Women's Rugby World Cup draw throws up regional duels

Auckland (AFP) –

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The draw for next year's women's Rugby World Cup in New Zealand threw up a series of mouth-watering regional clashes Friday, with the host nation placed alongside arch-rival Australia in Pool A.

Two-time champions England will face France in Pool C, while Pool B features a North American derby between Canada and the United States.

"It's going to be amazing," New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at the draw ceremony in Auckland.

"The World Cup is an opportunity to ...provide inspiration for girls and boys and an opportunity to keep breaking down gender discrimination in sport."

The September 8-October 16 tournament features 12 teams in three pools of four and is being hosted in the southern hemisphere for the first time.

Defending champions New Zealand -- who have won five of the previous eight editions -- are in Pool A with Australia, Wales and a final qualifier.

Pool B features Canada, USA -- winners of the inaugural World Cup in 1991 -- alongside the yet-to-be-decided teams Europe 1 and Asia 1.

England will face a tough challenge in Pool C, which includes France, South Africa and Fiji.

Black Ferns captain Eloise Blackwell said there was always added spice when New Zealand play Australia.

"Every time we come up against each other it's a massive battle and no doubt next year will be no different," she said.

Two-time World Cup winner Melodie Robinson tipped France as the tournament dark horse, saying their match against England was set to be a highlight of the tournament.

"They've had a couple of wins over the Black Ferns, they've got some incredible athletes in that team so that will be one to watch," she said.

World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont said the tournament was a platform to grow participation in rugby for women, who now account for more than a quarter of the 9.6 million registered players around the globe.

"We've been fostering the unstoppable rise of women's rugby... today is an exciting milestone on the road to the Rugby World Cup," the former England and British and Irish Lions captain said.

Ardern said New Zealand's success containing the coronavirus pandemic -- allowing domestic life to return to near-normal -- gave the tournament "an extra-special dimension for the whole world".

"As one of the few countries in the world where sport can even be played in front of packed stadiums of fans, Rugby World Cup 2021 offers up a chance to showcase New Zealand to a global audience," she said.