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WXV2: Six players to watch in South Africa

By Will Owen
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 16: Aseza Hele of South Africa runs the ball during the Pool C Rugby World Cup 2021 match between Fiji and South Africa at Waitakere Stadium on October 16, 2022, in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

It’s easy to look at a competition like WXV, formatted into three tiers, and assume the “1”, “2” and “3” represent the order of how entertaining the competitions will be. One may assume the best fixtures will be New Zealand vs England; Wales vs Australia; even Canada vs France. But once you stop and think about the entertainment WXV2 has to offer, you suddenly realise every fixture shapes up to be a belter.

Italy vs Japan. Scotland vs USA. South Africa vs Samoa. Who on earth knows how any of these games are going to go? The thought of Nadine Roos lining up against Chloe Rollie feels like two worlds colliding. Every fixture in this second tier is going to be a revelation, and there are so many games that could go either way.

So, with that in mind, who are some of the players who will set this tournament on fire? Let’s pick out one from each team, and assess the positive impact they may have on their respective teams.

Scotland - Fran McGhie

Watsonian wonder winger Francesca McGhie was Scotland’s breakthrough star this Six Nations, and she has only continued to provide viral out-of-your-seat moments since. With Stuart Hogg retiring from the Scottish men’s team, the rugby gods clearly received the memo that Scotland are due another generational talent, which they have received in 20-year-old McGhie.

Her superb solo score against Ireland shows what a magnificent talent she is on the ball, but the most impressive part of her game was her defence. Usually when a young winger makes the step up to international rugby, defensive positioning and covering kicks are the most difficult skills to grasp - but McGhie is a natural in these situations. Sure, her team suffered some difficult scorelines, but the fact she can make Jess Breach, Abby Dow and Melissande Llorens all look human is a tremendous compliment. Next on the agenda is Jennine Detivaux. McGhie will no doubt be chomping at the bit for more opportunities to take on the world’s best attacking wingers.

Italy - Sofia Stefan

The retirement of Sarra Barratin rocked all fans of Italian rugby. Many of us don’t know how it feels to watch Italy play without her. A century of caps in women’s rugby is a rare achievement, and losing such a player should leave a sizeable hole in a team.

One of many reasons why Barratin was capable of lasting so long was because for three quarters of her career, she’s had as good a backup scrum-half as any international team. Sofia Stefan is essentially the modern day Brynmor Williams; with 77 caps to her name, she’s spent much of her career as second choice, whilst simultaneously being one of Europe’s best halfbacks.

The focal point in the Italian team lies in their midfield: Madia, Rigoni, and Silari. Stefan is the perfect foil for this partnership - a skilled scrum-half who knows how to dictate the speed of a game. If Italy want to play an expansive game, she can be the catalyst. If they want to slow it down, make no errors and grind out a result, she’s equally capable. Don’t let Barratin’s absence fool you: Italy’s incumbent nine is just as good.

South Africa - Aseza Hele

It would be wrong to look at anyone other than South Africa’s beast in number 8 Aseza Hele. Let’s face it, since the World Cup finished, we’ve all been counting down the days until we can watch Hele carry the ball again.

South Africa didn’t win a game at the World Cup, yet Hele was easily in the top 10 players of the group stages. Naturally, she has been snapped up by Harlequins ahead of next season, and the thought of her and Jade Konkel-Roberts in the same pack has already caused four magnitude 8 earthquakes in South-West London.

Hele and Konel-Roberts are both absolute animals with ball in hand. It’s difficult to think of a more mouth-watering head-to-head in all of WXV.

Japan - Megumi Abe

If you’re simply a fan of rugby and want to be entertained, Japan’s Megumi Abe might rapidly become your favourite player in WXV2. Her pass is excellent and she loves a line break, but above all, Abe is a quick tap addict. For fans of the men’s game, she is a carbon copy of Atsushi Hiwasa or Fumiaki Tanaka: great Japanese scrum halves of years gone by.

Japan’s encounter with Scotland may not necessarily be decided on whether Japan are better, but whether they can play a fast enough game to get around their defences. Abe isn’t just a scrum-half, but a pacemaker; she’ll whip the ball away and it’s the responsibility of the other 29 players on the park to keep up with her. Japan’s wide women can expect a couple of walk-ins merely because of the tempo their number nine provides.

Samoa - Cassie Siataga

Samoa are undoubtedly the biggest unknown in the top two tiers of WXV, but their surprise win over Fiji had one woman at the heart of it. Fly-half Cassie Siataga was a few inches on a drop-goal attempt away from scoring a full house on the scoresheet, and that’s discounting her assists and game management.

Siataga’s right boot will surely help Samoa escape some tricky situations, plus her awareness in attack will surely net her team some tries if her backline can stay on her wavelength. Her clutch goalkicking was what eventually got Samoa into this tournament, and if she’s on top form, Fiji may not be their only shock result of 2023.

USA - Hope Rogers

Hope Rogers’ destructive carrying, scrummaging and tackling are well documented, but the scariest thing about the prop is the fact she’s still improving. After a world-class performance for Exeter in the Premier 15s semi-final, she has proven that she can be a lone match winner, which is extremely rare for a loosehead.

She may be disappointed not to be kicking it with Sarah Bern, Sisilia Tuipulotu and Eva Kaparni in WXV1, but the pressure is on for Rogers to be the dominant prop of this tournament. When the USA reach any opponent’s 22, you can wish the defence luck with stopping Rogers on the pick-and-go.