The road to Women’s Rugby World Cup 2014 truly begins for world champions New Zealand this weekend when they face England at Twickenham on Saturday in the first of three Tests in the space of a week.
It will be the first time the Black Ferns have played since their enthralling 13-10 victory over England secured a fourth successive world crown last September, a stark contrast to the Red Roses who have played 10 Tests in the same period.
Victoria Grant, the new captain following the retirement of Melissa Ruscoe, is therefore under no illusions as to the importance of this series – and those already confirmed for 2012 and 2013 – to New Zealand’s future.
“We haven’t played together since that World Cup and this is a totally different team as well. We haven’t played rugby really since our National Provincial Champs finished in August, so it will be a good challenge for us,” Grant told Total Rugby Radio.
“For New Zealand especially it is really important [to have these series], otherwise we have only got Australia that is near us really to play, and England is hugely important to play against us for the competition.
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“I think for the top two teams in the world to be playing on a regular basis should improve women’s rugby in general, especially if we get a bit of coverage with these Tests as well, I think that will be really good in growing the sport.”
The full back, who helped Auckland win the Women's National Provincial Championship title, knows there is no bigger challenge for the Black Ferns than playing England on English soil, having been a part of the side beaten 10-3 on their last visit to Twickenham in November 2009.
“I think it is a good challenge for us and it is good to have those Tests set out for the next three years, that is huge for us to have that competition, especially against England who we are so close with. It is a challenge, we have got eight new players in our team but if they get this experience under their belt it will make us a better team in the future.
“For sure we want to win these three Tests, but it is about going forward and getting experience under our belts for our younger players coming through, because this is the start again with the build up for the next World Cup. We really want to get as much experience and as many new players out on the field as we can to get that experience.”
Grant, a veteran of two World Cup campaigns, admits England have the advantage going into the match, having come off the back of a two Test series against France, even though many of their star names missed the two defeats.
“For sure, it will be a huge occasion playing at Twickenham, especially for some of our players ... some of our players don’t even know what Twickenham is all about, but we are going to have a little bit of a lesson on the history of Twickenham, so it will be a big occasion for us playing there.”
Breakdown the key battle
The 29-year-old is one of 10 players who started the World Cup final who will run out at Twickenham on Saturday after the Barbarians take on Australia, while Amiria Rule makes a welcome return at centre after missing the tournament with a knee injury.
England have eight in their starting XV – plus two on the bench, including then scrum half now hooker Amy Turner – as well as two replacements with coach Gary Street admitting this is his “strongest available 22 at the moment”.
“I think the key battle will be at the breakdown and it will also be important for us to control the ball but also the tempo of the game. We’ve had a week in camp leading up to this game and that has been invaluable preparation.
“Certainly over the past 12 months we have made a conscious effort to improve all areas of our game, especially game understanding. We have learned lessons from the 2010 World Cup final, where we didn’t play that well, and I am certainly expecting us to be a much stronger side this time around.”
England have won the Women’s Six Nations with a fifth Grand Slam in six years and defended the Women’s Nations Cup title in the 2011, but while it’s a first outing for New Zealand, Street is in no way underestimating the threat of the Black Ferns.
“New Zealand may not have played an international Test match for 14 months, but that is exactly where they were at before the World Cup so you can always rely on them to pull out the performance when it matters.
"For most teams not playing regular international rugby would affect them but for New Zealand it never seems to matter.”