Australia and New Zealand will begin their World Rugby Pacific Four Series 2023 campaigns on Thursday when they meet at Kayo Stadium in Brisbane.
The match, which is also the first of two to be contested in this year’s O’Reilly Cup, will kick-off at 19:00 local time (GMT+10) and will be the teams’ first step on the road to both WXV and Rugby World Cup 2025.
Canada currently lead the Pacific Four Series standings, having beaten the USA 50-17 in Madrid on 1 April, and will host the second and third rounds of the tournament in Ottawa between 8-14 July.
Whoever finishes in the top three following the final match at TD Place Stadium will join England, France and Wales in WXV 1 for the inaugural edition of World Rugby’s new annual global 15s competition. The fourth-ranked team will compete in WXV 2 this October.
Thursday's match will be available to stream via the World Rugby website where a local broadcast deal is not in place.
New dawn for Black Ferns
New Zealand head into the Pacific Four Series as defending champions and Rugby World Cup 2021 winners, but also at the start of a new era.
Thursday’s encounter with Australia will be the Black Ferns’ first test since they beat England at a sold-out Eden Park and the maiden match of Allan Bunting’s reign as coach.
Bunting, the former Black Ferns Sevens coach, has selected a team featuring six players who started the RWC 2021 final, while his first match-day squad includes six debutants.
Prop Kate Henwood is joined in the starting line-up by wingers and fellow uncapped players, Katelyn Vahaakolo – who will become a dual international having represented New Zealand in Rugby League – and Mererangi Paul.
Iritana Hohaia, Rosie Kelly and Olympian Tenika Willison, who has played for her country on the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, will earn their first caps if they emerge from the replacements’ bench in Brisbane.
“Each of these ladies have been impressive on and off the field and now have the opportunity to represent their country,” Bunting said. “It will be a special occasion for them and their whānau and one they should be proud of.
“We are all excited for them and looking forward seeing how they go.”
He added: “Although our time together has been short in my eyes, we have maximised our connection and foundations for our game this year and we are looking forward to seeing how we shape up for this week’s test against the Wallaroos.
“It marks a new dawn for the Black Ferns as we not only kick-off our 2023 campaign but begin building to the next Rugby World Cup. Our coaching team have selected an exciting team, that we believe can go out there and play our style of game with freedom.”
Wallaroos eye WXV 1
Hosts Australia warmed up for their 24th test against the Black Ferns with a 22-5 win against Fiji at Allianz Stadium in Sydney last month.
That match was the last in Shannon Parry’s international career and coach Jay Tregonning has handed the captain’s armband to second-row Michaela Leonard as Piper Duck continues her rehabilitation from injury.
“It’s incredibly exciting and an incredible honour,” Leonard said. “Being seen by our coaching staff as having the qualities to lead that squad out is something that will be a lasting memory for me for the rest of my life.”
Tregonning has been able to call on the services of Kaitlan Leaney, Arabella McKenzie and Emily Chancellor following their time in England with Harlequins.
Leaney comes into the side in place of Parry, with Ash Marsters moving to openside flanker, in one of two changes to the team that beat Fiji. Tania Naden is the other, starting at hooker in place of the injured Adiana Talakai.
Chancellor and McKenzie will both start the Wallaroos’ Pacific Four Series opener on the bench but will be keen to make an impact when called upon.
McKenzie is excited to put the green and gold jersey back on and implement the lessons she learned playing in the Premier 15s in England as Australia attempt to improve on last year’s fourth place.
“We're confident that we can make WXV 1. I think that's the goal and you want to be versing the best teams in the world,” McKenzie said. “We've got to put in some good, strong performances.
“We obviously didn't perform well last year in Pac Four, but I think we've got a new style, a new structure and it's the coach's second year and everything is always smoother the second year around. So, I think everyone's feeling confident and ready to go, which is good.”
McKenzie lined up at fly-half and converted one of the Wallaroos’ three tries as they built a 17-0 lead against the Black Ferns on the opening day of RWC 2021 at Eden Park last October.
“Everything was clicking, going our way and you get a few yellow cards and momentum shifts,” McKenzie says of that encounter, which ended in a 41-17 win for the Black Ferns.
She is confident that the Wallaroos can kick-off their campaign with a win on Thursday, though, especially as their opponents have arrived in Brisbane without several key players from RWC 2021.
“It’s [about] being able to perform for 80 minutes and staying switched-on and focused for the whole 80 and not just the first 20 or 40,” McKenzie said. “That’s where the Wallaroos have struggled in the past because we’re not professional.”