Women's Rugby World Cup: Hosts Ireland face tough battle to conquer World
Host nation Ireland face a tricky start to their Rugby World Cup campaign after being drawn in Pool C against Australia and Six Nations champions and rivals France yesterday in Belfast City Hall.
Current World Cup holders England will fancy their chances of defending their title as the luck of the draw saw them avoid both hosts Ireland and four-time champions New Zealand.
England were drawn in Pool B alongside Italy, USA and either Scotland or Spain, who will play both home and away in November with the winner taking the European qualifying spot.
The tournament will be a baptism of fire for newly appointed Wales head coach Rowland Phillips after his side were drawn in Pool A, arguably the toughest group, with New Zealand and 2014 runners-up Canada.
Joining Pool A and Pool C respectively will be the runner-up and winner of next month's Asia/Oceania qualifier between Fiji, Japan and Hong Kong.
The draw was carried out by World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont, former Irish captain Fiona Coghlan, Rugby World Cup 2014 winner Maggie Alphonsi and Dame Mary Peters.
Coghlan emphasised how tough the pool will be for the hosts.
"France is always a brilliant game, we're very closely matched, and Australia are a bit of an unknown, we haven't played them since 2006, but their Autumn International programme is back in place now, and they're sure to develop nicely over the next nine months," she said.
"Every pool is tough and the only way to ensure you progress to the knock out stages is to win every game."
The Red Roses will likely enter the tournament as favourites, particularly after the defending champions became the first nation to offer professional contracts to its 15s players.
However, the Irish camp are equally confident, with head coach Tom Tierney stating that Ireland's victory over the All Blacks in Chicago will undoubtedly add to the team's sense of self-belief.
"Chicago showed us that no matter what, if you go out with focus, then anything is possible and we'll always be confident in our own ability.
"We're looking forward to playing in front of our home crowd, but we need to concentrate on doing the right things on the pitch, and then everything else will fall into place."
Ireland's skipper, and top Rugby World Cup points scorer, Niamh Briggs was also in a determined mood.
"When you get to the World Cup it's about playing the best," she said. "We want to go and win it, and if you're going to win it you need to beat the best regardless of what pool they're in."
Women's and Girls Rugby Development Executive, and Irish flyhalf, Nora Stapleton added: "We're going the whole way to the final to win it, that's what all the preparation is for, that's our aim.
"Everything we've been doing for the past year has been with one eye on the World Cup, and our goal is to win that trophy."
Tierney's side will have a chance to demonstrate their prowess against three of the best teams in the world in a series of upcoming autumn friendlies in Dublin against England, Canada, and New Zealand.
Speaking at the draw, Bill Beaumont expressed his desire for the tournament to develop the women's game as a whole.
"This tournament will build on what happened both in France and Rio, and it's a fantastic opportunity to develop the women's game, not only here in Ireland but in the rest of the world," said the former England skipper.
Beaumont said that the last tournament in France was a "watershed moment for the women's game", adding: "It had record crowds and massive TV audiences watching across the world.
"With over two million women and girls currently playing the sport, I have no doubt that next year's Women's Rugby World Cup in Dublin and Belfast will be a fantastic event and encourage many more ladies to get involved."
Dame Mary Peters said: "It will be a showcase for not only women's rugby but also the beauty of our country, and it will be an inspiration to the next generation of young sportswomen."
Women's Rugby World Cup 2017 runs from August 9-26, with the pool stages taking place at University College Dublin, before moving to Belfast for the play-off rounds at Queen's University and Kingspan Stadium.