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Nominees for ‘Best Team in the World’ continued: A WXV Preview

By Claire Thomas
England Women v Canada Women – Two-Test Series – Second Test – StoneX Stadium

Welcome back from that brief intermission. We hope you did something fun – like watching a supercut of Alisha Butchers highlights, reading a chapter or two of Rikki Swannell’s Sevens Sisters, or trawling Ellie Kildunne’s @elliekfilms Instagram – where she’s currently sharing wonderful little moments in time from within the Red Roses camp.

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Whatever you did, we’ve three more WXV1 contenders to examine, so – without further ado – *gestures frantically for someone to scroll up on the autocue*, the remaining nominees for ‘Best Team in World in 2023’ are…

4. Canada
Director: France-born Kevin Rouet’s been the staple Maple man since last March, having been a part of the set-up since 2019. He hit the ground running: rugby in Canada was prising itself off the canvas of the pandemic at the time, and he found himself with six months to prepare an amateur side to go toe-to-toe with professionalised programmes. They more than impressed, and he’s gone on to sign an extension until 2025.

Leading lady: If you could make a rugby player in a lab, chances are you’d make Sophie de Goede. The 24-year-old’s a six-foot talisman who does it all: wins line-outs and turnovers, pinwheels and punches through defences, tackles relentlessly, scores more often than not, converts her own, and then conducts a compelling post-match interview before dashing off to shoot some hoops (because, of course, she’s a basketball star, too). You’d follow her into any battle – for as long as you could keep up.

Recent accolades: A spot just off the World Cup podium, after heroics against England in a thriller of a semi-final. They had nothing left for the bronze medal match, in which they were nilled by Les Bleues, but had – as Rugby Canada’s CEO Nathan Bombrys said – ‘inspired a nation’, and captured the imaginations of fans worldwide, who called for them to receive the contracted support they deserved. Pacific Four runner-ups, beating the USA and Wallaroos well, but losing by 31 to the Black Ferns in Ottawa.

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Style notes: Upon his appointment, Rouet laid his cards out immediately: ‘we want to be the best structured and unstructured team in the world’, and you suspect that remains the brief. Canada play with their hearts on their sleeves, and that was epitomised in their defensive performance at the StoneX last month, when they frustrated the Red Roses no end, despite being down to 14 for an hour.

Show runners: 22-year-old hustler Justine Pelletier has a tight hold of Canada’s number nine jersey, and is a fizzing menace who allows the women in red to capitalise upon their hard-earned front foot ball, whilst versatile playmaker Alex Tessier – who’s just signed for Exeter Chiefs – brings a wealth of experience to their back line.

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Rising star: Fly-half Claire Gallagher works within the High Performance Department at Swimming Canada, and sure is making a splash with her rugby. In July alone, the playmaker earned a senior debut against the Black Ferns, marked her first start by putting a try on Australia, and then popped down to Boston to captain the U23s to victory over the USA.

5. Australia
Director: Jay Tregonning was another late arrival ahead of the World Cup, but wasn’t afraid to think long-term. He blooded 19 debutants last year, whilst also guiding the Wallaroos to their deepest tournament run in a decade. The part-time teacher’s since signed an extension until the end of 2023.

Leading lady: Michaela Leonard. Another basketball fanatic, who also shone in league and sevens, before being coaxed along to a Brumbies trial in 2018. One, two, skip a few: she’s captaining the Wallaroos against the world champions. It was an inauspicious first outing in the armband – they lost 55-0 – but the infectiously passionate lock, who’ll win just her 12th cap this weekend, will be itching to test her leadership against the Red Roses.

Recent accolades: Not many. Thumped by England in what was more of a swimming gala than a World Cup quarter-final, and then suffering heavy Pacific Four defeats to the Black Ferns and Canada. The Wallaroos aren’t yet supported anything like enough by their union, and – if they’re to mirror the success of their awesome sevens outfit – that’s got to change.

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Style notes: Tregonning’s noted how significantly their error count holds them back, and it’s unsurprising that cohesion’s an issue – given how little time the squad gets together. That July victory over the Eagles will feel a while ago now, but they’ll hope the sustained period in camp in the interim will allow them to really target France and Wales.

Show runner: Arabella McKenzie. A fearless force of nature, who became an immediate fan favourite at Harlequins last season. She’s got a nine’s eye for a gap, the velvety hands of a fly-half, and the explosiveness of a centre – plus that ability all world class players have to look like she always has an extra half second to play with. As Emily Chancellor once told this column: ‘she sprinkles Bella-isms over the team, and – when she shines – we shine’.

Rising star: 23-year-old loosehead Brianna Hoy will make her international debut against the Red Roses, which is a baptism of fire, to put it mildly: England’s front row boasts 142 caps, and is about as good at going backwards as cows are at going down stairs. The Waratah’s taken huge strides with her set piece work over the past season, though, and has always been a threat in the loose.

6. Wales
Director: Within the space of six months in 2021, two things happened which changed rugby in Wales forever. Former Scarlets and age grade coach Ioan Cunningham was given the top job, and the first wave of player contracts were announced. Cut to present day, and his side are World Cup quarterfinalists, and finished third in the Six Nations. He’s ‘under no illusions of the task ahead’ in New Zealand, but their growth over the past two years has arguably been the greatest of any test side.

Leading lady: Hannah Jones retains the captaincy, with Beth Lewis as her vice-captain. Sean Lynn described the latter as a ‘silent assassin’ once, but could have been talking about either of these skippers. They’re both outwardly softly-spoken, but mightily impactful, and you can only imagine how much this pair – and, indeed, a core group of this Wales side – will have benefited from being at the heart of Gloucester-Hartpury’s triumph at Queensholm this year.

Recent accolades: No silverware, but top eight at the World Cup, impressive results against both Ireland and Italy in the Six Nations, and a first ever win over the Eagles last month.

Style notes: Wales are, and this is a bit of a cliché, but very much one founded on truth: gritty. They’re getting tougher and tougher to beat: stoic and aggressive defensively, livid limpets over the ball, and increasingly potent at set piece.

Discipline’s been a recurring work-on, though, as has their attack: they’ll be eager to create and take more chances, whilst maintaining all of that trademark niggle.

Show runner: I don’t think many of us are ready to discuss El Snowsill’s retirement yet, so let’s not pick at that scab (I miss her already), but what it does mean is that the Lleucu George Era is imminent. This will be the biggest campaign of the mercurial talent’s career to date, although she did guide the Cherry and Whites to that first premiership with a dazzling array of dinks, hoofs, and fizzes. The fly-half might well be the catalyst Wales’ attack requires.

Rising star: Bryonie King, Niamh Terry, and Meg Davies are all young talents who’ll take a huge amount from this experience, but this one’s also going to George. It could be transformative for Cunningham’s side if she returns from the land of the long white cloud with miles on the clock up against the world’s best. With Scotland, France, and Italy all making the trip to Cardiff in next year’s Six Nations, Wales should be aiming high – and not taking their foot off the gas for a moment.

And there you have it: the six nominees for the inaugural WXV1 title. What’s most exciting, and makes this tournament far better than the Oscars, is that there’s no Academy panel involved in this process.

These teams’ fates are solely in their own hands, as they battle to be the first to lift that trophy, and seize their moment in the spotlight. Time to unfurl that red carpet…

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Jon 1 hours ago
Sam Cane was unfairly cast in Richie McCaw's shadow for too long

> McCaw’s durability and sustained excellence were unique, but we seemed to believe his successors were cut from the same cloth. It’s easy to forget McCaw was just as heavily critiqued for the last two years of his career. The only real difference was his captaining criticisms and his playing criticisms happened at different times, where Cane was criticized for a few things in both areas for all of his last 4 years. This was also heavily influenced by another McCaw esque presence, in Ardie Savea, being in the team and pushed out of his original position. It could be said we essentially didn’t have the 3 prior years with Ardie as world player of the year because he was changing into this new role. I say “original” position as despite him never coming out and saying his desire is to perform his role from, that I know of, clearly as part of a partnership with Cane as 7, I don’t think this was because he really wanted Cane’s playing spot. I think it most likely that it comes down to poor All Black management that those sort of debates weren’t put to bed as being needless and irrelevant. It has been brought up many times in past few months of discussions on articles here at RP, that early calls in WC cycles, to say pigeonhole an All Black team into being required to have a physical dynamo on defence at 7 (and ballplyaer at 8 etc) are detrimental. In the end we did not even come up against a team that threw large bodies at us relentlessly, like why we encountered in the 2019 WC semi final, at all in this last WC. Even then they couldn’t see the real weakness was defending against dynamic attacks (which we didn’t want to/couldn’t give 2019 England credit for) like the Twickenham Boks, and Irish and French sides (even 10 minutes of an English onslaught) that plagued our record and aura the last 4 years. It really is a folly that is the All Blacks own creation, and I think it pure luck, and that Cane was also such a quality All Black, that he was also became an integral part of stopping the side from getting run off the park. Not just rampaged. > The hushed tones, the nods of approval, the continued promotion of this nonsense that these men are somehow supernatural beings. I bet this author was one of those criticizing Cane for coming out and speaking his mind in defence of his team that year. Despite the apparent hypocrisy I agree with the sentiment, but I can only see our last captain as going down the same road his two prior captains, Read and McCaw, have gone. I am really for Cane becoming an extra member to each squad this year, June, RC, and November tours, and he is really someone I can see being able to come back into the role after 3 seasons in Japan. As we saw last year, we would have killed for someone of his quality to have been available rather than calling on someone like Blackadder. Just like the Boks did for 2023.

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