The draw was made on 19th November 2020 and split the twelve teams into four “bands”, based on the world rankings at the time and before Italy, Japan and Scotland had qualified. As a result, by the time the tournament kicks off on 8th October, it will have been nearly two years since the draw was made. And quite a lot can happen in two years!
The top two teams from each pool, plus the best two third-place teams, will qualify for the quarter-finals.
Canada (World Ranking: 3)
Record since last World Cup: P 22, W 13, L 9, F 507, A 547, 59.09%)
On the back of some excellent results and two months together as a squad, Canada are one of the teams at this competition absolutely capable of making the final, after getting there for the first time back in 2014.
Lack of time together is an enduring challenge for an-always talented and physical Canadian side, but on the back of recent wins over Fiji, Italy and Wales, and a good showing in New Zealand earlier this year, Kevin Rouet’s side should be quietly confident of going far.
Their squad list is familiar - Olivia DeMerchant, Laura Russell, Tyson Beukeboom, Karen Paquin, Elissa Alarie and, DaLeaka Menin are all hardened vets of international rugby and captain Sophie de Goede has proved a powerful addition to the backrow.
But though they have looked strong in recent games, their losses over the last year to New Zealand and England suggest that when it matters most against the top teams, they still have to find another level. Like nearest rivals the USA, they will massively benefit from the time they will get together before the event begins and opening up against Japan gives them a steady start in this fascinating pool. They are favourites to top it - but they will be seriously tested.
United States (World Ranking: 6)
Record since last World Cup: P 18, W 4, L 14, F 190, A 666, 22.22%)
On paper this is a squad that should be highly competitive with top players like Hope Rogers, Kate Zachary and Alex Kelter among the best in the world on their day and with 21 of the players in New Zealand bringing strong experience from overseas leagues.
But form has not been their friend in recent years, though this might be partly because the USA has not tended to play many games against teams ranked below them, and they travel to New Zealand short of some momentum.
All three of their last games with Canada, their nearest rivals and pool foes, have ended in defeat while they managed just one win at the recent Pacific Fours against Australia. They snuck past Scotland in their World Cup warmups before being hammered by England.
Those results tell the story of a side that has struggled through the pandemic to find cohesion largely due to a lack of time together on home soil, with players forced to scatter to clubs in Europe to get regular, high quality game time. Much of their preparation has been done online, and the time in camp together before the competition kicks off will be vital.
It is possible for the USA to top this pool, but it is also possible for them to struggle to get out of it such has their struggle for consistency been.
As coach Rob Cain has pointed out, along with Canada, they might be one of the only non-contracted sides with a chance of reaching the knockouts. Though we always expect America to be there or thereabouts, the reality of their setup means this will still rank as an achievement.
Italy (World Ranking: 5)
Record since last World Cup: P 33, W 14, D 2, L 17, F 519, A 901, 45.45%)
Never has Italian women’s rugby been on such a high as it is today. The team that only ever seemed to be in competition for the Wooden Spoon in the Six Nations turned itself around after the last World Cup, memorably finishing as runners-up in the 2019 tournament and fourth in three of the other four years.
Their win in the European World Cup qualifier – unexpected by many despite their being at home – was another memorable moment.
Italy are a very different team to 2017. Ranked an unprecedented fifth in the world, they are confident and dangerous opponents, they cannot to be taken lightly by anyone as France discovered in their final warm-up test last month when their experimental line-up was turned over by the Italians in an impressive second half performance.
The Azzuri’s biggest problem remains the limited number of playing opportunities they have outside of the Six Nations. While their 33 tests since 2017 will be the envy of many teams at the World Cup, all but eight were in the Six Nations or the World Cup qualification tournament. It is telling that their recent warm-up game in Canada was the first time they had ever played a test outside Europe.
That test in July – where Italy lost 34-24 - suggests that they could be very competitive indeed in this pool, where they can realistically target one of the two automatic quarter-final spots. The squad is full of experience, with 10 players with 40 or more caps (lead by Sara Barattin on 107).
Japan (World Ranking: 13)
Record since last World Cup: P 14, W 5, D 1, L 8, F 208, A 404, 39.29%)
No team at the World Cup has been hit more by Covid than Japan. With travel restrictions in Asia making the organisation of any qualification tournament impossible, World Rugby eventually had to bow to the inevitable and give Japan Asia’s tournament spot.
There is no question that that was deserved – Japan are on another level in their region and have not lost to Asian opposition since 2014 – but nonetheless the uncertainty and repeated cancellation of tournaments has not helped preparations.
Japan had gone two years without a test after the World Cup anyway before their tours to Australia and Europe at the end of 2019. Covid then ensured another two-year shutdown for the team before they were again able to travel, in November last year, when they put in some good performances against Wales, Scotland and Ireland. They inevitably seemed a little rusty but improved notably with every game, only going down 15-12 to Ireland in their final match.
This was followed by their winning the Tri-Series in Australia in May, learning from their European tour to frustrate Australia in the deciding test to record a famous 12-10 win.
With home rugby at last available they recently welcomed South Africa and Ireland, sharing the first series but losing the latter.
The Australian win – plus the most recent European tour - showed that Japan have the ability to get under the skin of opponents. But while this worked well with an Australian team that lacked recent test experience, the more wily heads of the USA, Canada and Italy are less likely to be affected. Advancing beyond the pool phase will therefore be a tough ask for the Japanese.