Who needs a lead? Let's get right to the pools! SPLASH!!
POOL A: New Zealand, USA, England, Netherlands
New Zealand has a ten point lead at the top of the World Series Standings with just two tourneys to go & it'd take a lot to knock them off at this point. However, five of their regulars are off with the Black Ferns 15-a-side squad so there may be an opportunity there. Portia Woodman, Sarah Goss, Kelly Brazier....gone, gone, gone. Tyla Nathan-Wong captains the side with Michaela Blyde being the main attack threat going forward. #5 Crystal Mayes (Manawatu Turbos) and #8 Jess Drummond (Tasman Makos) make debuts on the World Series.
The USA has surged into top form following a wretched weekend in Dubai to start the season. Naya Tapper (23 tries in just 4 events) and Alev Kelter have been two of the best players in the world this season and fan favorite Jessica Javelet returns in the number twelve jersey to give the Eagles a ton of strike power. This side is good enough to win the Cup.
England have rung the changes for Langford, making six changes. Joanne Watmore, Alice Richardson-Watmore (C), Heather Fisher & Natasha Brennan are the veterans and the rest of England's group have made 4 appearances or fewer on the Series. With their spot on tour safe now, the development process can continue without pressure.
Speaking of development, the Netherlands are insistent that they'll develop a world class sevens program. On the weekend of the Amsterdam sevens, their best group will be in British Columbia. Led by star Annemarije van Rossum (20 tries in 8 World Series events), a new look Orange Crush will get a chance to shine. This group lost 14-12 to an upstart Belgium side in the Series qualifier but showed they could compete with qualifier Japan and beat a strong China side as well.
POOL B: Canada, Russia, France, Brazil
Can Canada break the home tourney curse & get it done in Langford. All the evidence says it's not only possible but likely. A narrow loss to New Zealand in the Japan Cup Final combined with the reductions in the Black Fern roster makes them the favorites at first glance. Their combined 149 events of World Series experience puts them at the top of the list there. Combine that with a ton of talent in the form of Ghislaine Landry, Brittany Benn (totally underrated), Jen Kish, Bianca Farella & speed options in Charity Williams & Julia Greenshields....it's a lot to handle for any side. Playmaker Ashley Steacy's main issue is trying to spread the ball around to all that power & pace.
Russia has a loaded roster of their own. A fifth place finish in Tokyo underscored their issues of late...great against those near & below them on the table, not enough for New Zealand (22-7 loss) or Canada (41-0 defeat). It's up to them to secure more possession and a bit more discipline against the top teams.
France took two 26-5 losses to Russia in Japan and will be looking to turn those tables in Canada. Cam Grassineau (29 tries/16 events), Shannon Izar (25/11) & Fanny Horta (26/18) will lead the charge for the French. They don't have the pace to match up with the Canadians or the Russians but they do have the power and the organization to win any match. A narrow 19-14 loss to New Zealand showed that last go round.
Brazil knows they're in a battle to avoid relegation and it isn't going well at the moment. England & Ireland seem safe but Spain is only three points ahead on the table and they could certainly be caught. Honestly, Brazil or Spain's level of play isn't that far off the mark. Hopefully, the powers that be in World Rugby will see that as an opportunity to expand to 16 teams each round and allow a number of up & coming squads like the Netherlands, Belgium, Kenya & Argentina to earn their way onto an expanded tour.
POOL C: Australia, Fiji, Spain, Ireland
Australia is looking to get that gold medal form back here in Langford. With the focus having been on the Black Ferns as Series leaders and Canada as the home side, the Aussies have to like their chances to turn the tables on Canada & take home a Cup as the Canadians did in Sydney. This group has danger written all over it. Charlie Caslick & Emilee Cherry are both in the conversation for Series Dream Team honors and Tiana Penitani is quite a threat as well. If they can take just a bit better care of the ball and finish their chances, Australia can beat any side here.
Fiji & Ireland land in the same group again...six straight events. While Fiji has had the edge lately (76-5 over the last two matches), Ireland had closed the gap between them earlier this season. The Fijians look more & more dangerous every tourney with their electric, creative style. Meanwhile, Ireland has added more pace and learned to earn more possession to compliment that speed.
Spain has their hands full staving off Brazil for the final core spot on the Series going forward. However, the best way to do that is to get the job done in pool play. Ireland knocked this group off 26-7 in the Challenge Trophy Final in the last Series stop in Japan. Looking at the record, it's not great. The Spanish are 2-8 against the Aussies all-time, 2-6 against Fiji and 2-4-1 against Ireland. Maria Ahis & Barbara Garcia will make debuts at some point this weekend. Perhaps one of them is the try scorer Spain needs to add...
QUARTERS & BEYOND:
While I'm tempted to pick the Aussies or the Americans here (Go Eagles!), I'm going with Canada to win the spoils at home. Gut feeling and frankly, a home team has to get it done sooner or later.
by Dan Mason - @Rugby_Global on Twitter