One month out from Rugby World Cup 2021, England, USA, France and Italy will take to the field this weekend in readiness for the tournament in New Zealand.
England play USA in Exeter in what is a repeat of the inaugural women’s Rugby World Cup final in 1991, while two more historical adversaries in France and Italy come together in Nice.
Simon Middleton’s Red Roses go into their first match since wrapping up the TikTok Women’s Six Nations title in April knowing that they will set a new record winning run of 24 matches with victory at Sandy Park.
England last tasted defeat in July 2019, losing 28-13 to New Zealand in the Women’s Rugby Super Series in San Diego, USA.
Given the disparity between the teams in the World Rugby Women’s Rankings powered by Capgemini (England are number one and USA are fifth), and the fact that England won by a record score of 89-0 when they last met in November, anything other than a home win would be a huge shock.
USA go into the match having beaten Scotland 21-17 in Edinburgh last weekend. But in 20 previous meetings against England, the Women’s Eagles have only won once (in the RWC 1991 final), so history is against them.
Even if they end their 31-year wait for a second win in the fixture, it is not possible for them to climb the rankings because Canada have too big an advantage over them in fourth.
An England win would not have any impact either because they won’t pick up any rating points in victory as a result of the 18.41 rating points differential between themselves and the Women’s Eagles.
Scarratt leads England
Simon Middleton, World Rugby Coach of the Year 2021, has named an England team with 474 caps.
Centurion Emily Scarratt captains the side from midfield and is one of only five players to retain their place in the starting XV from the team that took to the field in the Women’s Six Nations finale against France in Bayonne.
Scarrett is joined again in the backs by Zoe Harrison and Jess Breach, who switches wings, while loose forward Zoe Aldcroft, the World Rugby Women’s 15s Player of the Year 2021, and number eight Poppy Cleal remain in the pack, although Aldcroft wears six on her back instead of four on this occasion.
Tatyana Heard starts inside Scarratt at 12 for her first England appearance since February 2019.
“We’re really looking forward to this weekend’s game at Sandy Park in front of what’s set to be another big crowd,” said Middleton.
“The team have had a brilliant period of preparation since the start of July, the longest run-in we’ve had in pre-season, and have worked tirelessly to ensure we’re in the best possible place.
“This is a really important game for everyone selected in the matchday 23. Sometimes in sport opportunities are limited and with just two matches before the tournament in New Zealand this is one of those occasions, so it’s important that individually and collectively this team performs to their best on Saturday afternoon.
“We know the USA are a strong side and performed well against Scotland last week.
“There is always a fantastic atmosphere down here in Devon and we hope to put on a show.”
Azzurre out to end barren run
The only team that can climb the rankings this weekend is Italy. Win in Nice and Italy will climb one place to fifth at the expense of USA – as long as the Women’s Eagles are beaten by England.
A win against Les Bleues on French soil has so far proved beyond the Azzurre in 10 previous attempts though, and in five of the last seven encounters, they have failed to register a single point.
It is not possible for France to improve their rating with victory over Italy due to the 11.22 rating points between the sides before home weighting is factored in.
France coach Thomas Darracq has made three personnel and three positional changes since their last outing against England in April, including a test debut for Charlotte Escudero on the blindside.
Meanwhile, the hugely experienced Pauline Bourdon returns from injury to cover the scrum-half position from the bench, having missed the whole of the Women's Six Nations 2022.
Sara Barattin, Italy’s most-capped player with 106 tests, links up with Beatrice Rigoni at half-back in an Italian team showing five changes of personnel and one positional change. Emma Stevanin could make her test debut for the Azzurre off the bench