Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way right off the top! I gave the no Quarterfinals format a shot & I hated it. I would much rather see those exciting head to head quarters than have placements solely decided by pool performance.

I also think we need to give World Rugby some serious leeway here as they are acting on perfectly valid feedback in making these changes in the first place. Speaking of feedback, I assume they’re getting plenty of that now and will make some changes for the next pair of stops.

Off to the pools we go….

Pool A: NZ, ENG. RUS, JPN
I’ll admit it. I looked at Pool A & thought, “One of these other pools must be stacked!” It’s pool B by the way. That said, New Zealand *should* walk to the semis here. The Black Ferns have a 12 point lead on top of the World Series ladder halfway through the tour calendar. They’re flooded with elite players. Stacey Fluhler leads the tour in tries & clean line breaks. Ruby Tui is reigning Player of the Year & leads the Series in tackles.

England & Russia have underperformed compared to their own expectations & standards this season. That said, both sides have a ton of potential for growth & it makes their pool match a compelling one.

Japan is back after a 10th place finish in Glendale and all their focus is on Tokyo 2020 & growing for that tourney.

Pool B: CAN, USA, FIJI, BRZ
What a pool. Story of the season for me has been Fiji, who are right there with the Big 5 of New Zealand, Australia, France, Canada & the US. They’re a medal threat for Tokyo 2020 & a real treat to watch…if they iron out some consistency issues. A loss to China outweighs a nice win over England & the great battle they gave New Zealand in Hamilton.

Canada beat France in a key pool match 21-19 & then Australia in the semis before falling to the host Black Ferns in the Final. Speaking of medal threats, the Canadians want to upgrade their Rio 2016 bronze & are getting the exposure to big games to do it. Three straight Top 4 finishes for Canada!

The USA also exhibit a ton of talent but have been falling just a bit short in places. They sit 4th on the ladder, two points behind Canada but four ahead of France. Alev Kelter leads the Series in scoring & threats like Kristi Kirshe & Kris Thomas make the Eagles a constant threat. Naya Tapper is listed as an injury reserve this week with Cheta Emba & Jordan Matyas getting squad opportunities.

The Brazilian thank you haka for the Black Ferns was the talk of social media & perfectly illustrates all the Brazilians are adding as their rugby programs grow & grow.

Pool C: FRA, AUS, ESP, IRE
Clearly, two tiered pool here with France and the Aussies on top & Spain v Ireland on bottom.

Spain took a pair of solid defeats to Canada & France as well as a 31-0 loss to China in the 9th place playoff. They did edge Ireland 14-7 & those two will renew acquaintances this weekend.

France & Australia, however, have the Cup Semis as a immediate goal. The French won in their most recent matchup in the Bronze Medal match in Hamilton, 19-14. The Aussies had the upper hand in Cape Town in the Cup semis, 24-19. Expect another nail biter here.

Cup Semis & Final picks!!

Am going to keep picking the Black Ferns to win until further notice. They’re loaded, deep & find a way to play their best when challenged the most.

I’ll snag Australia, NZ, Canada & France to move on to the Cup Semis. Am tempted to grab England here as well given their pool construction on points difference.

– Dan Mason – @Rugby_Global