The Rugby World Cup 2021 Europe Qualifier could not be closer heading into the final match-day, with all four teams potentially one win away from booking their ticket to New Zealand.
Ireland and Scotland did what they needed to do last Sunday, beating Italy and Spain respectively to leave the four nations neck and neck in the standings, on five points after two matches.
Hosts Italy lead the way on points difference ahead of the denouement at Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi but they know there is no guarantee they will still be there come Saturday night.
Andrea Di Giandomenico’s side kick-off match-day three in Parma when they take on Spain at 15:00 local time (GMT+2), looking to bounce back from their narrow 15-7 defeat to Ireland last time out.
"We are aware that we are playing an 'in or out' match, the final result will be very important," the Italy coach said.
"Still, we are eager to play the best that we can."
Italy won the most recent meeting between the sides, when tries from Michela Sillari, Sofia Stefan and Sara Barattin helped secure a 20-15 victory in the Rugby World Cup 2017 ninth-place play-off.
All three try-scorers remain important players for the Azzurre. Sillari has scored 15 points during the RWC 2021 Europe Qualifier, second only to Scotland’s Helen Nelson, while Barattin earned her 100th cap against Ireland and Stefan has appeared in both matches as a replacement.
Spain coach José Antonio Barrio knows his side will be up against an experienced team, which he expects to be well supported in Parma as the Azzurre bid to reach a fifth Rugby World Cup.
“Italy is a mature team that knows how to compete,” he told World Rugby.
“They play at a strong pace, and furthermore they will play on home soil with the extra energy of their fans. They are a really tough rival.
“We're expecting the crowd to give huge support to their home team as the tournament requires, but we're prepared for that too.”
Having beaten Ireland on match-day one and run Scotland close six days later, Spain head into Saturday’s match with nothing to fear.
Indeed the Iberians, who have appeared at six of the eight women’s editions of Rugby World Cup, hold the advantage in the historic head-to-head between the sides, having won 10 of their 14 encounters.
Spain’s last victory in the fixture also came at RWC 2017, when Patricia García scored seven points in a 22-8 Pool B win.
Both teams know that a win will be good enough for at least second-place, and a place in the Final Qualification Tournament, but Barrio refused to look any further ahead than Saturday.
“Right now, our only thought is to bring the best possible Spanish team to the pitch on Saturday,” he said.
Winner takes all
🪜 The tale of the tape going into the third and final matchday— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) September 22, 2021
1️⃣st place heads directly to #RWC2021 while 2️⃣nd place still has the chance to progress in the Final Qualification Tournament pic.twitter.com/QGXocqLfI5
Ireland and Scotland will know the exact equation facing them when they take to the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi pitch at 18:00 local time (GMT+2) on Saturday.
But, whatever happens in the first match between Italy and Spain, both teams know they must win to maintain their hopes of playing at Rugby World Cup 2021.
“That's what we're going for,” Scotland centre Lisa Thomson said.
“We're going to win that game and then whatever happens in the other game is what it is, we're going to win that game first.”
Scotland failed to qualify for both RWC 2014 and RWC 2017 but have won 15 of their 29 tests against Ireland, albeit only one of those victories has come since 2006.
Ireland have triumphed in 14 of the 15 matches since then, a winning run punctuated only by a Scottish win at Donnybrook during the Women’s Six Nations 2018.
Thomson played in that match and believes the result proves that Scotland are capable of securing the win they need to seal RWC 2021 qualification.
“We know that we can beat them and we did that three years ago, and games since have been close,” she said.
“It's always a good competition against Ireland, so we'll look to get that win on Saturday.”
Ireland will be keen to maintain their proud Rugby World Cup record, having appeared at every women’s edition except the inaugural tournament in 1991, and hosted it four years ago.
Centre Eve Higgins came into the side for the win over Italy on Sunday, and says the players are focused on perfecting their own game as they seek to secure qualification.
“We do feel like we have a lot of improvements as a squad to make and I think the majority of our focus will be on ourselves and what we can do better as a squad to execute,” Higgins said.
“Because of the huge break that there's been with COVID and stuff you can't really look that far into the past, [our focus is] very much in the present.”
She added: “The danger with any team you're going up against, you don't really know obviously until you're at the game what's going to happen.
“So, we're just going to control what we can control and get the best preparation that we possibly can so that we can answer anything that comes our way this weekend.”