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Awards Season is upon us: The WXV 1 nominees are in

By Claire Thomas
CORK, IRELAND: APRIL 1: Pauline Bourdon #9 of France is congratulated by teammates after scoring a try from her own charge down during the Ireland V France, Womens Six Nations Rugby match at Musgrave Park on April 1st, 2023, in Cork, Ireland. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

October is at the heart of many seasons. Autumn itself, Pumpkin Spice, Spooky, Knitwear, ‘I can’t believe Christmas displays are up already’, and – of course – Awards.

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The Grammys and Gothams are looming large, and Golden Globe and Oscar nominations are being mooted. Red carpet rental prices are approaching their dizzying annual peak, and Leonardo DiCaprio is suddenly everywhere.

In 2023, there’s another coveted gong to be collected, but by a woman in boots, rather than heels. She’ll probably make her acceptance speech with a gum guard shoved down one sock, as bruises form and a graze or two stings in the breeze.

Just like the Oscars, though – the performance will have required complete commitment, and her hair will also have taken hours of meticulous preparation in a hotel room. Look good, play good, after all.

This Autumn, the WXV1 trophy will be raised for the very first time – and the nominees are blockbuster. It’s time to cast our eyes over the runners and riders in the ‘Best Team in the Women’s Game’ category. In this instalment, we start with the world’s top three teams; England, New Zealand and France.

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1. England
Director: Louis Deacon (interim). The former Forwards Coach boasts an unblemished record, having kickstarted the post-Middleton era with two wins. He’ll be hoping to have gone five from five by the time he hands the rosy red baton over to John Mitchell, who’s in New Zealand in an ‘observation’ capacity.

Leading lady: Marlie Packer – with Zoe Aldcroft and Helena Rowland as vice-captains. In order: a wrecking ball, pickpocket extraordinaire, and emotional heartbeat; a line-out guru and tireless, canny grafter; and a softly-spoken playmaker and game breaker, who makes a mockery of defences for fun.

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Three very different, but very compelling, individuals – each of whom you’d follow into battle.

Recent accolades: Silver at the World Cup after a period of unprecedented dominance at Test level. Another Six Nations Grand Slam, sealed before a record crowd. Back-to-back wins over Canada in preparation.

Style notes: Remember when the narrative around the Red Roses was that they would just win penalties, hoof them to touch, and then maul sides to death? That’s gone now. They still produce slick set piece drills, and can outmuscle the vast majority of opponents – but there’s also deft handling and a sense of adventure, ball in hand, to be found one through 15 – and England’s backs just ooze class and threat.

Show runner: Holly Aitchison retains the keys at fly half, but she’s surrounded by other decision makers. Scrum-halves Mo Hunt and Ella Wyrwas aren’t afraid to take matters into their own hands, and the playbooks of Amber Reed, Meg Jones, and Rowland are encyclopaedic. You can’t be sure who’ll pull the trigger, when the Roses shape to attack: all you know is that someone will, and they rarely miss.

Rising star: I could honestly do a weekly column on the talents of Sophie Bridger and Maisy Allen: they’ve both got enormous international futures ahead of them, to go with the club, university, and age group accolades they’ve already amassed.

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It’s also worth keeping an eye on Daisy Hibbert-Jones, who’s gone a little under the radar – given how Loughborough Lightning struggled in last year’s Premiership – but is often compared to Sarah Hunter when I speak to coaches, which bodes pretty well…

2. New Zealand
Director: Allan Bunting, who replaced Wayne Smith this February, and has been intrinsic to the Black Ferns’ Sevens success over the past decade.

Leading ladies: When Smith asked Ruahei Demant to wear the arm band for a home World Cup, her first words were ‘are you being serious?’, and – when she then asked Kennedy Simon to be her co-captain, the forward asked ‘why me?’.

Both were stunned at the call-up, but have only flourished with the responsibility, and their styles complement one another superbly. Simon leads with her explosive, relentless actions – and Demant with her perennial calmness and world class game management.

Recent accolades: A sixth world title – secured in one of the best matches we’ve ever seen. A second, back-to-back, Pacific Four victory. A sevens programme which continues to conquer, having sewn up yet another World Series podium top spot by winning all but one event.

Style notes: Blistering pace, sevens conditioning, ravenous with turnover ball, and instinctive, fearless handling. Let’s not forget, though, that their gallop to World Cup glory included going toe-to-toe with the might of both Les Bleues and the Red Roses: they’ve grunt to go with the grace.

Show runner: Demant herself. She’s their most experienced player, scored four tries at the World Cup, was named player of the match in the final, and went on to scoop World Player of the Year for 2022. Talismanic.

Rising star: Everyone loves a bit of nominative determinism, and who doesn’t love a runaway train of a centre? Welcome to the floor teenage midfield sensation, currently being mentored by Ma’a Nonu himself, Silvia Brunt.

Player of the match against Australia in the first O’Reilly Cup test – with two tries and a bucketload of impressive involvements – she’s a force of nature, and should be a household name in no time.

3. France
Directors: Legendary Bleues hooker and captain Gaëlle Mignot, alongside former Agen and age grade coach, David Ortiz – who were assistants at the World Cup before being handed the reins.

Some of their work’s been eye-catching already: dropping skipper Gaëlle Hermet for the first few rounds of the Six Nations, whatever they said at half-time at Twickenham to spark that thrilling fightback, and their scouting missions at recent age group tournaments – scouring rucks and back lines for uncut sapphires. The prep’s well underway for 2025.

Leading lady: Manaé Feleu. At just 23, and with only nine caps, the lock has enjoyed a meteoric trajectory. I interviewed her post-match in Biella, after Italy had stunned France in a frenetic World Cup warm-up, and she spoke impressively – with a quiet confidence but real intensity.

Recent accolades: Bronze (again) at the World Cup, and then second (again) in the Six Nations.

Style notes: Whenever Les Bleues play, you feel you should be armed with both a bowl of popcorn and a cushion to hide behind. Physicality in abundance, moments of maverick play-making, some truly top-drawer midfield operators, and a back line of arch predators whose surnames all seem to start with ‘B’.

Show runner: La Petite Generale Pauline Bourdon Sansus – who was world class already, and will now prove literally uncontainable if able to harness the scrum-halving abilities of both of her surnames, now that she’s married former France star, Laure Sansus.

Rising stars: There’s a colossal amount of talent in this squad, but this one’s going to the two young fly-halves, Lina Queyroi and Carla Arbez – who’re both razor sharp, and play the sort of intuitive rugby which makes you reach for both the popcorn *and* the pillow.

Now, admittedly, The Godfather Part II and The Return of the King are the only two sequels to have ever won Oscars – but a good cliffhanger is a cinematic staple, and Alfred Hitchcock loved suspense almost as much as this column’s editor loves me scraping beneath my word limit, so this one’s going to be a two-parter. Hopefully you enjoyed the first instalment.

WXV1: Oh – But There’s More is coming soon…

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9 Comments
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Poe 270 days ago

Got the order wrong Claire. Best teams are NZ England and France. In that order.

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Jon 34 minutes ago
How Maro Itoje terrorised the All Blacks lineout

Yeah England were much smarter, they put their much vaster experience to use in both the scrum (bending/not taking hit) and lineout (Itoje early sacks) law vagaries. Really though, I know what is there, I’m more worried about Englands locks. We only got to see Itoje and Martin, right? Depth allround in the England camp was probably the difference in the series and the drop off when Itoje reached his minutes limit for the season (it was like the plug was pulled from the charger) was up there with keeping Sexton on the park in that quarter final. What happened there? You have a lot of watching hours experience with locks come blindsides Nick, especially with a typical Australian player make up, have you see a six the size of Barrett absolutely dominate the position and his opposition? I can easily see Scott, and even Martin for that matter, moving to the blindside and playing like Tadgh Beirne with the amount of top locks we have coming through to partner Patrick. Still with the English mindset, because despite running the best All Black team I’ve seen in a long time close, they do need to find improvement, and although I thought they had a lot of good performances from their 7’s (over the years), I really like the prospect of Cunningham-South in his 8 spot and Earl on the open. Can you see Martin as mobile enough to take over Lawes? I absolutely loved his aggression when Jordie ran upto him to try and grab the ball. That alone is enough reason for me to try him there.

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FEATURE Mick Cleary: 'There is now a clear sense of identity about this England team.' Mick Cleary: 'There is now a clear sense of identity about this England team.'
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