fiona Reidy (UL Bohemians / Munster); 19. Katie Norris (Blackrock College / Leinster); 20. Chloe Pearse (UL Bohemians / Munster)*; 21. Mary Healy (Galwegians / Connacht); 22. Nikki Caughey (Railway Union / Ulster); 23. Jackie Shiels (Old Belvedere / Leinster); *Denotes uncapped
The squad named by New Zealand for the series against Australia is also expected to the squad that travels to the London and Dublin,
The Ferns won their two games series with Australia last month with relative ease – 67-3 and 29-3 – results that were no great surprise, the Ferns maintaining their 100% record against a team that had not played since 2014 and that is over 12 ranking points below them.
Their opponents in this series will be stronger – but New Zealand also played both England and Canada in June last year, and won relatively comfortably. Since their defeat to Ireland in the World Cup in 2014, they have won seven tests by an average margin of 38 points.
Indeed, they have won 16 of their last 17 tests going back to the start of 2013, including four against England and three against Canada, racking up 703 points and conceding just 157. In that time they have never failed to reach double figures, something that their opponents managed in only six of the 17 games.
In short, the Ferns will be travelling with justified confidence – and the desire for revenge.
Squad: Chelsea Alley, Kelly Brazier, Kendra Cocksedge, Honey Hireme, Carla Hohepa, Victoria Subritzky-Nafatali, Kristina Sue, Hazel Tubic, Janna Vaughan, Renee Wickliffe, Selica Winiata, Portia Woodman, Eloise Blackwell, Rawinia Everitt, Fiao'o Fa'amausili, Sarah Goss, Charlene Gubb, Aldora Itunu, Pip Love, Aotearoa Matau, Charmaine McMenamin,Toka Natua, Aleisha Nelson, Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate, Aroha Savage, Angie Sisifa, Charmaine Smith, Sharnita Woodman.
Canada v New Zealand: Played 11, New Zealand 11 wins
Ireland v Canada: Played 2. Ireland 1 win, Canada 1.
Ireland v England: Played 23. Ireland 2 wins, England 21
Ireland v New Zealand. Played 1. Ireland 1 win.
England v Canada: Played 24. England 20 wins, Canada 3. 1 draw.
England v New Zealand. Played 23. England 7 wins, New Zealand 15. 1 draw.