A tournament dominated by four-time champions New Zealand and coveted by thrice runners-up England is hosted by France.
A tournament dominated by four-time champions New Zealand and coveted by thrice runners-up England heads to France this month.
While Sweden and Scotland have fallen to the wayside since 2010, Spain and Samoa are the new faces. A straightforward seeding system in the round-robin format will leave some room for error, before a relatively complex second stage will separate the women from the girls.
Pool A: Canada, England, Samoa, Spain
If England are the perennial bridesmaids, Canada are the begrudging flower girls, having completed three successive fourth-place finishes in 1998, 2002 and 2006. Not strong enough for a podium finish yesteryear, the Canucks will chase stronger amid formidable placement in a pool completed by the inexperienced Samoa and Spain. The return to fitness of centre Mandy Marchak has come as a particular boost.
A lot will be demanded of an England women's team no longer in the infancy of a semi-professional era. Led by captain Katy McLean, this bunch of reception teachers and administrative workers will insist there is more to the country's rugby than the men's game. A solid 2014 Six Nations campaign will certainly facilitate momentum against Spain, but potential banana peels await against spirited Spanish and Canadian outfits.
The Pacific nations' lone representative in France, Samoa graduated to the tournament proper on the back of a hard-fought qualifying victory of the Netherlands in Madrid last year. Equally as beefy as some of their male counterparts' backline, the Samoans will take a formidable pack of forwards into fixtures each as important as the last. A World Cup best of ninth position, in 2002, will surely be bettered.
While the bulk of Spain is still smarting from a premature exit at the Football World Cup, captain Marina Bravo and company can console in a considerably lesser known sport. A fourth-place finish in the Women's World Cup Sevens last year showed there is more to come from the Mediterranean chiccas.
1 August: Canada v Spain
1 August: England v Samoa
5 August: England v Spain
5 August: Canada v Samoa
9 August: Spain v Samoa
9 August: England v Canada
Pool B: Ireland, Kazakhstan, New Zealand, USA
Having outdone most at almost every turn, including a 59-nil whitewash over Scotland during January through March's Six Nations, Ireland are hardly damaged damsels. While positive, public wishes from popular Irish politicians Enda Kenny and Joan Burton bode well for camaraderie, the distracting glitz and glamour of Paris must be negated in arguably the second toughest pool.
Kazakhstan are getting the game very right, after qualifying ahead of Scotland – and other bigger rugby nations. This is not their first time at the showpiece – and a convincing victory over Japan in the ARFU Women's XV Tournament hammered home a telling message of intent from Asia's only representative. The Kazakhstan Rugby Union, in fact, expressed plenty of interest in hosting this year's event, but were ultimately overlooked. Fondly known as The Nomads, the Pool B underdogs are the neutrals' favourite.
All powerful, all conquering, the female variant of the All Blacks – the Black Ferns – seem unstoppable on the back of a whopping four successive titles. Head coach Brian Evans' job is made considerably easier by a squad saturated with veritable superstars of the burgeoning game. 2010 playmaker Carla Hohepa is no longer around, though, leaving the talented and in-form Kelly Brazier to front the big stage. As many as six straight defeats to traditional rivals England in 2011 and 2012, however, suggest the tide is turning. The brazen Black Ferns, characteristically, will beg to differ.
Not content with all but owning basketball, baseball, the NFL and other typically Yankee sports, the USA will continue to have a finger in the women's rugby pie this month, too. Increasing budgets and the lure of European getaways have popularised the game again after a lengthy lull since the turn of the century. The highs of 1991's title-winning campaign – and runner-up finishes in 1994 and 1998 – beckon for a repeat.
1 August: New Zealand v Kazakhstan
1 August: USA v Ireland
5 August: USA v Kazakhstan
5 August: New Zealand v Ireland
9 August: Ireland v Kazakhstan
9 August: New Zealand v USA
Pool C: Australia, France, South Africa, Wales
Australia are brimming with buxom potential in the wake of the arrival of the beautiful Chloe Butler, who has forsaken the lingerie football league for a competition that certainly requires more clothing. The fit flanker will be ably supported by the remainder of a squad all too aware of an empty cabinet since 2010's third-place finish. Affectionately known as the Wallaroos, the blonde and the brunettes have June's defeats to New Zealand and Canada to quickly compensate.
Dogged by an unprecedented quartet of third-place finishes, now is the time for France to disregard the past and succeed in conditions and circumstances primed for French flair. With two world-class venues at Marcoussis and Stade Jean Bouin at their disposal, the tournament hosts cannot lay blame on the facilities – as their football counterparts have been known to do in the past. The squad and indeed the game, unfortunately, will be robbed of the entertainment provided by the veteran Marie-Alice Yahe. She was forced to retire in May after several concussions.
In arguably the greatest divide between the men's and women's game, the South Africa ladies have not achieved the lofty heights enjoyed by the Springboks, Junior Boks and Blitz Bokke. A couple of warm-up wins over Kazakhstan recently will boost confidence. But, really, plenty of near insurmountable difficulty awaits in a so-called 'pool of death'.
Opportunity will knock for coach coach Rhys Edwards to call to order a young Wales squad in France. Disappointing in 2002 and 2010 and controversially ousted in 2006, anything higher than an eighth-place finish will probably suffice for a burgeoning collective. While the bulk of the 26-strong squad's income lies with English clubs, heart and soul remains in Cardiff and surrounds. That patriotic gusto will, no doubt, be inspiring.
1 August: Australia v South Africa
1 August: France v Wales
5 August: Australia v Wales
5 August: France v South Africa
9 August: Wales v South Africa
9 August: Australia v France
By Jonhenry Wilson