THE Black Ferns are full of anticipation as they kick off the defence of the Rugby World Cup.
It all starts late tonight (NZ time) in France with a historic first clash with Kazakhstan. Four-time champions New Zealand have not lost a World Cup match since their first participation in 1998.
Coach Brian Evans knows little about the Kazakhstan team other than that they will be tough physically. "They are quite big and very fit, with a lot of them from the army."
His charges have been on a diet of intense training and club rugby since winning four tests in June, the past two tight affairs over Canada.
"The ladies thrive on playing. We have identified areas we needed to work on from June."
Evans has opted for a solid combination to kick off the campaign, with only seasoned Auckland centre Claire Richardson and Otago prop Kathleen Wilton out of the selection reckoning with niggles.
"The first two games we are going to give players an opportunity to put their hands up," said Evans, intimating that by the final pool game against the USA, they will have a clear view of their best XV.
There is an experienced look to tonight's starting line-up, centre Huriana Manuel returning from sevens duty to play her first Black Ferns international since the last World Cup. She partners Amiria Rule in the midfield, while the halves are the talented duo of Kelly Brazier and Kendra Cocksedge. Fiao'o Fa'amausili skippers the side from hooker.
"We're all here for the same reason, to win the World Cup," Fa'amausili said. "There's definitely pressure there but it's how we deal with it.
"We've told the girls not to think about what's happened in the past, it's about what happens now."
While the June series gave them more meaningful preparation than the Black Ferns have ever enjoyed heading into a Rugby World Cup, most of the other teams have also prepared well, so Evans is expecting more tight contests in pool play and fewer blowouts. The sun is out, as expected at the height of the French summer, and the quality of the facilities at Marcoussis, where the French men's national team train, has blown the Black Ferns away, while there is growing media coverage in the countdown to kickoff.
"We've seen billboards with Kelly Brazier's face on them. Rugby seems to be growing in popularity so we're hoping for good crowds," said Evans.
Canada and England shape as the teams to beat in Pool A, while Australia and France headline Pool C.
The tournament follows a similar format to the Junior World Championship, with the three pool winners advancing to the semifinals along with the next best seed.
England have lost their aura from 2011-12, but will still pose a threat.
Their captain and first-five Katy McLean was awarded an MBE in May for services to rugby.
"You can't help but look back to something like RWC 2010, which was massive for the women's game but obviously the result [13-10 against England] wasn't ideal for us," said McLean. "That was really tough but four years later you have to move on, you learn lessons, you play more rugby and get better."
New Zealand at the World Cup Schedule:
NZ v Kazakhstan, tonight, 11pm (NZT)
NZ v Ireland, Wednesday August 6, 4am
NZ v USA, Sunday, August 10, 4am
Semifinals: Thursday, August 14
Final: Monday, August 18, 4.45am
Black Ferns: Selica Winiata, Shakira Baker, Huriana Manuel, Amiria Rule, Halie Tiplady-Hurring, Kelly Brazier, Kendra Cocksedge, Casey Robertson, Justine Lavea, Rawinia Everitt, Sanita Levave, Eloise Blackwell, Stephanie Te Ohaere-Fox, Fiao'o Fa'amausili (c), Ruth McKay. Reserves: Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate, Aleisha Nelson, Linda Itunu, Aroha Savage, Emma Jensen, Victoria Subritsky-Nafatali, Honey Hireme
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