Canada was drawn in a pool with the U.S. and yet-to-be determined teams from Europe and Asia as Thursday's draw for the 2021 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand ensured regional rivalries will be renewed at the women's showcase.
In addition to the North American showdown in Pool B, defending champion New Zealand was matched with Australia in Pool A while top-ranked England will face France in Pool C.
The ninth edition of the World Cup is scheduled for Sept. 18 to Oct. 16, 2021, across three match venues in New Zealand.
New Zealand, England and Canada were kept apart in the draw thanks to their world ranking.
The third-ranked Canadians were drawn with the sixth-ranked Americans, Europe 1 and Asia 1. The European entry will be decided by a tournament featuring No. 7 Italy, No. 8 Ireland and No. 11 Scotland plus the winner of the Rugby Europe Women’s Championship 2020 (No. 10 Spain, No 14 Russia or the 17th-ranked Netherlands).
That tournament was scheduled to take place in December, but was postponed earlier this month due to pandemic-related challenges.
The Asian team will be the winner of the Asia Rugby Women’s Championship 2020 involving No. 12 Japan, No. 15 Kazakhstan and No. 19 Hong Kong.
Second-ranked New Zealand, whose Black Ferns have won five of the last six World Cups, was drawn in Pool A with No. 5 Australia, No. 9 Wales and the final qualification tournament winner. England is in Pool C with No. 4 France, No. 13 South Africa and No. 22 Fiji.
"Each pool is evenly matched," said Canada coach Sandro Fiorino.
The England-France pairing will add spice to Saturday's test match between the two at Twickenham. The Red Roses won the first match of the autumn series 33-10 last Saturday.
That win moved England atop the rankings for the first time since August 2017, dropping the Back Ferns down a rung.
New Zealand beat Australia twice in August 2019, winning 47-10 and 37-8. Those matches were the last for the Black Ferns until last Saturday's 34-15 victory over a New Zealand Barbarians all-star side featuring Canadian international lock forward Cindy Nelles. The two sides face off again this weekend.
The Canadians have not been together since beating the Americans 19-0 and 52-27 at the Can-Am Series in November 2019 in California. The U.S. won when they met in the summer of 2019.
"We've had some really good battles with them in the last two years," said Fiorino.
"The U.S., similar to us, when they bring their full squad with the sevens (players), they're a very hard team to match, up with," he added.
"It's going to be a battle out there. We're both very physical," veteran back Elissa Alarie, who hopes to play in her third World Cup, said of the Americans. "We know them well, they know us well."
While Canada and the U.S. are two of the four teams to have contested every Rugby World Cup, alongside England and France, the North American rivals have never been in the same preliminary-round group before at the World Cup.
Fiorino will have to wait on the pandemic to get his team together. Still he hopes to get a solid chunk of time with the squad next summer ahead of the World Cup.
Many of his players have moved abroad to keep playing during the pandemic. Almost two dozen are playing in England, France or New Zealand. The rest are in Canada, often fitting their training in around day jobs.
The Canadian players held a Zoom call Thursday to watch the draw together.
Seven teams qualified directly for the 2021 competition by virtue of finishing in the top seven at the 2017 tournament in Ireland: champion New Zealand, runner-up England, bronze medallist France, the U.S., Canada, Australia and Wales.
Fiji and South Africa booked their ticket last year through the Rugby Africa Women's Cup and Oceania Rugby Women's Championship, respectively.
In addition to the Asia and Europe qualifiers, a final team will come from a world repechage, a final qualification competition that is being held for the first time for the women. That field will feature the runners-up in European and Asian qualifying, Oceania playoff winner No. 16 Samoa and the winner of the Africa/South America playoff between No. 25 Kenya and No. 29 Colombia.
The Canadians overtook the French in the rankings after beating them 26-19 in the Rugby Super Series in July 2019 in California. Canada lost to New Zealand (35-20), England (19-17) and the U.S. (20-18) at the same tournament. The French, meanwhile, bounced back to beat New Zealand 25-16
World Rugby used the January 2020 world rankings to determine pots for the World Cup draw, reasoning it was the last time all teams were able to play before the pandemic.
The draw ceremony at Auckland’s SkyCity Theatre, which started at 7:30 a.m. Friday local time. featured New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, former New Zealand women's captain Farah Palmer and former All Blacks fly half Dan Carter.
The 2021 tournament marks the first World Cup for the women in the Southern Hemisphere.
Canada's best World Cup finish was runner-up in 2014 when it was beaten 21-9 by England. The Canadian women finished fourth in 1998, 2002 and 2006 (when Canada hosted).
Drawn in a pool with New Zealand in 2017, Canada finished fifth.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 19, 2020
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press