A small step for Ireland, a giant leap for women’s rugby

The Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 kicks-off today with all eyes on Ireland as it hosts the tournament for the first time.

Tom Tierney’s side are bidding for global glory alongside 11 other teams in what is being seen as the most hotly-contested competition ever to be played in the women’s game. So with the action just around the corner, what is the format? Which team is favourite to come out on top? How will Ireland fare? And who are the star players set to thrill our home crowds? Here, the Irish Examiner answers all the key questions for you...

How long does the tournament run for?

The opening games of the Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 begin today with four matches. A little over two weeks later, on August 26, the final will be held at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast.

How many teams are taking part and how do the pool stages look?

There are 12 teams split into three pools of four. Hosts Ireland are in Pool C and face a tough draw alongside Australia, France and Japan. Admittedly the opposition for Tierney’s side could be tougher — they have avoided England, New Zealand and Canada — but Pool C is set to go down to the wire. Both New Zealand and Canada — ranked second and third in the world respectively — are in Pool A alongside Wales and minnows Hong Kong. Defending champions England are likely to top Pool B with Italy, Spain and the USA looking to keep on their heels. Each team plays each other once in the pool stages to determine the seedings for the next round of fixtures.

What’s the format after the pool stages?

Once the pool stages are done and dusted, the winners from each group and the runner-up with the highest points total will make it straight through to the semi-finals where they will compete for a place in the last two. It’s not quite as simple as just that though, because the remaining countries will still have fixtures to play despite not being in contention to lift the trophy. Play-off games will decide whether they end up competing for fifth to eighth place or ninth to last. It sounds complicated but is essentially a replica of the format used in the Sevens World Series. In simple terms, it means each country is guaranteed to play five matches irrespective of whether they finish top or bottom of their initial pool.

When are Ireland’s matches?

Ireland begin their tournament against Australia today at 7pm. They then face Japan on August 13 before finishing up against France on August 17. Regardless of where they end up finishing in their pool, Ireland’s last two matches — like all the other teams involved — will be on August 22 and then August 26. It means that each team can plan their build-up to a degree because the pool stages present a very short turnaround between games. Fitness and squad depth is sure to be tested to the full.

Where are the games played?

The pool stage games will be hosted at University College Dublin across two separate grounds, Billings Park and UCD Bowl. From there, the competition will switch to Belfast to maximise its exposure. Play-off matches will be played at Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster’s Kingspan Stadium respectively, with the semi-finals, final and Ireland’s play-off games also at the latter.

What are Ireland’s chances of success?

Ireland head coach Tierney was handed a huge blow last week with the news influential captain Niamh Briggs will miss the tournament due to an Achilles injury. It continues Briggs’ run of bad luck because the full-back was also forced to sit out the Six Nations with a hamstring problem. She had recovered from that initial blow to be named as Ireland skipper, but suffered Achilles woe in training.

It was a hammer blow to Ireland’s chances, but Tierney’s side are about more than just one player and should at least be capable of competing for a semi-final spot. Their opener against a young but fast and dangerous Australia side will be a crunch encounter. Beat The Wallaroos and they can face France and Japan with confidence.

There’s not much to choose between France and Ireland based on the 2017 Six Nations, but with the likes of playmaker Nora Stapleton, Sene Naoupu and Hannah Tyrrell behind the scrum, the hosts should look to run a big France side around the pitch. Two wins from three could well be enough for a semi-final spot and from there, who knows what could happen?

SeneNaoupu
Sene Naoupu

Who are Ireland’s best players?

Ireland impressed in the Six Nations and were only denied the title by losing their Grand Slam decider with England on the final weekend. Out-half Stapleton and wing Tyrell produced stand-out displays, but it’s powerful back Naoupu who could cause some real damage, especially if given a platform from the forwards inside her. In the pack, prop Lindsay Peat will have a big role to play if her team are to achieve success.

Who are the tournament favourites?

England are the defending champions and have had the luxury of preparing for the tournament as a fully professional side. They are the odds-on favourites to lift the trophy once again, but their build-up has also been hit by the news their full-time funding for the 15-a-side game will be scrapped come the end of the tournament. The controversial decision has become a huge talking point and who knows, it could yet impact on their performances on the field.

If they can put that to one side, England should still come out on top having beaten New Zealand in impressive fashion and away from home earlier this summer. The Black Ferns have won four World Cup titles and have the best pedigree on paper, but Canada aren’t far behind. They faced England in the 2014 final and although unsuccessful, have designs on going one better this time with their entertaining brand of rugby.

Of the rest, France are a powerful side who take some stopping with their giant pack. Behind the scrum, though, there are worries as to whether they have what it takes. Australia, Wales, and the USA all have dangerous backs, but perhaps lack the required ballast up front. Any soft underbelly is sure to be quickly exposed at this tournament. It would be a huge surprise if the eventual winner was not one of England, New Zealand, or Canada.

The Women’s Rugby World Cup trophy.Picture: Sportsfile
The Women’s Rugby World Cup trophy.Picture: Sportsfile

Can I still buy tickets?

Interest in the tournament has been high and Ireland’s pool stage matches are completely sold out. There are still tickets available for the other games in the first round of the tournament plus the latter stages.

Tickets can be purchased at rwcwomens.com/tickets

If I can’t make it to the ground, can I watch on TV?

Yes. Ireland’s games will all be broadcast on eir Sport, RTÉ and ITV. You will also be able to watch some matches on a live stream via the internet, depending on your location.

For more information, go to rwcwomens.com/ where-to-watch.

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