Pool B in the Women’s Rugby World Cup features some intriguing matchups, with four northern hemisphere sides and no previous tournament winners.
Third-ranked side Canada are favourites to top the pool while there is little to separate Italy, USA and a growing Japan team who beat Australia in May.
Women’s Rugby World Cup mainstays Canada are one of only four sides to have reached a final, suffering defeat in 2014 against this year’s favourites England.
Having appeared in every tournament since 1991, Canada will feel well set to top Pool B and thus dodge other likely group winners in the quarter-finals.
Ranked third in the world, Kevin Rouet’s side have enjoyed wins in 2022 over Fiji, Wales, and fellow Pool B residents Italy.
The squad list boasts seasoned veterans such as Karen Paquin and Olivia DeMerchant and Exeter Chiefs forward quartet DaLeaka Menin, Emily Tuttosi, Gabriel Senft and McKinley Hunt, all under the leadership of the explosive Sophie de Goede.
Canada will look to progress far into the tournament and ultimately challenge tournament frontrunners England and New Zealand – opponents who Canada have been unable to provide real resistance to when it really matters.
Their opening fixture against Japan will have an added edge, with Japanese coach Lesley McKenzie having represented Canada 25 times, including at the 2006 and 2010 World Cups.
After a disappointing Six Nations which saw them finish fifth, their worst result since 2016, Italy will be looking to bounce back with a stronger showing in this year’s edition of the World Cup.
Canada and the USA will be tough opponents for Italy but a win against France in their second warm-up game before the tournament boosted them up to fifth in the world rankings, however a 21-0 loss to France in the first game of the test cannot be overlooked.
Captain Manuela Furlan may be the difference maker as she faces a race against time to be fit and ready to play the USA on Sunday.
The squad contains a strong core of veterans including Sara Barattin, Michela Sillari, Melissa Bettoni and Ilaria Arrighetti. Sofia Rolfi stands out as the only uncapped player in the squad.
Qualifying from a tough group would be seen as a major achievement for Le Azzurre and they will be looking for a highest-ever finish by reaching the last eight.
They come into this tournament with the further backing of professional contracts for the first time in a big show of support from the Italian Federation.
The USA have not had the best fortunes since the last tournament in Ireland, winning just four of their 18 tests including three losses to rivals Canada and a humbling by England.
That being said, they still rank at sixth in the world and 21 of their final 32-player squad possess a wealth of experience from some of the world’s top overseas leagues, such as Chiefs’ Hope Rogers and Kate Zackary, and Saracens’ Alev Kelter.
The USA won the inaugural women’s tournament in 1991, but as a non-contracted side will do well to progress far in the tournament – especially as the squad have had to do much preparation virtually.
Coach Rob Cain believes that his side and Canada might be the only non-contracted sides with a realistic chance of reaching the knockouts, particularly from such an intriguing group.
Japan come into this group as the heavy underdogs and the lowest ranked team in the group, however, as recent results have shown, they have the ability to be a dark horse.
Wins against Ireland, Fiji and Australia in World Cup warm-up games mean Japan will be on form and looking to take some major scalps from their more established group opponents.
Coach Lesley McKenzie, a former Canada international, said: “I’m really looking forward to seeing performances from the team that make the rugby world stand up and take notice of what this team can do.”
McKenzie leads an inexperienced group and will be hoping to get off to a good start against her home nation on Sunday. Seina Saito is the most established of the group with 31 caps.
An eighth-place finish currently stands as Japan’s best result in a world cup and matching that will be a huge achievement.
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Feature image courtesy of World Rugby