The latest version of this Pacific-border competition has a double edge: qualification for the next WXV and for the 2025 World Cup.
As the last series was held in Ottawa, Canada sit out as hosts this time. Games will take place in Australia, NZ and USA (see below). It’s just a pity that, as so often, venues cannot be confirmed at the same time.
The Black Ferns have twice been the winners. History tells us that is no surprise, but now we can’t be quite so sure. They suffered reverses at home in the WXV. Can they be sure of setting that to rights in the time available?
NZR has done the sensible thing by offering the squad an extended list of test matches, something they have been nagging about for ages. “If the All Blacks can have so many tests, why can’t we?” They play USA, Canada and Australia (twice) between 11 May and 14 July.
While those extra games will help their opponents too, all four matches take place in NZ, so you could argue that the odds haven’t shifted all that much. It will be rather like a cut-down variation of the last two tournaments to be held there, the RWC and WXV.
And Kiwi critics will note that the opposition offered doesn’t include the ones that really matter, France and England. News of another possible European tour still awaits.
We will soon learn how big a blow the Wallaroos’ loss in the Perth SVNS really was. The players are simply not used to losing.
Will Ireland’s triumph on the hosts’ patch have any effect on the well-being of the Wallaroos’ 15s squad? Jo Yapp may hope so. It is up to the Rugby Australia board to decide whether any adjustment to the support they give to the two codes is sensible. They have a new Director of High-Performance in place too, David Horne, so a new approach is possible.
The 15s’ showing at the WXV was remarkable. With a full-time coach in place, can they see their way to even more compelling results? Even neutrals must hope the answer is yes.
They too have a new head coach in place. Sione Fukofuka. His coaching experience has been mainly in Australia. He inherits a hard task; there is no simple way he can collect his best squad together to refine systems and accustom individual players to each other. Despite the presence of so many Eagles in the English PWR, that has not resulted in performances to equal the Maple Leafs.
Indeed, the sequence of USA-Canada matches has become nearly as one-sided as O’Reilly Cup games between the cross-Tasman nations. There lies a basic weakness of their position: not enough regular test matches, and those that do happen bring all-too-ready setbacks.
The Eagles were reduced to WVX 2 last year; their fifth position out of six must be seen as a huge disappointment.
Also last November USA Rugby put a new Head of Women’s High Performance in place, Brandon Sparks. We can only hope that these two new appointments lead to a return to the Eagles’ once prominent position. It’s long overdue – indeed 33 years overdue.
The Maple Leafs offer the Eagles the example of what can be achieved from a very similar starting-point. They finished an honourable second in the WXV. They have similar numbers of players involved in the PWR, but perhaps crucially, in Elite 1 in France too. Those Quebec players tend to be backs, precisely where, to my mind, the Eagles lag behind.
The Canadian 7s squad has just finished seventh at the Perth SVNS, so they still manage to keep two plates spinning in the air at the same time. Next stop Vancouver. But the 15s squad will have eyes only on the 27 April and a run to the latest stages of the RWC in London.
Canada’s women still lie far ahead of their menfolk in world rankings. Now which other nation can claim that?
Saturday, 27 April USA v Canada
Saturday, 11 May New Zealand v USA; Australia v Canada
Friday, 17 May Australia v USA
Sunday, 19 May New Zealand v Canada
These games look a little lop-sided (they don’t all appear three times), but we must remember that NZ and Oz play an annual two-way for the O’Reilly Cup as follows:
NZ v Australia, Saturday 25 May, (presented by Ryman Healthcare)
Australia v NZ, Sunday 14 July
Sponsorship can bring its own humorous ripostes. Won’t Ryman Healthcare be advising players strongly against playing such a rough game? What about their complexion?
More seriously, as I hinted above, the Wallaroos are still hunting for a first grasp of that distinguished trophy.