Source: ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

The Final Barrier – European Qualifiers for the World Cup

  • +1

On 13 September players from four nations, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Spain, will be assembling in Parma for an unusually dramatic and tense series of matches. They will decide who has the right to qualify direct for the World Cup in a year’s time, and who as runner-up will move on to a repechage. Given Europe’s overall ranking strength, it’s likely both will make it to New Zealand.

The good news for all of them is that the pandemic has loosened its grip on sporting life sufficiently for them to be able to resume full-scale practice.

The round-robin format amounts to a series of knock-out fixtures; teams simply cannot afford to lose any of their three games. It brings challenges that international players rarely meet. Even at a World Cup teams can win through to the knock-out stages after suffering an early defeat. Now the margins are much tighter.

Here’s a look at the four squads and how they are progressing:

Italy’s Squad (28)

Manuela Furlan (captain, Arredissima Villorba, 78 caps)
Beatrice Rigoni (Valsugana Rugby Padua, 46 caps)
Michela Sillari (Valsugana Rugby Padua, 60 caps)
Emma Stevanin (Valsugana Rugby Padua, uncapped)
Alyssa D’Inca (Arredissima Villorba, 1 cap)
Giordana Duca (Valsugana Rugby Padova, 21 caps)
Valeria Fedrighi (Stade Toulousain, 25 caps)
Isabella Locatelli (Rugby Monza 1949, 25 caps)
Sara Tounesi (ASM Romagnat, 18 caps)
Ilaria Arrighetti (Stade Rennais, 48 caps)
Giada Franco (Rugby Colorno, 18 caps)
Elisa Giordano (Valsugana Rugby Padova, 46 caps)
Francesca Sgorbini (ASM Romagnat, 8 caps)
Beatrice Veronese (Valsugana Rugby Padova, 6 caps )
Lucia Gai (Valsugana Rugby Padova, 73 caps)
Gaia Maris (Valsugana Rugby Padova, 3 caps)
Michela Merlo (Rugby Colorno, 9 caps)
Sara Seye (Rugby Calvisano, uncapped)
Francesca Granzotto (Arredissima Villorba, uncapped)
Maria Magatti (CUS Milano, 36 caps)
Aura Muzzo (Arredissima Villorba, 17 caps)
Vittoria Ostnuni Minuzzi (Valsugana Rugby Padova, 6 caps)
Melissa Bettoni (Stade Rennais, 61 caps)
Lucia Cammarano (Rugby Belve Neroverdi, 27 caps)
Vittoria Vecchini (Valsugana Rugby Padova)
Sara Barattin (Arredissima Villorba, 98 caps)
Sofia Stefan (Valsugana Rugby Padova, 59 caps)
Veronica Madia (Rugby Colorno, 22 caps)

Andrea Di Giandomenico has been forced into two late changes: Lucia Cammarano cannot avoid work commitments and Sara Tounesi is injured. Emanuela Stecca (Arredissima Villorba, uncapped) replaces Cammarano; Giulia Cerato (Valsugana Rugby Padova, 5 caps) takes Tounesi’s place. Cammarano’s misfortune is a stark reminder that amateur status reigns supreme in women’s rugby.

They must be strongly fancied to win through, and not just because of home advantage. They rank highest and have good records against their opponents

The squad has moved into accommodation in Parma, where they will undergo the usual health checks before entering yet another bubble.

Ireland’s Squad (28)

Enya Breen (UL Bohemian/Munster, 6 caps)
Eimear Considine (UL Bohemian/Munster, 18)
Kathryn Dane (Old Belvedere/Ulster, 13)
Lauren Delany (Sale Sharks/IQ Rugby, 14)
Stacey Flood (Railway Union/Leinster, 3)
Eve Higgins (Railway Union/Leinster, 3)
Emily Lane (Blackrock College/Munster, 3)
Ailsa Hughes (Railway Union/Leinster, 12)
Lucy Mulhall (Rathdrum/Leinster, uncapped)
Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe (Railway Union/Munster, 2)
Sene Naoupu (Old Belvedere/Leinster, 41)
Beibhinn Parsons (Ballinasloe/Blackrock College/Connacht, 11)
Mary Healy (Naas RFC/Leinster, uncapped)
Linda Djougang (Old Belvedere/Leinster, 12)
Laura Feely (Blackrock College/Connacht, 19)
Nichola Fryday (Blackrock College/Connacht, 18)
Ciara Griffin (UL Bohemian/Munster, captain, 36)
Brittany Hogan (DCU/Old Belvedere/Ulster, 4)
Neve Jones (Malone/Ulster, 3)
Leah Lyons (Sale/IQ Rugby, 26)
Aoife McDermott (Railway Union/ Leinster, 16)
Edel McMahon (Wasps/IQ Rugby, 9)
Claire Molloy (Wasps/IQ Rugby, 71)
Cliodhna Moloney (Wasps/IQ Rugby, 26)
Sam Monaghan (Wasps/IQ Rugby, uncapped)
Katie O’Dwyer (Railway Union/Leinster, 3)
Lindsay Peat (Railway Union/Leinster, 34)
Dorothy Wall (Blackrock College/Munster, 7)

The three uncapped players include Lucy Mulhall, Ireland’s 7s captain, and Sam Monaghan, who appeared in the second row for Wasps last season. The third is Mary Healy, not the Connaught scrum-half but the Leinster prop.

Adam Griggs’ choice of backs looks distinctly promising. Both Stacey Flood (fly-half) and Amee-Leigh Murphy Crowe (wing) have stayed with Fifteens after starring in the Sevens squad. With characters like Eimear Considine, Lauren Delany and Beibhinn Parsons available, opposition defences could face some disconcerting pace.

The squad atmosphere is confident, helped by recent results diminished only by a roasting at home from France.

Scotland’s Squad (28)

Abi Evans (Darlington Mowden Park)
Chloe Rollie (Exeter Chiefs)
Christine Belisle (Cartha Queens Park)
Emma Wassell (Loughborough Lightning)
Eva Donaldson (Edinburgh University)
Evie Gallagher (Stirling County)
Evie Wills (Stirling County)
Hannah Smith (Watsonians)
Helen Nelson (Loughborough Lightning)
Jade Konkel (Harlequins)
Jenny Maxwell (Loughborough Lightning)
Katie Dougan (Hillhead Jordanhill)
Lana Skeldon (Unattached)
Leah Bartlett (Loughborough Lightning)
Lisa Cockburn (Darlington Mowden Park)
Lisa Thomson (Unattached)
Liz Musgrove (Unattached)
Louise McMillan (Hillhead Jordanhill)
Mairi McDonald (Hillhead Jordanhill)
Megan Gaffney (Heriot’s)
Molly Wright (Watsonians)
Rachel Malcolm (Loughborough Lightning)
Rachel McLachlan (Unattached)
Rachel Shankland (Stirling County)
Rhona Lloyd (Stade Bordelais)
Sarah Bonar (Harlequins)
Sarah Law (Unattached)
Siobhan Cattigan (Stirling County)

There is plenty of good news for the Scots. The skipper, Rachel Malcolm, is restored to health. Jade Konkel, is available again after her training programme with the London Fire Brigade, likewise Sarah Bonar, now an RAF officer. They add considerable strength and quality to the pack, Eva Donaldson, a flanker from Edinburgh, is one uncapped addition.

The squad came into a final training session at Oriam, the National Sports Performance Centre south of Edinburgh, on 6 September.
Scotland’s chances have risen markedly over the past year. They have put in fine performances against France and England and seen off Wales. It’s questionable whether they can put together a sequence of victories under the severe pressure they will face, but they have been buoyed by those results.

Spain’s Squad (30)

Laura Delgado
Saioa Jaurena
Margarita Rodriguez
Maika Brust
Marta Estelles
Isabel Rico
Sidorella Bracic
Cristina Blanco
Lourdes Alameda
Monica Castelo
Anna Puig
Carmen Castellucci
Maria Calvo
Paula Medin
Olivia Fresneda
Carmen Rodera
Lucia Diaz
Anna Fernandes de Corres
Patricia Garcia Rodriguez
Ines Bueso-Inchausti
Eva Aguirre
Amalia Argudo
Amala Erbina
Paula Requena
Maria Garcia
Uribarri Barrutieta
Aisa Vinuesa
Bea Dominguez
Iera Echebarria
Lea Ducher

José Antonio Barrio has included two uncapped players, Bracic and Ducher.

Las Leonas must go into the tournament as the rank outsiders, due solely to lack of competition at the highest level. Beyond the 6 Nations they are by far the strongest nation in Europe and have made regular appearances at the World Cup. But in recent times they have met only Scotland of their three rivals in Parma.

They gathered in Madrid on 27 August for Covid testing then training. On the 30th they travelled to Toulouse to play a series of practice matches against Stade Toulousain, then returned home for more training. They move to Parma on 10 September.

Cautious Predictions

This promises to be a competition to savour. The stakes are high; there is a galaxy of outstanding players due to take part. It’s hard to predict outcomes, but as the host nation and highest ranked Italy must start as favourites. The likeliest side to dispute first place with them is Ireland. Keep your money safe.