Seven must become four with semis on the line
August 8, 2014
Ireland threw New Zealand's title bid off track with victory in their Pool B clash on Tuesday © Getty Images
The 2014 Women's Rugby World Cup should have been as straightforward as the four before it. Firm favourites New Zealand should have waltzed through their pool on the way to a fifth-straight title. England should have met them in the final to put up a stiff challenge for the trophy at Stade Jean Bouin on August 17. No one was expected to upset the order of women's world rugby, with the battle for third place more open than the fight for first.
No one however, told Ireland. Their defeat of New Zealand on Tuesday has blown this World Cup wide open. With just one round of pool matches left to play, seven teams still have the possibility of making the semi-finals. Canada, England, Ireland, France and Australia are all unbeaten, while the USA and New Zealand can still reach the last four despite earlier pool defeats.
This weekend's action promises to be explosive with so much on the line. Read on for ESPN's preview of the final round of pool matches from the 2014 World Cup.
Ireland v KazakhstanSaturday, 12pm
Ireland are flying high. Having dispatched the USA in the opening round, they then produced one of the greatest upsets in Women's Rugby World Cup history by beating reigning champions New Zealand 17-14 on Tuesday. The Pool B leaders are almost certain to make it three wins from three on Saturday and, after their gutsy performance against the Black Ferns, they will fancy their chances of going deep into this tournament.
With respect, Kazakhstan appear to be making up the numbers in France. After consecutive thrashings against New Zealand and the USA, both of which saw Kazakhstan fail to score double figures, they are unlikely to trouble a confident Ireland.
Prediction: Ireland's victory over New Zealand proves upsets can happen, but Kazakhstan cannot match either of those sides for power. Ireland to win by 50.
Spain v SamoaSaturday, 2pm
Played four, lost four - that is the combined record of Spain and Samoa in the 2014 World Cup. Both have rolled over against England and Canada and neither have threatened to pull off an Ireland-style upset against their stronger Pool A rivals.
Those earlier defeats however, mean this match is set up nicely as a consolation prize. A win for either side would ensure they do not finish bottom of the pool and give them a shot at the play-offs for fifth to eighth places. In a group including the much stronger England and Canada, such a result would have to be seen as a big positive.
Prediction: Both sides have scored 10 points in two matches. Spain have conceded 76, Samoa have conceded 107. It will be tight, but Spain should pinch it by seven.
England v CanadaSaturday, 2.45pm, Sky Sports 1
England face the first real test of their World Cup credentials against Canada in Saturday's first televised game. Both sides have two wins from two at the top of Pool A, with England's points difference the only thing nudging them in front of the Canadians.
Winger Lydia Thompson will be missing from England's XV having been ruled out of the rest of the tournament with a groin injury. Her place will be filled by the hotly-tipped Natasha Brennan, who England coach Gary Street admitted had only narrowly missed out on selection for the initial squad in France.
In theory, Canada know they have the same chance of progressing to the semi-finals as England. A win for either side on Saturday will see them through to the final four regardless of other results. But England have the pedigree when it comes to making the knock-out phases and Canada will go into the match as underdogs.
Prediction: Defeated finalists in 2010, England know how to reach World Cup semi-finals. They should win by 15.
Wales v South AfricaSaturday, 4pm
Wales take on South Africa in a Pool C fixture with echoes of the Spain v Samoa clash which will precede it on Saturday. Neither side have a win, neither side have scored double figures, both sides have suffered heavy defeats earlier in the tournament. Their meeting therefore represents a chance of tasting victory in an otherwise disappointing World Cup campaign.
Crucially, places in the fifth to eighth play-offs are still available, so if either side can find a way to score their first try of the tournament, there is still the chance they could be playing World Cup rugby beyond Saturday evening.
Prediction: Wales have conceded fewer points, so we're tipping them for victory by 10.
New Zealand v USASaturday, 5pm, Sky Sports 1
Humbled at the hands of Ireland, New Zealand will be determined to smash the USA off the field when they meet on Saturday. Their 14-17 loss on Tuesday will go down as one of the biggest shocks of any Women's World Cup and the Black Ferns' pride will be hurting in that knowledge. That presents the USA face one of two prospects - either they can capitalise on the Black Ferns' surprising frailty, or they will be on the receiving end of a New Zealand backlash.
Both sides need to go all-out for a bonus point victory to secure the best runner-up position and a spot in the semi-finals. But while the USA have the same record as New Zealand in this tournament so far, the Black Ferns' incredible record in previous World Cups would suggest they have the know-how to claim the win.
Prediction: New Zealand will not let two upsets happen in one World Cup. They should secure the bonus-point win they need.
Australia v FranceSaturday, 7.45pm, Sky Sports 1
Hosts France have taken maximum points from two matches so far and are the only team left in the tournament for whom a draw would be enough to secure a semi-final spot. They have enjoyed excellent support from a raucous Parisian crowd and supporters will feel confident their side can do enough to earn a place in the last four.
Australia will be ruing the fact they are in the same pool as the hosts. The Wallaroos have taken two wins from two so far, but their failure to take a bonus point from either victory means they trail France in the points stakes. A draw is no use to the Australians, who face 80 minutes of do-or-die rugby if they want to sit at the top table once again.
Prediction: It will be close, but France are on home soil and should win by seven.
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