The full line-up for this year’s inaugural edition of WXV will be confirmed on Saturday when Italy host Spain in Piacenza (kick-off 19:30 local time, GMT+2).
Both teams are assured of playing their part in World Rugby’s new annual global 15s competition this October, however, they do not know whether they will compete in the second or third level of the tournament.
Whoever wins the 15th test match between the sides will compete in WXV 2 in Cape Town, alongside hosts South Africa, Scotland, Japan, Samoa and the USA.
The loser of Saturday’s play-off, meanwhile, will join Ireland, Kenya, Kazakhstan, Fiji and Colombia in WXV 3, which is due to be held in Dubai. Both tournaments will be played in a cross-pool format between the weekends of 14-28 October.
Making a statement
Italy secured their place in the WXV play-off via a fifth-place finish in the Women’s Six Nations 2023, the Azzurre’s first tournament under coach Giovanni Raineri.
Spain, meanwhile, qualified for WXV by winning the Rugby Europe Women’s Championship 2023, conceding only five points as they beat the Netherlands and Sweden to wrap up a 10th title.
It is Las Leonas who lead the head-to-head between the sides 10 victories to four, however, the most recent of those came during the pool stage of Rugby World Cup 2017.
The Azzurre avenged that defeat by beating Spain in the ninth-place play-off in Belfast, and they were triumphant in the pair’s only test since 2017 – winning 34-10 two years ago en route to winning the RWC 2021 Europe Qualifier in Parma.
Italy also won a non-cap match 22-5 in Barcelona in February and have only lost to Spain once on home soil, a 5-0 defeat in Treviso in April 1995.
That all means that the Azzurre will start Saturday’s match in Piacenza as favourites, although, prop Silvia Turani and her team-mates will take nothing for granted.
“We played them in February, and it was not an easy game, and we know that they rely on really good players,” Turani told World Rugby. “It will be challenging as always.
“I also think that this game, Italy-Spain is a game that means a lot because for many years it's been us ruling them out of the last World Cup, which means a lot, I guess, for a team to [not go to] the World Cup.
“Then the previous World Cup we played against them twice and it's really, I would say, an emotional game every time. And now what we are playing for, it's like a statement to win this game and I guess we want to make this statement. But they also want to.”
“We keep improving”
Italy trained in the mountains last weekend in a bid to beat the heat that has swept across Europe; however, the teams may face rather more damp conditions on Saturday with thunderstorms predicted in Piacenza.
Whatever conditions await at Stadio Walter Beltrametti, Turani is hopeful of a sizeable crowd given its position in the middle of northern Italy.
“We have never played in Piacenza, so it will be interesting,” she explained. “Our families, our friends, our main supporters will be able to travel there.
“I would hope that many people come because having supporters [in the stadium] does really make a difference.”
Since winning the Women’s Championship in February, Spain have been on an unwanted run of defeats, losing successive tests to the USA, South Africa and Japan as well as a non-cap match against the Japanese.
Las Leonas have been together for the past three weeks and captain Cristina Blanco says the players have been taking part in “very high-intensity” training sessions as they attempt to gel as a squad.
“We’ve been doing some video analysis so we could improve our performance from last weekend,” Blanco added.
“We have improved so much from the first game that we had the previous week against Japan to the one that we did last Saturday. So, we keep improving day by day.
“I mean, we are quite a new team, and we are trying to perform as best as possible. We have a lot of young talent coming up and we're just in that way of being all together and trying to learn from each other on how each other plays so we can play as best as we can.”
Blanco will hope that hard work pays off at Stadio Walter Beltrametti and is in little doubt about what it would mean to her lead her country into WXV 2.
She said: “It would be a great opportunity for me and I'm very excited. We have such a lovely team outside the field and I [hope] that everyone sees how good we can be.
“And being captain of that team, it would be massive.”