WXV1, featuring the world's top six sides gets underway in New Zealand this weekend.
While WXV has been up and running for a week already, it's the turn of the world's leading six teams this weekend in New Zealand.
With all sides transitioning since the World Cup last year, the theme of this first year of WXV may well be progress, development and building depth, but culminating in a clash between Black Ferns and England gives this tier a fascinating finish.
All six teams are at a different stage. New Zealand are seeking to add depth to a settled squad with their new coaching team; England have travelled without their new head coach; Australia have faced challenges on and off the field this year; Canada are hardened from recent challenges in England; France are making no secret of the fact that this year is about development while Wales are starting to reap the benefits of investment.
All games are live on Rugby Pass.
With a new coaching team and a raft of new faces, New Zealand will relish being back on home soil in a major competition after the huge success of last year’s World Cup, where they won over an army of new fans and delighted the nation.
The Black Ferns have had just one chance to play at home since, so their three games against France, Wales and England will be highly anticipated by a more aware New Zealand rugby public.
With Wayne Smith departed, Allan Bunting has been leading the team to success already, with four very comfortable wins this year already over Australia, USA, and Canada. Bunting is highly regarded for both his coaching and the culture he creates, and it will be fascinating to see how the team evolves under his watch in the coming years.
Sylvia Brunt and Patricia Maliepo have been impressive this year and are exciting prospects, while the cool head of Ruahei Demant has been integral to the development of the team. Ruby Tui is back and is straight into the team for the first game against France, having been away in the US in recent months.
That first clash with France should be a cracker, given the last time these sides met just a point separated them.
Though both sides are much changed since, the French will present a much tougher opposition than any New Zealand has faced this year and it will be a good measure of how the teams are progressing on the road to 2025.
The big one for New Zealand as ever will be the final round clash against England.
Forwards: Kate Henwood, Sophie Fisher, Tanya Kalounivale, Krystal Murray, Amy Rule, Chrys Viliko, Luka Connor, Natalie Delamere, Georgia Ponsonby, Chelsea Bremner, Maiakawanakaulani Roos, Charmaine Smith, Alana Bremner, Lucy Jenkins, Liana Mikaele Tu’u, Layla Sae, Kennedy Simon (co-captain).
Backs: Ariana Bayler, Iritana Hohaia, Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu, Ruahei Demant (co-captain), Rosie Kelly, Logo-I-Pulotu Lemapu Atai’i (Sylvia) Brunt, Amy du Plessis, Patricia Maliepo, Renee Holmes, Martha Mataele, Mererangi Paul, Ruby Tui, Katelyn Vahaakolo.
After experiencing heartbreak on New Zealand soil just a year ago, England’s first two matches against Australia and Canada feel like the warmup for the big rematch.
England travelled to this competition on the back of a seven-game winning run, and though they boast a remarkable record of losing only three of three of their last 58 tests, the fact that two of those were in World Cup Finals against New Zealand, makes their clash in the final round of this competition a hugely exciting prospect.
Despite their momentum, the England team is still finding its feet after a typical period of post World Cup transition. John Mitchell, their new head coach, is not yet embedded with the team, and there are several ‘regular’ players absent.
The recent test series against Canada saw England blow very hot and occasionally lukewarm but those were ideal games for the team to try out the more expansive style they’ve been deploying since the World Cup last year, where they relied more heavily in their power up front.
That power is still there, but England have been better at creating opportunities for talents like Ellie Kildunne out wide, with the return of Meg Jones to the midfield proving an excellent catalyst with her outstanding distribution skills a real asset.
England should be too strong for Australia and Canada, and then all eyes will be on the finale.
There are some exciting new prospects for England too with recent additions Maisy Allen, Sophie Bridger and Daisy Hibbert-Jones all seeking to make a mark.
Forwards: Sarah Bern, Hannah Botterman, Mackenzie Carson, Kelsey Clifford, Maud Muir, Lark Atkin-Davies, Amy Cokayne, Connie Powell, Zoe Aldcroft, Rosie Galligan, Cath O'Donnell, Maisy Allen, Sarah Beckett, Daisy Hibbert-Jones, Alex Matthews, Marlie Packer, Morwenna Talling.
Backs: Natasha Hunt, Ella Wyrwas, Holly Aitchison, Sophie Bridger, Megan Jones, Tatyana Heard, Amber Reed, Helena Rowland, Jess Breach, Abby Dow, Ellie Kildunne, Claudia MacDonald, Emma Sing.
With their settled coaching team - changed just ahead of the World Cup last year - France are eyeing this first WXV competition as a chance to try out some new faces, but with a spine of experience.
Selection for their first game very much hints at this, with several untried combinations, while familiar faces like Gabi Vernier and Cyrielle Banet selected.
There's a surprise new captain in Manaé Feleu, a fascinating decision given both Gaëlle Hermet and Audrey Forlani are in the team having captained the team over the past seasons, but perhaps France are building up a leadership team on the road to the next World Cup.
Coach David Ortiz, described the team as in a “development phase".
"With this in mind, we try to play on different factors in which we try to be as balanced as possible. We are putting players on the field who haven't played with us for a while, giving experience to players in key positions to give them as many resources as possible to be able to grow, develop the leadership. We are still building and this WXV is a big opportunity for us in that regard.
"There is no particular pressure. We tried to put together this team by combining experience and youth. Playing the Black Ferns at home in a competition like this is really an accelerator in their experienc and their training."
Forwards: Yllana Brosseau, Clara Joyeux, Assia Khalfaoui, Coco Lindelauf, Ambre Mwayembe, Elisa Riffonneau, Agathe Sochat, Laure Touyé, Madoussou Fall, Manaé Feleu, Audrey Forlani, Kiara Zago, Axelle Berthoumieu, Léa Champon, Charlotte Escudero, Émeline Gros, Gaëlle Hermet.
Backs: Océane Bordes, Pauline Bourdon Sansus, Alexandra Chambon, Carla Arbez, Lina Queyroi, Nassira Konde, Marine Ménager, Gabrielle Vernier, Cyrielle Banet, Caroline Boujard, Émilie Boulard, Morgane Bourgeois, Suliana Sivi.
Coach Kevin Rouet will take a squad has selected 28 players who were part of the squad that played England in back-to-back test matches in September.
Of those, six have made their senior Canada debut in 2023. A total of 21 players were also part of the squad that took part in the World Cup.
For their first game against Wales, Rouet is clearly seeking to build new partnerships with several changes from the recent loss to England. Watch out overall for the electric Olivia Apps, who is getting her first start at scrumhalf, while Alex Tesssier is in terrific form in the centre.
Rouet said: “Over the last year since the Rugby World Cup, we’ve developed good consistency with a strong core group of players. There has been a lot of positive growth and development with continued collaboration with our sevens program as well as the Pacific Four Series and the test matches in England.
“Gaining more frequent elite competition experience is very important as we continue to look towards the 2025 Rugby World Cup. We are excited about the opportunity presented to us with WXV and are looking forward to three more great matches against some of the best teams in the world.”
Forwards: Alexandria Ellis, Ashlynn Smith, Brittany Kassil, Courtney Holtkamp, DaLeaka Menin, Emily Tuttosi, Fabiola Forteza, Gabrielle Senft, Gillian Boag, Julia Omokhuale, Laetitia Royer, McKinley Hunt, Mikiela Nelson, Sara Cline, Sara Svoboda, Sophie de Goede, Tyson Beukeboom.
Backs: Alexandra Tessier, Claire Gallagher, Fancy Bermudez, Florence Symonds, Julia Schell, Justine Pelletier, Krissy Scurfield, Madison Grant, Olivia Apps, Paige Farries, Sabrina Poulin, Sarah-Maude Lachance, Shoshanah Seumanutafa.
Australia are one of the real winners of the introduction of the WXV, as a side who often disappeared completely in between World Cups will now have access to at least six tests a year, when the Pacific Fours is included.
Results this year have been tough for an Australian team which showed huge promise at the World Cup last year, and WXV2 might have been a more comfortable place for them to rebuild.
They are without Piper Duck who is recovering from injury, and there are several uncapped players in the squad including Waratahs trio Brianna Hoy, Desiree Miller and Leilani Nathan.
Things have not been entirely settled off the field either, with leading players voicing public displeasure recently with Rugby Australia, though a flurry of announcements have taken place since.
They are a capable team though if they can click, showing even in recent defeat to New Zealand that they can work hard for each other with an impressibe 37-minute effort in the second half preventing New Zealand from scoring a point after a terrible first half where they conceded a raft.
A first clash against England is a tough ask, and the Wallaroos are likely to be targeting Wales for a win.
Forwards: Bree-Anna Cheatham, Brianna Hoy, Eva Karpani, Bridie O’Gorman, Emily Robinson, Ashley Marsters, Tania Naden, Adiana Talakai, Annabelle Codey, Atasi Lafai, Kaitlan Leaney, Michaela Leonard (captain), Sera Naiqama, Leilani Nathan, Emily Chancellor, Tabua Tuinakauvadra.
Backs: Jasmin Huriwai, Layne Morgan, Carys Dallinger, Arabella McKenzie, Faitala Moleka, Georgina Friedrichs, Trilleen Pomare, Cecilia Smith, Melanie Wilks, Lori Cramer, Desiree Miller, Maya Stewart, Ivania Wong, Siokapesi Palu.
Wales qualified for WXV1 thanks to a third place finish in the Six Nations after winning three games in a single Championship for the first time since 2009.
They go into the competition on the back of two straight wins and in fact they are bidding to win three tests in a row for the first time since 2009 (wins over Italy, Ireland and Sweden). They are already reaping the benefits of professionalism with the extra time together and accelerated training showing on the field.
Discipline has been an issue for them though. In the Six Nations, they were the most penalised team, conceding 69 – 33 at the ruck – and also received three yellow cards.
Sisilia Tuipulotu is also a pivotal player as she continues to improve while Hannah Jones, who will win her 50th cap this weekend, is a vital lynchpin in midfield.
Wales are getting used to life mixing it as one of the world's leading teams, and even if results could be tough to come by, exposure to this level of competition could help them cement their position in the Six Nations as a permanent top three side.
Forwards: Gwenllian Pyrs, Abbey Constable, Kelsey Jones, Carys Phillips, Kat Evans, Sisilia Tuipulotu, Donna Rose, Cerys Hale, Abbie Fleming, Georgia Evans, Alisha Butchers, Bryonie King, Alex Callender, Kate Williams, Beth Lewis (VC), Sioned Harries.
Backs: Jasmine Joyce, Nel Metcalfe, Lisa Neumann, Hannah Jones (capt), Carys Cox, Meg Webb, Kerin Lake, Hannah Bluck, Carys Williams-Morris, Lleucu George, Robyn Wilkins, Niamh Terry, Keira Bevan, Meg Davies.