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Who are the players to watch in WXV1?

By Will Owen
Paige Farries of Canada is tackled by Maelle Filopon of France during the Bronze Final Rugby World Cup 2021 match between Canada and France at Eden Park on November 12, 2022 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Whether you’re an official, player, coach, reporter or merely even a fan of women’s rugby, you’ve probably had to jump through a few hoops to understand the structure of the new WXV tournament.

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At the competition’s conception, many a head was scratched. But now, we’re through to the other side, we have the fixture list and we can begin to get excited!

WXV1 is full of narratives. England will be looking to prove that they are in fact the best team in the world, and make a statement ahead of 2025. New Zealand want to prove them wrong and silence any doubters that they were worthy winners of the 2021 Rugby World Cup.

Wales will be looking to avenge Canada and Australia, both of whom they lost to last year. For some, this is a measure of how much they’ve improved. For others, it’s a measure of how dominant a team can truly be.

So who are some of the key players ahead of the big tournament? Who could potentially have a pivotal campaign in their career? And who is going to be the one to set their team’s own narrative straight? Let’s pick one name from each nation and discuss their contribution to the tournament.

England – Alex Matthews
Gloucester-Hartpury flanker Alex Matthews often flies under the radar thanks to the likes of Marlie Packer, Poppy Cleall, latterly Sarah Hunter and more recently Sadia Kabeya taking the limelight. But make no mistake: Matthews is the most reliable rugby player in England, if not Europe.

Accuracy at set-piece and in the contact area have always been Matthews’ areas of expertise, but this season she has proven that her carrying game is just as good as her back-row contemporaries. Hunter’s retirement has left a hotly-contested vacancy in the eight jersey, with Cleall the favourite to claim it. But with Matthews’ relentless level of physicality, this is a genuine opportunity to establish herself as a World XV-level back-rower.

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Australia – Arabella McKenzie
Fly-half Arabella McKenzie has just completed her first season at Harlequins and solidified her status as a worldwide baller. If you watch back the highlights of virtually any Quins game last season, you’re almost guaranteed to see McKenzie attacking the line, making a break and setting up Ellie Kildunne for her 19th try of the game.

Now: McKenzie recently had a tough time against Canada in the Pacific Four, through no fault of her own. Behind a pack who were getting bullied, McKenzie was trying to put her team in the right areas of the park to no avail.

However, this could be a promising sign for the Wallaroos in the lead-up to their encounter with Wales; another team keen to execute a kick-pressure game. Failing that, she’s bound to provide some stardust in attack against France and England.

Wales – Gwenllian Pyrs
This tournament feels like a potential turning point for Wales – but more than anything, it’s a turning point for their front row. Kelsey Jones has proven she can step up and take on whatever task is given to her, no problem. Sisilia Tuipulotu is rightfully grabbing headlines for her scrummaging, carrying and, most importantly of all, her youth.

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But holding it all together is the gargantuan Gwenllian Pyrs on the loosehead. It’s easy to forget that picking Tuipulotu to start on the tighthead against Ireland in the Six Nations was a bold call by Ioan Cunningham, made with a nod to the future. Pyrs, however, was never in doubt as Wales’ number one number one.

This front row dominated Ireland, Scotland and Italy, and had parity against England and France. If Wales are to target wins over Australia and Canada, those three will need to go up yet another gear.

Pyrs is particularly important as her biggest attribute may not even be her scrummaging, but instead her breakdown work. She rivals Sioned Harries and Alex Callender as Wales’ main jackal threat, which will be huge for keeping them in games against the best in the world.

France – Gaelle Hermet
It feels like Gaelle Hermet has been around forever, doesn’t it? She’s the epitome of a hard-working, experienced flanker who should be winding up her career as her body can only put in so many hammering hits or win so many impossible turnovers.

Not a chance. Hermet’s only 27. Sure, she won her first cap long enough ago that she was seemingly still in nursery, but Hermet’s only just entering her prime.

When she skinned Carys Williams-Morris and Courtney Keight in the fourth round of this year’s Six Nations, it became clear that technical hard graft isn’t the only string to her bow. Between that and her sensational try against the Black Ferns last year, we, as fans, ought to embrace Hermet entering her joué era.

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New Zealand – Sylvia Brunt
Anyone would think the absence of Theresa Fitzpatrick and Stacey Waaka would weaken a side – but a certain replacement centre will happily take the Brunt of that criticism. For the Black Ferns’ shining star, Sylvia, can shrug anything off.

Here’s the thing: at the moment, we all think Gabrielle Vernier is undefendable – she’s arguably the form player in World Rugby. I would say she’s like a knife through butter, but it’s more like a steamroller through butter; at least with a knife you can actually locate the butter after using it. Vernier’s lines of running, immense physical strength and big hits seemingly make her unstoppable.

But on the flipside, it’s hard to imagine a world where anything gets past Brunt. She’s not too dissimilar a player to Vernier: defensively outstanding, punchy in attack and deceptively smart without the ball. These two going head-to-head is undoubtedly the most exciting match-up in this competition. Unstoppable force meets immovable object, both in the form of their lives.

Canada – Paige Farries
Okay, I’ll admit – this is a slightly edgier pick than going for the obvious Sophie De Goede, but we’ll talk about her another time. It’s no secret that Canada’s biggest strength lies in their dominant, efficient pack. Emily Tuttossi being a lethal finisher who is accurate at set-piece, Tyson Beukeboom being an equally good carrier and jumper, and Courtney Holtkamp able to hit a hole with ease.

But Canada are a side with endless tricks up their sleeve. Paige Farries’ world-class finishing ability isn’t unknown to the rugby world, but her genuine ability to create something from nothing will be vital as Canada approach their huge tests against France and a much improved Wales team. It’s hard enough to get off the line and shut off the Canadian pack, but if Farries isn’t immediately on the floor, she’s making breaks.

She’s the sort of player who could go 60 minutes without touching the ball, then proceed to score the best solo try of the year. Defence coaches have to account for the fact she’s worth one or two freakish moments per game if they truly want to nullify Canada’s attacking threat.

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