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Preview: Final Rio spot up for grabs

We look ahead to this weekend’s women’s rugby Olympic repecharge in Dublin where 16 sides will battle it out for the final spot in Rio. We'll add squad details as and when they are confirmed. 

Two teams from each pool will qualify for the quarter finals and you can view the full match schedule here.

Pool A: Russia, Samoa, Zimbabwe, Madagascar

Russia start the tournament as top seeds and favourites, not just because of their superior experience at the highest level of the game in recent years, but because of their excellent current form.

In Kazan last month, Russia enjoyed an excellent outing on the first leg of the European Sevens Grand Prix, reaching the Cup Final, including with a convincing win over Ireland, this weekend’s hosts, on the way. Their regular exposure to the top level of sevens through the World Series and the experience of their top players at the highest level means there’s minimal chance of a pool upset here – even against a Samoan side who are likely to be physical – and it’s hard to see beyond a Russian appearance in the Cup Final. Nadezda Kudinova is however not playing in Dublin, presumably injured, and the dimunitive star player is a big loss to this side.

The pressure on Russia is enormous. If they fail to qualify for Rio (and even then if they fail to achieve a good placing) the future of the sevens programme will be in the gravest doubt. World Cups and World Series count for little - it is the Olympics that excites Russian sports bodies, and it is Olympic potential that generates funds. If the team misses out here, this could be the last time we see this  particular Russia team together.

If there is going to be a surprise in this pool then Samoa will surely be the team to cause it, having prepared with games against the Cook Islands and two New Zealand selections and also travelling to Fiji for matches. They’ve also spent time in Leeds this week playing against local sides in an attempt to play catch up on match rustiness. We can expect the Samoans, with many New Zealand based players,  to be physical and skillful but whether can they last the distance over two days at a level they are not exposed to consistently together will be a huge challenge. 

Zimbabwe remain a relatively new international side, competing in continental tournaments but rarely finishing higher than 5th or 6th behind sides like South Africa, Tunisia and Kenya. They will struggle this weekend and will surely be setting their sights on performing well in the lower tiers of this event on the second day. 

Madagascar impressed at the most recent African sevens championship, very nearly recording a huge shock early on, with Tunisia just about hanging on to win 15-12 before the Madagascar team went on to win the Plate. They too will struggle but this will be wonderful experience a side with minimal international exposure and with potential to make giant improvements. 

Pool B: Spain, Mexico, Venezuela and Tunisia

Spain will be confident, not least having seen their men's team unexpectedly win qualification last weekend in Monaco. They have proven a match for Russia in most meetings in the World series this year, albeit a Russian team often lacking key players. Injuries in the last round of the World Series were not the best preparation, and Spain's management ensured that they most important players remained at home rather than risking them in Kazan earlier this month.

Although not under quite the same financial pressure as Russia, for many Spanish players it is now or never and a failure to reach Rio could preciptate retirements - so, as with Russia, this could be the last time we see this familiar Spanish team.

Mexico were in Ireland last year for the World series qualifier, but were massively outclassed, failing to score a single point all weekend while conceding over 200. There is little to suggest that their fortunes will improve significantly, although the quality of the teams they will meet this time will - in some cases - be closer to their level. They might shade their game with Venezuela, but their best hope of glory will be in the Bowl.

Venezuela have consistently been a top four team in South America, but have never played outside the continent and will find this very tough. That said, a quarter-final is very possible as they should win at least one pool game, and their match-up with Tunisia will be very interesting.

Tunisia have a long history of sevens and were, for many years, the best team in North Africa, if not the continents number two side, behind South Africa. They have slipped a little in recent years but with the benefit of regular European opposition (including several training camps in Spain) they will fancy their chances of at least a quarter final place, and possibly going further than that.

Pool C: Ireland, China, Portugal, Trinidad and Tobago

Hosts Ireland may well have winced when the pools were confirmed for this weekend, being handed the toughest group of the four and their main focus will be making it out of what looks a tricky pool – ideally as top seeds. Beating Spain in Kazan recently will be a real positive  for the Irish but China in particular present a major obstacle despite having to spend the last year outside of the World Series having lost their spot on the circuit, and Portugal were a team they would have hoped to avoid. It will be fascinating to see how Irish XV captain Niamh Briggs impacts on the team as she's been named, having impressed in Kazan in her first sevens outing.

China have been quietly warming up for this in Europe in recent weeks, putting in a good performance in Amsterdam in particular where they fell to the Dutch in the semi-finals. With World Series experience they are quite capable of winning this pool, but have shown a tendency to allow their heads to drop when faced with a reversal. Last year in the Dublin World Series qualfier they began brightly, but lost to the Netherlands in their final pool game before going on to lose all of their matches on day two. Similarly although the top team in Asia for many years, they have also slipped to third in the past 18 months. The team will also be under considerable pressure, comparable to Russia, to reach Rio - pressure that could make or break them.

Portugal were by far the strongest team in the third group of teams and could well present a surprise package. The side that defeated the Dutch en route to this tournament are well capable of giant killing and though a spot in Rio may well be out of reach, a quarter-final berth is not. Performances in Europe this season had been good up to Kazan where they managed just one win over the weekend - but their form was similarly mixed last year before they grabbed their place here, so they should not be discounted.

Trinidad and Tobago have been in Ireland playing in local sevens competitions warming up for this tournament but given the pool, they will do well to win a game on day one. By far the strongest team in the Caribbean, funding problems are a massive limit on their opportunities to improve. The Bowl on day two is their main hope for glory.

Pool D: Hong Kong, Argentina, Kazakhstan and Cook Islands

There will be a high degree of familiarity among these sides, with Hong Kong, Argentina and Kazakhstan all playing each other in the recent Hong Kong Sevens and the Cook Islands also travelled to Hong Kong earlier this year for six training games. 

There is also the unfamilar sight of two teams in this pool being coached by women - both former Black Ferns, with Anna Richards coaching Hong Kong and Crystal Kaua coaching the Cook Islands. 

Hong Kong fared well enough at their host sevens event this year,  finishing fourth, while Kazakhstan were 6th and Argentina were 7th at the same event– the close results highlighting that the battle in this pool could be extremely tight. 

Richards’ team have had more exposure than the others in this pool of late, and Argentina may well kick themselves for their late slip up against Colombia which saw them lost an automatic spot that looked a given in the region.

Argentina were odds on for a place in Rio until the final seconds of the South American qualifier. Consistently the number two team on the continent they now have a massive uphill climb to recover, but in a very unpredictable pool have a good chance of a final eight spot if not better. However they do have a tendency toward fragility when put under pressure and must hold it together to stand any chance of reaching their potential.

Kazakhstan have cancelled their entire XVs programme, both men's and women's (and including at club level) to focus totally on Olympic qualification in 2020 (when - with Japan automatically qualifying - the second best team in Asia will go to the Games). This weekend may come a little early to see the effect of that policy, but this famously physical team will pack a punch.

The Cook Islands are relying on a host of New Zealand based players in their side and they’ve warmed up with a series of tournaments in Auckland against a number of New Zealand selections and the Manu Sina from Samoa.  They will present a relatively unknown challenge, though given the majority of their players have decent XV experience, they are likely to present an abrasive challenge that could well trouble the likes of Hong Kong and Argentina. 

Squads (where known)

Argentina: Aguilar, Mayra (La Querencia), Alcaraz, Lettizia (San Patricio), Billerbeck, Noelia (CAPRI), Botelli, María Eugenia (Argentino Bahía Blanca), Cazorla, Rita (Cardenales), Fazzi, Magalí (La Plata Rugby Club), Fontanarrosa, Isabel (Cardenales), Genghini, Mayra (Marabunta), González, Sofía (SITAS), Montero, Valeria (Villa Gesell), Padellaro, Josefina (Catriel Rugby Club), Pedrozo, María Paula (CAPRI)

Cook Islands: Margarette Nena (NZ); Kimiora Nati (NZ); Larissa Marino Anderson (NZ); Ariona Iremia (NZ); Teiti Tupuna (Rarotonga); Elizabeth Pera (NZ); Charntay Poko (NZ); Wairakau Greig (NZ); Vaine Greig (NZ); Apii Nicholls (NZ); Anneka Stephens (Australia); Beniamina Koiatu (NZ)

Hong Kong: Cheng Ka Chi (Captain), Amelie Seure, Cheng Tsz Ting, Chong Ka Yan, Lee Tsz Ting, Li Nim Yan, Lindsay Varty, Natasha Olson-Thorne (Vice Captain), Nam Ka Man, Poon Pak Yan, Stephanie Cuvelier, Yuen Lok Yee

Ireland: Ashleigh Baxter (Cooke/Ulster); Niamh Briggs (UL Bohemians/Munster); Nicole Cronin (Shannon/Munster); Aoife Doyle (Shannon/Munster); Louise Galvin (UL Bohemians/Munster); Kim Flood (Railway Union/Leinster); Stacey Flood (Railway Union/Leinster); Alison Miller (Portlaoise/Connacht); Lucy Mulhall (Rathdrum/Leinster) (capt); Amee-Leigh Crowe (Railway Union/Munster); Audrey O'Flynn (Talent ID Programme); Megan Williams (St. Mary's);

Madagascar: Laurence Rasoandrasana.; Andoniaina Randrianarijaona.; Voahirana Sophie Razafiharisoa.; Marie Angèle Lalaharison.; Sarindra Sahondramalala.; Mbolatiana Dina Raveloarinoro.; Claudia Rasoarimalala.; Felaniaina Marie Jeanny Rakotoarison.; Marie Christien Bodonandrianina.; Tantely Razafimahefa.; Faniry Nantenaina Raoliarivololona;

Portugal: Antónia Braga (C.R. Arcos Valdevez), Arlete Gonçalves (S.L.Benfica), Catarina Antunes(S.L.Benfica), Catarina Ribeiro (SC Porto), Christina Ramos (S.L.Benfica), Inês Spínola (MRC Bairrada), Isabel Ozório (Sporting), Leonor Amaral (Sporting), Maria Heitor (LCMV), Maria Lezita Guerreiro (SC Porto), Maria Vásquez (S.L.Benfica), Sara Jéssica Silva (C. D. Tondela).

Russia: Daria Bobkova (RSUTS-Moscow); Arina Bystrova (RSUTS-Moscow); Marina Kukina (RSUTS-Moscow); Marina Petrova (RSUTS-Moscow); Kristina Seredina (RSUTS-Moscow); Maria Shemchuk (RSUTS-Moscow); Elena Zdrokova (Yenisei-STM); Anna Minislamova (Yenisei-STM); Maria Perestyak (Yenisei-STM); Julia Guzeva (Krasny Yar); Ekaterina Kazakova (Krasny Yar); Bayzat Khamidova (Krasny Yar); Oksana Korobchuk (Khimki); Daria Lushina (Khimki)

Spain: Maria Ribera (XV Sanse Scrum), Patricia García Rodríguez (Olímpico Pozuelo), Iera Echebarria (Olímpico Pozuelo), Marina Bravo (Cisneros), Amaia Erbina (Inef Barcelona ), Elizabet Martinez (G.E.I.E.G.), Ana Vanesa Rial López (Crat), Paula Medin (Crat), Barbara Pla (Getxo), María Casado (Blagnac Saint-Orens), Berta García Alonso (Fer), Ángela Del Pan Moruno (Fer)

Trinidad & Tobago: Nicolette Pantor, Kenisha Vincent, Ornella George, Apphia Glasgow, Dalia Jordan-Brown, Kathleen Stephen, Akila Lowman, Victoria Carlisle, Latifah Carlisle, Alesha Bruce, Payola Jack, Ayana Skeete, Kenisha Samuel;  Onica George.