The World Cup draw was made on 19th November 2020 and this split the twelve teams into four “bands”, based on the world rankings at the time and before Italy, Japan and Scotland had qualified. As a result, by the time the tournament kicks off on 8th October 2022, it will have been nearly two years since the draw was made. And quite a lot can happen in two years!
A reminder - the top two teams from the pool qualify for the quarter-finals, plus the best two third-place teams from the three pools.
While Pool A is dominated by the home team, who should qualify with ease, recent form suggests that there is little to nothing to separate the other three. As a result the qualification formula perhaps does not favour this pool, as whoever ends third is unlikely to have recorded any big wins.
New Zealand (World Ranking: 2)
Record since last World Cup: P 21, W 15, L 6 ,F 700, A 353, 71.43%)
For the first time since probably 1998, New Zealand do not go into a World Cup as favourites.
Since lifting the Cup in 2017 in Belfast, the Black Ferns programme has come off the rails somewhat spectacularly, with record defeats to England and France last year, distressing off the field revelations and negative headlines, and a massive churn of players as well as the resignation of their head coach.
The appointment of Wayne Smith to take a battered team through the last year of World Cup preparation has however yielded immediate results – New Zealand have won six of their last six tests and the return of Portia Woodman from sevens duty is a huge boost.
That said, on the evidence of a year ago, they have a lot of catching up to do to get past key rivals England in the later stages of this event. In hammering them twice last year, England will have banished the bogies of 2017 – they will believe they are better and stronger no matter what New Zealand team shows up and though the Black Ferns have improved enormously over the course of the last 12 months, whether it is enough is the question of this World Cup.
New Zealand have however had better preparation in the run-in than ever before, with ample test opposition on home soil, and as the hosts, they will enjoy relative home comforts and the backing of the majority of the crowd.
On the field, too many positions seem yet to be settled. It is almost impossible to work out Smith's first choice team picks because he has mixed his team up so much, though plenty of fresh talent like Ayesha Leti I’iga and Joanah Ngan-Woo could light up the tournament.
Can New Zealand win the World Cup? Yes - but it is not entirely in their hands, because it will not only require them to reach a height we haven't yet seen over the last year, but it also requires England to falter, which on current evidence seems unlikely.
One thing is certain though and that is that recovery from where they were a year ago to retain their title would surely be one of their greatest ever achievements.
Australia (World Ranking: 7)
Record since last World Cup: P 13, W 3, L 10, F 225, A 336, 23.08%)
Ten losses in their last 13 games tells the tale of an Australian team, while not lacking in individual talent, struggling to bring it all together with the chances they get to play.
Sevens dominates the women's game in Australia with test rugby playing second fiddle, and now firmly out of the habit of winning against the top teams, reaching the top four, as they did in 2010, would be considered an enormous achievement.
Like New Zealand though, Australia's buildup has been better than ever before, with seven recent tests plus a Super W competition that included the Fijiana Drua, which gave Jay Tregonning the widest possible look at the depth of his squad. Though they have yet to beat the Black Ferns, their last result was the tightest ever when they lost just 22-14, which should give them heart that they can do well in this pool and realistically try and target the runner up spot.
Set piece continues to be a challenge though for Australia and sevens star Sharni Williams had interesting things to say when she was interviewed about her inclusion recently, describing some limitations in the squad.
"I think that there are people that don't think that they're good enough or apply themselves as much as they should, and I think that we can get a lot more out of them."
A player like Williams can certainly offer inspiration, but Australia will require consistency that has eluded them to stay in the competition past the quarterfinals.
Wales (World Ranking: 9)
Record since last World Cup: P 33, W 11, D 1, L 21, F 441, A 958, 34.85%)
A 73-7 loss to England was hardly the ideal send-off for the Welsh team, who looked totally outclassed against the World Cup favourites in Bristol a few weeks ago.
A few months ago things were going very well for Wales, with wins in their opening Six Nations games but having now lost their last five games, the pressure is on the newly professional team to start winning games again. There are many who argue that Wales have actually gone quite a bit backwards since they were contracted earlier this year, with their set piece particularly struggling.
As a result, nothing is guaranteed in this pool for Wales, with Scotland up first in what should be a tight match - Wales won out the last time the teams met in the Six Nations but not by much, taking a 24-19 win in a game in which they'd had to come from behind, trailing 19-7 at one point.
The fact that Ioan Cunningham went for an 18-14 split of fowards and backs, talks a little to the kind of game Wales will be hoping to play, with the aim of deploying power through the likes of Sioned Harries, Carys Phillips and the captain Siwan Lillicrap. Wales have had a tough time too from the boot, and much work has gone in to improving their kicking game in recent months and in a very challenging pool, they will need to be at their best in this department.
Lowri Norkett, whose sister Elli played at the World Cup in 2014 but tragically died in a car crash aged 20 in 2017, is amongst those selected and in line to make her World Cup debut in what is an incredible story of perseverance from tragedy,
Scotland (World Ranking: 10)
Record since last World Cup: P 36, W 10, D 1, L 25, F 625, A 934, 29.17%)
Scotland are deservedly back at the World Cup for the first time since 2010.
This alone is a massive step forward for a team that finished bottom of the Six Nations from 2011 to 2016, winning just four test matches during that period (two against the Netherlands, plus wins against Spain and Sweden).
Increased support from Scottish Rugby saw this turn around in 2017 (too late for that year’s World Cup) when they recorded their first Six Nations wins for seven years, finishing fourth. Since then, they have recorded test wins every year, including on their visit to South Africa in 2019 – their first overseas tour for 14 years.
All this came to a head in a memorable night in Parma last November when they faced Ireland in what was effectively a winner-takes-all World Cup qualifier, Sarah Law converting from the final kick of the game to send Scotland to the World Repechage tournament in Dubai in February. There they saw off the challenge of Colombia to return to a top table.
That was, however, also Scotland’s most recent test win. Although they have put in good performances, getting over the line for the win has proven just out of reach, with four of their six loses since qualification being by just seven points or less.
If Scotland can turn that around there is no reason why they cannot make the last eight. They are within touching distance of Wales and Australia with a squad full of experience with eight players holding 40 caps or more, led by Emma Wassell on 57, plus Jade Konkel-Roberts, Lana Skeldon, Sarah Law and Chloe Rollie all with over half a century of appearances.