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Who are the players to watch in WXV3?

By Will Owen
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 16: Siteri Rasolea of Fiji jumps out of tackles helping her team towards the try line in the closing minute of the Pool C Rugby World Cup 2021 match between Fiji and South Africa at Waitakere Stadium on October 16, 2022, in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Greg Bowker/Getty Images)

If you’re a rugby nerd who loves to learn the styles and identities of new teams, obscure gems of players to call your favourites, or the stories behind the players, coaches and staff involved in the sport: WXV3 is going to be littered with golden moments for you.

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WXV3 is a big deal for lesser-known countries taking part, for the likes of Colombia and Kazakhstan to be guaranteed competitive rugby against higher profile oppositions can only be a good thing.

After missing out on last year’s Rugby World Cup, Spain will finally return to our screens to entertain us. And on the flipside, Fiji announced themselves on rugby’s biggest stage last autumn, and it will be a thrill to see them play again.

Now, let’s have a look at some of the key players who could make the difference in tight games – and let’s briefly speculate on who your next favourite player might be.

Ireland – Neve Jones
Ireland’s position in WXV3 is polarising. Their showing in the Six Nations was poor; they suffered from a lack of investment from their union as opposed to a lack of talent in their team. With captain Nichola Fryday mysteriously retiring immediately, Ireland will be hoping to register a win or two from this competition to dig themselves out of a potential black hole.

One of the shining lights in the Irish pack this Six Nations was hybrid hooker/back-row forward Neve Jones. At only 1.57m, Jones is far from the biggest hooker in the world, but her ability to make game-changing big hits more than makes up for this. Her post-contact metres are always exceptional, and she’s no slouch when she finds space.

After a successful, Premiership-winning season with the Gloucester-Hartpury circus, Jones will be hoping to transfer her club form to the big stage. With the news of Connie Powell signing for Harlequins, it will be a straight shootout between Neve Jones and her namesake Kelsey for the Gloucester two jersey next season; and it could be a rare case of Jones playing well for her country to get a call-up for her club.

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Spain – Claudia Peña
For a year or so, there has been a Patricia Garcia-shaped hole in Spanish rugby. Garcia is probably Spain’s greatest ever rugby player, male or female; she brought flair and calm in equal measure. However, this juxtaposition of talents is still very much alive in the Spanish backline through 19-year-old fullback Claudia Peña.

Peña is a bright spark for Spain right now. Her raw gas, ability to hit the line and offloading will all generate highlight reel moments to put WXV3 on the map.

She plays 15-a-side rugby as though it is sevens, such is her ability to snake through the smallest of gaps. The thought of Peña running against Fijians is nothing short of mouth watering. Regardless of Spain’s results, Peña is at the very least worth some scintillating consolation tries.

https://twitter.com/WXVRugby/status/1692459387724366075?s=20

Fiji – Siteri Rasolea
Few players captured the hearts and minds of so many at the World Cup like Fiji’s monstrous tighthead prop, Siteri Rasolea. With one glance at Rasolea, two things become clear: one, she’s an animal at scrum time. And two, if you have to tackle her, you’ll be feeling it in the morning.

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The most impressive thing about Rasolea is her level of conditioning. Fiji preferred to leave her on the pitch for a full 80 minutes in the World Cup, which is absurd given her work rate at tighthead.

Her bullocking run to assist the winning try against South Africa may have just been the first of many iconic, game-changing moments we’ll witness from her in a Fiji shirt. Rasolea is a special player who completely redefines the common definition of “Fijian flair”.

Written by Martyn Thomas:
Colombia – Leidy Soto
Named as one of World Rugby’s 15 ‘Unstoppables’ as part of its ‘Try And Stop Us’ campaign four years ago, Leidy Soto lived up to that billing to help Colombia qualify for WXV 3 last month.

Soto lined up in her usual number 13 jersey in both legs of the play-off against Brazil in Medellin and came into her own during the second match. Yaras struggled to contain the 23-year-old, who used her elusive running to score a hat-trick of tries and help Las Tucanes confirm a 54-42 aggregate victory.

Having beaten both Kenya and Kazakhstan, the latter in Dubai, in her Test career to date, Soto will hope to transfer her talents to WXV 3.

Kazakhstan – Amina Tulegenova
Young Kazakhstan winger Amina Tulegenova has made a blistering start to her Test career, scoring three tries in her first four matches.

Two of those came in the Asia Rugby Women’s Championship 2023 victory over Hong Kong China in Almaty in May that confirmed the hosts’ place in the inaugural edition of WXV.

Tulegenova’s first was a regulation finish following a good team move, but the second highlighted the attributes that will make the 19-year-old one to watch in Dubai. The winger ruthlessly pounced on a handling error, hacking the ball forward and using her lightning pace to touch down just before the ball went dead.

Kenya – Grace Okulu
No player contributed more to Kenya’s Rugby Africa Women’s Cup 2023 campaign, in which the Lionesses finished second to qualify for WXV 3, than their hard-running star centre Grace Okulu.

In Kenya’s opening match against hosts Madagascar, a de-facto WXV 3 play-off, it was Okulu who broke the deadlock, her first-half brace setting the Lionesses on their way to a crucial 29-20 win.

The 25-year-old was at it again eight days later, crossing the whitewash twice and proving a trusty source of points from the kicking tee in a 52-3 defeat of Cameroon. Okulu converted four of her side’s eight tries to finish the match with 18 points to her name.

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