FIVE years have passed since the last women’s Rugby World Cup was held, but in that time the sport has evolved by light years. Or at least, that is what the organisers and the 12 participating teams hope will become evident when the tournament kicks off in New Zealand in the early hours of tomorrow [Saturday] British time.

There are strong arguments in favour of having 16 teams in the finals, not least that it would avoid the prizes-for-nearly-everyone approach that will see only four sides eliminated at the pool stage this time round. But at least this year’s format ensures a real concentration of talent: of the dozen nations who have qualified, ten are ranked in the world’s top 12, with Japan just outside and Fiji the only real outliers. That should ensure more close games than ever.

A levelling-up was also in evidence in some elements of the convoluted qualifying tournaments. Scotland, for example, reached their first World Cup since 2010 thanks initially to a couple of narrow wins over Spain and Ireland, two teams who remain very close to them in the world rankings. 

Bryan Easson’s team then went on to the repechage final, where they beat Colombia 59-3 in a display of the sort of consummate professionalism that they - and every other team in the tournament - will need to show if they are to do themselves justice over the next month or so. They are certainly better prepared than ever before, thanks in large part to the funding from Scottish Rugby that has enabled them to train as full-time professionals over the past few months.

Most of the other teams have similar arrangements in place, while England have been effectively fully professional since January 2019, when the RFU handed out 28 full-time contracts. Given that level of support and the size of their player pool, it is no surprise that England are world-ranked No 1 and go into this tournament on the back of a record 25 consecutive Test-match victories. 

England are not the champions - they lost the 2017 final to New Zealand - but that remarkable run of results has established them as the pre-eminent team in world rugby. The question to be answered over the next few weeks is whether any of their rivals can come close to bridging the substantial gulf that has opened up between England and the rest.

“I think we’re really moving in the right direction in terms of professionalism,” is Scotland prop Leah Bartlett’s answer to that question. “They’ve just had such a huge head start. 

“It’s going to be a lot of hard work to close that gap, but with more and more teams becoming professional and being given quality time together as a squad and prioritising grass-roots level as well  . . . I think it will be something that will just come with time.

“We’ve had a lot of time together that otherwise we wouldn’t have had - it’s been a crucial time in terms of developing coming into this tournament. It’s been hugely beneficial coming into the tournament and having had that contact time with each other.”

Scotland are in Pool A alongside New Zealand, Australia and Wales, and at 10th in the world are the lowest-ranked of the quartet. But, with the top two from each of the three pools and also the two best-placed third teams going through to the quarter-finals, they may need only one win and a losing bonus point or two from their three pool games. 

They kick off their campaign on Sunday against Wales, who beat them 24-19 in Cardiff back in April. It was a game that the visitors could and arguably should have won, as centre Lisa Thomson remembers well.   

“I think we learned a lot about ourselves down there,” she says. “We were in that game for 60 or 70 minutes and we created a lot of opportunities which we just didn’t finish off. We’ve been working a lot on how to beat them."

Head coach Easson announces his squad for that match this morning British time. Scotland then play Australia on Saturday 15 before finishing their pool games with a match against the hosts on Saturday 22.


Pool A

New Zealand (world ranking 2)

Australia (7)

Wales (9)

Scotland (10)

Pool B

Canada (3)

USA (6)

Italy (5)

Japan (13)

Pool C

England (1)

France (4)

South Africa (11)

Fiji (21)

RWC First weekend fixtures (kick-offs in British time - 12 hours behind New Zealand)

Saturday 8 (all three games at Eden Park, Auckland):

South Africa v France 2.15am

Fiji v England 4.45am

Australia v New Zealand 7.15am

Sunday 9 (all three games at Northland Events Centre, Whangarei)

USA v Italy (12.45am)

Japan v Canada (3.15am)

Wales v Scotland (5.45am)