Rugby World Cup 2021 continues in Auckland and Whangārei this weekend, and every match is crucial in the race for place in the quarter-finals.
The showpiece tournament kicked off in style last weekend as hosts New Zealand and Wales earned victories in Pool A, Canada and Italy won their respective matches in Pool B and France and England did likewise in Pool C.
In a quirk of the fixture schedule, those teams will play each other on Saturday and Sunday, while Australia, Scotland, Japan, the USA, Fiji and South Africa have an opportunity to kickstart their RWC 2021 campaigns.
On Saturday, England put their triumphant start to RWC 2021, and 26-match winning streak on the line when they take on France at the Northland Events Centre in Whangārei at 20:00 local time (GMT+13).
Les Bleues have not beaten the Red Roses since March 2018, losing each of the teams’ last 10 meetings.
Six of those defeats have been by six points or fewer, however, and England prop Sarah Bern insists her team-mates cannot read too much into recent results.
“France are an extremely good side,” Bern told World Rugby. “Everything that we do and what we decide to do, we've got to make sure that we're really clear on it and we do it as well as we can.
“Anything could happen against France. They play some lovely rugby, and they're very strong carriers and they have a very good set piece.
“So, it's basically just down to us making sure we all do our jobs as well as we can. And I know that sounds really cliche, but in games like this, that's where those one per cents really make a difference.”
Red Roses coach Simon Middleton has made only one change to his matchday 23 as Marlie Packer returns at openside flanker.
Captain Sarah Hunter will become the joint most-capped England player of all time in Whangārei, drawing level with Rocky Clark on 137 caps.
France have also made one change to their team, following victory against South Africa in round one, as Agathe Sochat returns at hooker.
Gaëlle Hermet is only fit enough for a place on the replacements’ bench, alongside the returning Safi N’Diaye and Marine Ménager, meaning Céline Ferer continues to captain the side.
Australia, Scotland target first win
Saturday’s action at the Northland Events Centre gets underway at 15:00 local time (GMT+13) when Scotland take on Australia in Pool A.
Both teams suffered agonising defeats on the opening weekend and will be keen to get their push for a quarter-final berth back on track with victory in Whangārei.
Scotland coach Bryan Easson has made two personnel changes to his starting line-up as Rachel McLachlan and Emma Orr come in, and Hannah Smith shifts onto the left wing.
Australia have also kept a largely settled side for Saturday’s match as Eva Karpani comes in at tighthead prop and Maya Stewart takes the number 11 jersey from Ivania Wong.
The teams have met twice previously at the tournament, at RWC 1998 and RWC 2002, with the Wallaroos winning on both occasions. Australia head into the match three places higher than Scotland in the World Rugby Women’s Rankings powered by Capgemini.
“We want to try and start the same way as we did against the Black Ferns,” Wallaroos coach Jay Tregonning said.
“There’s a few changes we’ve made in this team that strengthen our ball-carrying capabilities in the forwards and we’re definitely looking to replicate it.”
Scotland captain Rachel Malcolm said: “The Wallaroos are an athletic side. They are fit, fast, big and physical. It’s about how we stay in the game.”
Zackary “excited” to face Japan
Two more teams looking for their first win of RWC 2021 are the USA and Japan, who meet in Pool B at Northland Events Centre at 17:30 local time (GMT+13) on Saturday.
USA coach Rob Cain has rung the changes to the Women’s Eagles team that lost 22-10 to Italy last weekend, bringing seven players into his starting line-up.
Charli Jacoby starts at tighthead prop, while Kristine Sommer and Evelyn Ashenbrucker form the second row and Kathryn Johnson is selected at blindside flanker.
In the backs, Olivia Ortiz starts at scrum-half, Tess Feury lines up on the left wing, while Meya Bizer is selected at full-back and Alev Kelter switches to inside centre.
"[We’re] looking ahead to this weekend, just really excited for another opportunity to stake our claim for a quarter-final,” USA captain Kate Zackary said.
“I’m really proud of the work the squad has put in since Italy and really excited to roll that out against Japan this weekend."
Japan coach Lesley McKenzie has made five changes from the 41-5 defeat to Canada, two of them positional.
Hooker Kotomi Taniguchi will make both her first test start and Rugby World Cup debut having been handed the number two jersey, while Kyoko Hosokawa has been named at openside flanker. As a result, Seina Saito moves to number eight while Iroha Nagata shifts to blindside flanker.
The only other change to the Sakura 15s starting line-up comes in the centres, where Minori Yamamoto is promoted from the bench to start alongside Mana Furuta.
McKenzie said: “[USA] are going to be physical and they’re going to try and contain us, and we’re going to try to avoid that.
"They’ve picked a very big team – they have a history of picking big teams – and if we want to compete in a World Cup we’ve obviously got to be able to deal with that.”
Round two continues at Waitakere Stadium
Sunday’s action at the sold-out Waitakere Stadium in Auckland will kick-off at 12:45 local time (GMT+13) with the mouthwatering match between Italy and Canada in Pool B.
It will be the first time the teams have met at Rugby World Cup since the inaugural tournament in 1991, when the Canadians won the plate semi-final 6-0.
Canada captain Sophie de Goede’s mum, Stephanie White, lined up at number eight in that match but a more reliable indicator of how this encounter will play out can be found in the sides’ meeting in Langford in July.
On that occasion, the hosts outscored the Azzurre by five tries to four as they secured a 34-24 victory at Starlight Stadium.
A repeat in Auckland could seal a place in the quarter-finals – depending on the outcome of the USA-Japan match – but Italy will want to pick up where they left off in the second half against the Women’s Eagles and have designs on the last eight themselves.
Next up at Waitakere Stadium, the Black Ferns will hope to take another step towards the quarter-finals as they meet Wales for the fourth consecutive tournament.
Current squad members Stacey Fluhler, Renee Wickliffe and Portia Woodman each scored tries, while Kendra Cocksedge added two conversions, as New Zealand beat Wales 44-12 during the RWC 2017 pool stage.
A similar result in front of a capacity crowd would almost certainly seal the hosts’ qualification for the quarter-finals.
Wales will be without flanker Alisha Butchers, who has been ruled out of RWC 2021 with a serious knee injury sustained in the 18-15 victory against Scotland, but Ioan Cunningham has an experienced squad determined to make their mark on New Zealand’s North Island.
Round two will draw to a close with a match that has never been played before, Fiji against South Africa.
Both teams kicked off their RWC 2021 campaigns with defeat, against England and France respectively, but they each came away from Eden Park with positives as well as disappointment.
Not many teams breach the England defence as regularly as the Fijiana did last Saturday, while the Springbok Women frustrated Les Bleues for large parts of the opening match.
Whoever comes out on top at Waitakere Stadium on Sunday, kick-off 17:45 local time (GMT+13), will have done their hopes of making the quarter-finals no harm at all. A place in the last eight would be a momentous achievement for either side.