The Rugby Europe Women’s Championship returns on Saturday as the quest for WXV 2024 qualification begins in earnest.
Defending champions Spain claimed a 10th Women’s Championship title last year and the place in World Rugby’s annual global competition that came with it, going on to finish third in WXV 3 2023.
Las Leonas will not get their 2024 campaign underway until 30 March, when they host newcomers Portugal. The holders will then travel to the Netherlands and Sweden on consecutive weekends to bring the curtain down on the tournament on 13 April.
By the time they make their entrance, Spain will know exactly what they need to do to retain their title as their competitors will already have played each other twice.
Whichever team lifts the Women’s Championship trophy in April will be guaranteed their place in the second edition of WXV later this year.
The Netherlands, meanwhile, have a second potential route into WXV. As the highest non-qualified nation in the World Rugby Women’s Rankings powered by Capgemini, the Dutch will play a one-off play-off against Colombia, who finished bottom of WXV 3.
Before they can begin to think about that match, though, the Netherlands face two crucial Women’s Championship assignments in February.
This Saturday, Sylke Haverkorn’s side host Sweden at the National Rugby Centre in Amsterdam before travelling to Lisbon on 24 February to play Rugby Europe Women’s Trophy 2022-23 winners Portugal.
Last season’s Championship runners-up will want to make a positive start this weekend against Sweden, a side they have lost to only once in their previous 11 meetings.
The second oldest fixture in women’s test history, this year marks the 40th anniversary of the Netherlands’ first match against Sweden, a 34-0 victory for the Dutch in Malmö on 21 October 1984.
Since then, the Netherlands have won 13 of the 17 tests between the nations, including a 38-12 victory in Amsterdam 12 months ago.
That match was the first between the teams for nine years after Sweden secured promotion back to the Women’s Championship by winning the Rugby Europe Women’s Trophy 2021-22.
It was also Sweden’s first experience of that level of competition in a decade and head coach Tamara Taylor admits it took her side time to adjust as they found themselves 33-5 down at half-time in Amsterdam.
“Last year, we spent 40 minutes being shellshocked about, 'we're in the championship. Oh, my goodness, should we be here? Oh, my goodness, Netherlands play really well. Oh, my goodness, we've actually got to tackle because we haven't tackled in months',” Taylor told World Rugby.
“It really did take us 40 minutes to get into the game and we closed the scoreline down really nicely in that second 40. So, our aim this year is to start with a bit more confidence.
“I'm sure Netherlands will be absolutely gunning for us, but the girls are really excited to play this time. I think there's more excitement.
“Last year the nerves were probably higher than the excitement and now I'm hoping that this year we've closed that gap a little bit more and we're more excited than we are terrified.”
“Going in the right direction”
Sweden went on to lose 90-5 against Spain in the final match of the 2023 Championship but there is evidence to back up Taylor’s enthusiasm ahead of this season.
Taylor herself is in her second year of a job she had been given on a temporary basis at the beginning of 2023 and says she feels more settled following the “baptism of fire” that was last season.
Training camps have been arranged ahead of each of the team’s three matches to aid preparation while there was an encouraging 27-0 win against the British Army in a training match in England a fortnight ago.
“It was a really important fixture for us, because it’s our only real on-grass prep,” Taylor added.
“It’s impossible actually in Sweden to get on the grass between November and April, really. Our training is on artificial [surfaces] indoors, so the Army fixture's really important and it was really important to us last year as well.
“So, we are super grateful to the Army for supporting us with it. But it was great to get some tries scored and actually being able to see some of the stuff that we've been working really hard on, from an attack-shape point of view, being executed was really good.
“There's obviously still bits and pieces, nuts and bolts, that aren't functioning exactly as you want them to be. But I think everyone was pretty pleased that we're obviously going in the right direction.”
We will find out on Saturday exactly how much ground Sweden have made up on their Championship rivals.