Finland Women ready to rise to the challenge

(IRB.COM) Friday 29 April 2011
 Finland Women ready to rise to the challenge
Spain are the defending champions and first up for Finland in the Women's European Trophy

Finland could not have a more daunting prospect than facing hosts and defending Women’s European Trophy champions Spain in their opening match on Saturday, especially given the country only played their first women’s international in 2007.

However, the chance to simply take their place in the annual tournament alongside some of Europe’s leading nations is one they are relishing and determined to learn as much as possible from the eight-day event in Coruna, northern Spain.

“As a team we started preparing for this competiion as soon as we heard the awesome news that we were qualified for the tournament,” explained captain Minna Raatikka, whose side will also face France A and Sweden in Pool A, told recently.

“I think we are going to play the tournament day by day and set our goals for the next game always a little bit higher than in the last game. If we succeed in that we are going to have good games. We know that the other teams in our pool are very experienced teams compared to us, which puts us in the underdogs seat, but we will take that!”

Finland have had a number of training camps in preparation for the tournament and have also had England wing Kat Merchant, who played in the Women’s Rugby World Cup 2010 final loss to New Zealand, spending time coaching the team.

New-look Sweden

“It was awesome to have her here,” admitted Raatikka. “To see such a elite player with that kind of rugby heart, it really made an impact on our team and raised the motivation to do even better. She was very positive and gave rugby advice on and off the pitch.”

Spain beat Italy A 31-13 in last year’s final and have been enjoying a good run of form over the last year, having also claimed the European Women’s Sevens title in 2010. They will be among the favourites to be crowned champions come 7 May, but will face a tough battle with France A.

The French side travelling to Spain is very strong with a number of players from their Six Nations campaign and they will be eager to improve on their fifth place finish on home soil 12 months ago, with the Netherlands and Sweden also finishing above them in the standings then.

Sweden beat Spain in the 2009 Trophy en route to qualifying for Women’s Rugby World Cup 2010, but the side arriving in Coruna will bear little resemblance to the side that played in last year’s World Cup in England with many players having since retired.

“It’s hard to say [what our chances are] as we have a very young and inexperienced team, but I believe that we will not be the only team with some new faces in the group and as we have shown before, we are definitely up for the challenge and can definitely create an upset or two for teams if they do not expect it and take us too lightly,” explained captain Elizabeth Ygge.

Italian challenge for England

The other pool will be equally contested with 2010 runners up Italy, England A and the Netherlands in particular all hoping to showcase their title credentials in the opening round. The Italian side in particular is very strong, while England A have a number of experienced players in the squad.

England A will face the Italians on the tournament’s opening day on Saturday and head coach Mike Barnett knows the importance of getting off to a winning start with a tight schedule of four games in eight days.

“We have picked an experienced team for the opening round of pool matches as we are expecting Italy to be one of the hardest opponents in the tournament. They are bringing nearly all their Six Nations squad, so you could say we are playing a full international side,” admitted Barnett.

“It’s very important that we start the tournament with a win as we have three games in five days and it will be tough to comeback from a defeat and still make the final so we really want to hit the ground running with a good performance. All the players and management are very excited and raring to go for a tournament that we have been preparing for all this year.”

The Netherlands, who finished third in last year’s competition, are also continuing to develop and will be eager to prove missing out on qualification for Women’s Rugby World Cup 2010 was a blip by starting with a good win over Russia.

"We are hoping to see some of the women’s emerging nations compete with the Six Nations Unions, especially the Trophy holders Spain on home soil and the Netherlands who are currently restructuring their women’s performance pathways," explained Doug Langley, IRB Regional Development Manager for Europe.
"Russia and Finland do not have the experience of playing Fifteens at this level in comparison with the others, but I hope to see these emerging nations improve their performance over the tournament.

"It will also be interesting to see what Sweden learnt from Women's Rugby World Cup 2010 in order to be competitive in this competition and their opening match against France A should be interesting, especially as the nations had a close battle at the World Cup."