Chris Ashton has been cleared for Leicester’s Gallagher Premiership play-off semi-final against Sale after his red card was reduced to a yellow following a disciplinary hearing.

The 36-year-old former England wing was sent off for a high tackle on Harlequins’ Cadan Murley during Leicester’s 20-17 defeat on the final day of the regular league season.

Ashton, the Premiership’s record try-scorer, is set to retire at the end of the campaign, but if the suspension had been upheld, his hopes of featuring in a potential Premiership final at Twickenham on May 27 would have been over.

An independent disciplinary panel heard the appeal, which lasted five hours during which numerous angles of the tackle were shown, many having been not available to the referee and the match officials at the game. Ashton and Murley also gave evidence.

Panel chair Gareth Graham said: “Mr Ashton accepted committing an act of foul play that would have merited a yellow card.

“Having seen and heard all the evidence, including that of Mr Murley, who gave a clear account as to the point of contact and the level of force involved in the tackle, the panel agreed with the submission that this was a yellow card offence.”

The panel also considered what the degree of danger was in the tackle, concluding there was indirect contact to the head and that any force to the head or neck was low.

Graham added in a statement: “Consequently, the panel concluded that there was not a high degree of danger and that the correct starting point under the Head Contact Process was a yellow card.

“Therefore, the panel found the charge not proven. Mr Ashton is thereby able to play with immediate effect.”

Ollie Lawrence hopes to one day return to a rebuilt Worcester after dedicating his Gallagher Premiership player of the season award to his former Warriors team-mates.

Lawrence’s blockbusting form following his October move to Bath led to an England recall before helping his new club climb the table and qualify for the Heineken Champions Cup on the final day of the regular campaign.

The 23-year-old centre returned from an end-of-season social in Lisbon to be recognised at Premiership Rugby’s annual dinner in central London after a panel of experts judged him to be the league’s best player of 2022-23.

But having spent several days with Bath in Portugal, it was his former colleagues at Worcester who occupied his thoughts as he reflected on his award.

The Warriors went into administration in September due to unpaid debts, triggering their relegation from the Premiership, and their new owners have been blocked from relaunching the club in the Championship, ushering in an uncertain future.

Not all squad members have been able to secure contracts elsewhere, but Lawrence has gone on to make waves at the Recreation Ground.

“Without the Worcester players I wouldn’t have won the award and I wouldn’t be at Bath, so I want to thank them. This is on behalf of those boys as well,” Lawrence said.


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“A huge thanks goes to Bath for managing to get me on board as quickly as they did. And also for the Worcester boys, it’s a big thing for me to represent them. Hopefully one day I can play with them again and play again in front of those fans.


“In general, this year I’ve had to pinch myself sometimes to remember where I’ve come from.

“That desperation knowing that I could have not had a job – some of my best mates still don’t now – makes this pretty special. It’s been pretty surreal. I feel incredibly fortunate.

“But I’ll keep two feet on the ground and just enjoy myself and hopefully go again next season.”

The bonds between the players whose worlds came crashing down eight months ago remain strong and a group of them are heading to Barcelona for a stag do this weakened.

Once that is done, Lawrence’s aim is to ensure he is in the best possible shape for England’s World Cup training camp after Steve Borthwick issued strict instructions on their conditioning.

“Steve has said to the players to make sure you’re fit going into these camps instead of using the camps to get fit,” he said.

“My focus over the next five weeks is to get as fit as possible, train as much as I can and try to get a week abroad somewhere.”

Australia coach Eddie Jones said he is ready to launch a “smash and grab” campaign to win the Rugby World Cup and Bledisloe Cup after confirming his coaching team.

Jones, who took over the Wallabies in January after being sacked by England the previous month, has named Brad Davis as his attack coach with former Australian internationals Dan Palmer and Berrick Barnes also joining the staff.

“We believe we have a quality coaching staff to plan and prepare the team for a smash and grab campaign, winning the Bledisloe Cup and finishing by winning the Rugby World Cup,” Jones said, who took England to the world cup final in 2019.

“It is experience, diverse and adaptable.”

Former rugby league player Davis coached at London Irish this season having previously worked with Bath, Wasps and Ospreys.

Ex-Wallaby prop Palmer, an assistant coach at ACT Brumbies, will work as lineout coach alongside Neal Hatley, who was named forwards co-ordinator earlier this year.

Former England scrum coach Hatley will join up with the Wallabies after finishing the season with Premiership side Bath.

Barnes, who won 51 caps for Australia as an outside-half, will work as a part-time kicking consultant with former Castres boss Pierre-Henry Broncan appointed as a maul consultant and Jon Clarke leading the strength and conditioning team – a role he filled with England.

Australia kick off their Rugby Championship campaign against South Africa in Pretoria on July 8.

England centre Ollie Lawrence has been named Gallagher Premiership player of the year at the end of a season that saw him emerge from Worcester’s financial ruin to make an impact at Bath.

Lawrence found a new home at the Recreation Ground in October after the Warriors were placed into administration and he took the opportunity to revitalise a career that had been troubled by injury.

Not only did the 23-year-old help Bath qualify for the Heineken Champions Cup, his powerful running saw him recalled by England and he was a mainstay of their midfield during the Six Nations.

He beat fellow nominees Owen Farrell, Jasper Wiese and Robert du Preez to win an award that was decided by experts of the game and presented at Premiership Rugby’s awards dinner in central London.

Breakthrough player of the season went to London Irish’s Tom Pearson, the 23-year-old back row who is pressing hard for England selection.

Saracens’ Mark McCall took the director of rugby of the season award after guiding his team into the Premiership play-offs by finishing top of the table in the regular season.

Joy Neville will make rugby union history in France later this year when she becomes the first woman to officiate at a men’s World Cup.

The Irish referee has been included among seven television match officials for the tournament.

Neville, 39, controlled the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup final between England and New Zealand in Belfast.

Wayne Barnes, meanwhile, will lead a four-strong contingent of English officials among the 12 referees selected.

Barnes has controlled a world-best 102 Tests and will officiate in a fifth successive World Cup, having made his tournament bow during the 2007 staging.

He is joined by Luke Pearce, Matthew Carley and Karl Dickson, with Carley and Dickson making their World Cup refereeing debuts.

The group of referees announced by World Rugby also includes Irishman Andrew Brace and Nika Amashukeli, who becomes the first Georgian to officiate at a World Cup, with England’s Christophe Ridley and Welshman Craig Evans chosen among seven assistant referees.

“The journey to Rugby World Cup 2023 is not an easy one for match officials,” World Rugby high performance 15s match official manager Joel Jutge said.

“There are fewer roles with as much public scrutiny, but I am proud of how the team has responded to the ups and downs, always being open and acting with integrity.

“Selection is one milestone, and we have a lot of work to do before the start of the tournament with warm-up matches and the Rugby Championship.

“But this team has a great work ethic, an unwavering spirit and a great bond, and we will all benefit from increased time together as we prepare for what will be a very special Rugby World Cup 2023 in France.”

The tournament kicks off on September 8 when France host New Zealand in Paris.

Alex Sanderson has described Sunday’s play-off clash against Leicester as “a game of grand magnitude” as Sale Sharks target a first Gallagher Premiership final appearance since 2006.

Sale beat Leicester 45-20 at Twickenham 17 years ago, helped on their way by 23 points from fly-half Charlie Hodgson, while captain Jason Robinson became the first player to win Grand Finals in both rugby codes.

The Sharks have featured in just one play-off occasion since that season, though, shipping 40 points against Exeter in 2021.

Standing in Sale’s way at a sold-out AJ Bell Stadium this weekend and a return to English rugby headquarters are the reigning Premiership champions.

When the clubs last met in Greater Manchester Sale ran out 40-5 winners, while Sharks finished second behind Saracens across the regular domestic season.

“Thankfully, this isn’t our first rodeo of recent times with this group,” Sale rugby director Sanderson said.

“We have learnt from two years ago how to manage these kind of moments better.

“It is a game of grand magnitude which we are looking to enjoy and embrace, not to be overwhelmed by. That is the challenge.

“Our excitement exists within this bubble. You don’t want to talk about the further reach because it can become overwhelming, as it did two years ago.

“You have to stick to process while being aware of the buzz around. It has been really, really busy around the ground and there is lots going on this weekend.

“We feel the support more than we ever have done. We have just got to come back to what has been working well for us, which is communicating well and training hard.”

It is difficult to under-estimate the drive that Sale have taken from their play-off loss against Exeter two years ago.

Had they beaten the Chiefs – also in Devon – during the final round of regular-season action a week earlier, then it could have secured a home semi-final.

Sanderson added: “We have been working towards it and building for this for two years, certainly since a year last Christmas when we realised we had a lot of work to do as an organisation.

“Since then, we have looked at how we can give ourselves these kind of opportunities.

“Now we are here, it feels like we have earned it. It’s less of a fairy-tale and there is less emotion around this occurrence than there was two years ago.

“We have referred back to the players, in particular seven or eight of them who have won the big trophies in the past, and how they have managed these weeks, how we can manage these moments better.

“It is a general understanding of how we deal with it, make sure it doesn’t change us, but be aware that it is there.”

Leicester are ready to contest Chris Ashton’s red card that could rule him out of Tigers’ Gallagher Premiership play-off clash against Sale.

The 36-year-old former England wing was sent off for a high tackle on Harlequins’ Cadan Murley during Leicester’s 20-17 defeat three days ago.

Ashton, the Premiership’s record try-scorer, will retire at the end of this season, but he could now be banned by disciplinary chiefs.

If Ashton is suspended then his hopes of featuring in the play-off – and possibly the Premiership final on May 27 – will be over.

“When we get the date of the hearing, which I would have thought would be Wednesday, we will contest it,” Leicester boss Richard Wigglesworth said.

“It will be this week and if we get it turned around he will be available (for the play-off).

“The slipping and the dipping, there were mitigating factors in the tackle and the mitigating factors are why we think it is a yellow (card) and not a red.

“I am not calling anything dodgy. I know they have got a difficult job. We just want everything to be clear and obvious.

“If it is a high level of force and danger, then the red card is there to protect players. They have got to get it right, that is their job.

“We have got to get our tactics right, the players have got to get themselves right and they have got to get those decisions right.”

Wigglesworth would have no problem, given the time-frame, regarding Ashton’s readiness to face Sale on Sunday if he received a green light.

“Chris will know his stuff and be good to go,” Wigglesworth added.

“He is experienced and he will still have a training day knowing he is in the starting team, if that happens, so that wouldn’t be a problem for us.”

Premiership champions Leicester face a team that finished one place and 10 points above them across the 20-game regular season.

Saracens meet Northampton in the other play-off, meaning a repeat of last year’s final between Leicester and Saracens is possible.

Gregor Townsend admitted he had resigned himself to the likelihood that his time as Scotland head coach was drawing to an end before the Scottish Rugby Union recently moved to offer him a new deal until April 2026.

The 50-year-old’s previous contract was due to expire after the upcoming World Cup and, with no talks having taken place with the governing body, there was intense speculation during the winter that he would be leaving his post following the autumn showpiece in France.

However, tentative negotiations began in the middle of the recent Six Nations campaign and it was confirmed on Tuesday that Townsend – already Scotland’s longest-serving head coach after taking charge in 2017 – was set to remain at the helm for a further three years.

“I suppose the time when I wasn’t getting offered the contract, there was a lot of thinking going on there and a couple of stages in the season I thought ‘this will be my last season’, so to be able to at least have the discussion and think about the future has been a big positive and I’m obviously delighted to be able to stay with this group in this role for a few more years,” he said.

Townsend was linked with other jobs earlier this year but he insists there was never any likelihood he would commit to anything at that point.

“Not really,” he said, when asked if he was close to pledging his future elsewhere during his period in contract limbo.

“There were a couple of approaches between the Autumn Tests and the Six Nations but I don’t think there was any chance I was going to commit to anything before the Six Nations.

“The positive was that during the Six Nations, discussions started to happen between Scottish Rugby and myself. While I felt I wasn’t going to get a contract offer here, I don’t think I was going to commit to anything with a tournament on the horizon.”

Townsend, who will have been in charge for nine years if he sees out his contract, is thrilled to be remaining in a job he relishes.

“Not being able to make that choice or decision (to stay) was the difficult part,” he said.

“Me and the coaches focused on the rugby side of it because there wasn’t really any decision to make until we got to a stage where there was a contract offer.

“I love the job. You get ups and downs with it but I feel real sense of purpose being in the job.

“I’ve loved this season more than any other, the emotion down at Twickenham, seeing the way the guys came back in Paris, to have experienced a tour like last summer (in South America) with new, young players that breathed life into the team. We obviously want to build on that in the next few months ahead.”

Gregor Townsend is braced for a “difficult” task in whittling his 41-man Rugby World Cup training group down to 33 for the tournament itself, although the Scotland head coach is intent on finalising his pool for France in early August.

There were few major surprises in the 50-year-old’s provisional squad named on Tuesday. Glasgow back Stafford McDowall and Leicester lock Cam Henderson were the only uncapped players included, although both were involved in the Six Nations squad earlier this year.

Jonny Gray was the highest-profile absentee after the Exeter second row suffered a serious knee injury recently, while Fraser Brown, Johnny Matthews and Mark Bennett have been left out.

“It was really difficult,” Townsend said of his selection. “Certain positions required a lot of debate, not just yesterday but the last few weeks.

“I was really keen for a 38-man squad and then I suppose Jonny picking up his injury last week, and a couple of other things, it got to 40 and then it got finalised on 41.

“It just shows the depth we have that we’ve left out some quality players and we’ve still got so much quality in the squad.”

Scotland play four warm-up matches between July 29 and August 26 and Townsend hopes to cull eight players after the game at home to France on August 5.

“It will be difficult,” he said. “It would have been easier if it was 38 because then you only have five players to drop out the squad.

“My goal is to get that down to 33 quickly, maybe after the second warm-up game. That’s what I’m looking at, so we can start working with that 33 in training weeks, get used to them working together, with two games after that.

“If we can get down to 33, that will be really good for our preparations for the World Cup.”

Townsend confirmed he does not expect lock Gray to be fit for the World Cup after the 29-year-old dislocated his kneecap in Exeter’s Champions Cup semi-final defeat by La Rochelle a week past Sunday.

“I think it’s going to be at least four months from now until he’s back in full training and ready to play,” said the head coach. “We kick off in four months’ time against South Africa so who knows?

“It might be that a couple of weeks into the tournament we pick up an injury and he’s back in full training and played pre-season games, but I think that’s unlikely from where we stand today.

“Let’s hope he’s ready to go around September or October, whether that’s for us if we pick up injuries, or his club.”

Edinburgh wing Darcy Graham and Glasgow flanker Rory Darge are both back in the mix after missing the Six Nations through injury, while former Scotland captains Stuart Hogg and Stuart McInally – both of whom recently announced plans to retire from rugby to pursue other interests after the autumn showpiece – remain on course for World Cup swansongs.

Townsend admitted it was always unlikely there would be many newcomers to the World Cup squad given the number of players that have been integrated gradually but deliberately over the past few years.

“The form of players that have been in our recent squads,” said Townsend when asked why there were so few new faces.

“Argentina and Chile (the summer tour) last year was very important for a number of reasons, and one of the reasons was development of players that got opportunities there and have kicked on and are still in our squad.

“The Six Nations was more of a senior squad, we picked the best squad we could put together and didn’t make many changes because we wanted to keep as much cohesion as possible, so it was always going to be difficult for players outside the group to come in when the players were performing so well in games and training.

“There’s lots of depth there so if we do pick up injuries, we know we’ve got quality players just outside the squad.”

Mark McCall says Saracens’ defeat in the Gallagher Premiership final last season has proved a driving force behind their quest for an immediate Twickenham return.

Victory over play-off opponents Northampton on Saturday would land Saracens a ninth appearance in English rugby’s domestic showpiece on May 27.

Their title hopes last year were dashed by Freddie Burns’ dramatic late drop-goal that saw Leicester claim a 15-12 victory.

“I guess it wasn’t so much losing the final, it was how we lost it, which is the thing that is driving us, I think,” Saracens rugby director McCall said.

“It felt like we played within ourselves. It was how we lost, not because we lost.

“Anyone can lose a final – knockout games are hard to win – but when you don’t feel that you have given it a proper go, then you carry that all summer. I guess that has driven this season to a degree.

“We’ve enjoyed a couple of really good weeks’ preparation. The players are in good spirits.

“We don’t take these things (semi-finals) for granted and we are looking forward to it. To get a home semi-final is exactly what you want.

“They (Northampton) are a very good team, an unbelievably dangerous team, full of talented players in their squad. And this is their second semi-final in a row, so they have shown some really good consistency as well.”

Saracens go into the play-offs after topping the regular season table and finishing 16 points above Northampton.

Fly-half Owen Farrell, though, does not believe that Saracens require a trophy to validate their Premiership return three years after relegation following persistent salary cap breaches.

“I think we have performed consistently enough over the past two years since we’ve been back to be enough of a presence in the Premiership,” Farrell said.

“Do we want to win the Premiership? Yes, of course we do. We’ve got some big personalities maybe playing in their last games for the club and we want to make sure we do them proud.

“To come back and do it (win the title) within a year, we talked about it being special, and we didn’t do it.

“We are on another year now and I have not thought about it in that way too much if I am honest. We’ve been consistent enough over the past two years, without winning last year, to validate us being back in the Premiership.

“We want to be at our best, getting the best out of of ourselves, and I am sure Northampton are the same. We want to make sure we are playing some of our best stuff and we want to enjoy it.

“It’s tough to lose any final. We felt like we didn’t put the best out of us out on that day (last year) and that is obviously a credit to Leicester and what they did as well.”

Former Scotland captains Stuart Hogg and Stuart McInally remain on course for World Cup swansongs after the pair were named in Gregor Townsend’s 41-man pre-tournament training squad on Tuesday.

The experienced duo announced recently that they will retire from rugby to pursue other interests after this year’s showpiece in France.

While Exeter full-back Hogg was always expected to be included in the squad, there was some doubt about whether Edinburgh hooker McInally would be included.

In a squad of few major surprises, Glasgow back Stafford McDowall and Leicester lock Cam Henderson are the only uncapped players included, although both were involved in the Six Nations squad earlier this year.

Edinburgh wing Darcy Graham and Glasgow flanker Rory Darge are both back in the mix after missing the Six Nations through injury.

Exeter second row Jonny Gray has not been included after suffering a knee injury recently, while Fraser Brown, Johnny Matthews and Mark Bennett are among the most notable absentees.

The 41-player group will gather for an initial training camp on 29 May to begin preparations for warm-up matches at home to France, Italy and Georgia and away to the French in July and August.

The squad will then be trimmed to 33 ahead of the tournament in which Scotland will be in a group alongside South Africa, Ireland, Tonga and Romania. Their first match is against the Springboks in Marseille on Sunday 10 September.

Wales international back-row forward Dan Lydiate has sealed a return to the Dragons ahead of next season.

Lydiate, who was recently released by Dragons’ United Rugby Championship rivals the Ospreys, will rejoin a region he played for between 2006 and 2013.

The 35-year-old British and Irish Lion has won 69 caps and is part of Wales head coach Warren Gatland’s extended preliminary World Cup training squad.

The Dragons have not specified Lydiate’s length of contract.

“We are delighted that Dan is coming home to a club where it all started and a place that means a huge amount to him,” Dragons head coach Dai Flanagan said.

“Dan has enjoyed a fantastic career, playing at the very highest level, and he comes back to the Dragons producing some of his finest rugby, underlined by his recent call-up by Wales.

“He is a leader, someone who sets the standards, while his vast experience and approach to the game will be of huge benefit to our young squad.”

Lydiate said: “I’ve had a lot of positive conversations with Dai about what is being built here, and he is one of the reasons I wanted to return and sign.

“There is a good crop of young talent at Dragons, and now I am back on board I will hopefully add some experience, play my part and help them on their journey, too. I am looking forward to getting stuck in.”

Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend is excited about having the chance to “drive the team forward” in the coming years after signing a contract extension until April 2026.

The 50-year-old’s previous deal was due to expire after the World Cup in France this autumn, and there had been intense speculation prior to this year’s Six Nations that he would be leaving his post as – at that point – there had been no talks with the Scottish Rugby Union about an extension.

However, a strong tournament in which the Scots finished third appears to have persuaded Townsend’s paymasters that he deserves the chance to continue leading the team for the next three years.

“Being head coach of Scotland is a tremendous honour and I’m excited about the potential of the current squad of players and the game they can deliver against the best teams in the world,” said Townsend, who is already Scotland’s longest-serving head coach after taking the reins almost six years ago.

“I also feel the connection the team has with the country is special and that our supporters are backing the team like never before.

“The number of people who arrive two hours early to welcome the team off the bus on a home matchday demonstrates the love shown for this group of players and their belief that the squad can achieve something special.

“Our focus right now remains on Rugby World Cup preparations, but I am delighted to have secured my future for the next few years and look forward to continuing to do all I can to drive the team forward and inspire our supporters.”

Scottish Rugby chief executive Mark Dodson is keen to maintain “continuity” and “momentum” with Townsend at the helm.

“Gregor Townsend has been the most successful Scotland coach in the history of the professional era and we believe he is the right man to lead the national team beyond this year’s Rugby World Cup,” he said.

“What Gregor has built over the last six years of his tenure has taken Scotland to fifth in the world rankings and we are keen to keep that continuity and forward momentum.

“The squad has unparalleled depth which is the result of many years planned development.

“We believe he is best placed to take the team to the next level and continue to excite and engage the people of Scotland.”

Townsend is due to name his World Cup training squad later today (Tuesday).

Sale boss Alex Sanderson has admitted his interest in bringing England hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie to the club amid reports his proposed move to Montpellier has fallen through.

The 29-year-old Exeter forward was due to join the Top 14 club this summer, but reports from France have suggested the deal has broken down on medical grounds with Cowan-Dickie working his way back from ankle surgery.

Montpellier have been linked with Tolu Latu, previously a target for the Sharks, and director of rugby Sanderson revealed during a press conference on Monday that he had heard the Australia international had agreed a deal for “twice the amount of money that we offered him.”

Asked if he would be interested in Cowan-Dickie, he said: “Yes, why wouldn’t you? He’s a great player.

“I don’t know if we would be in the right price point, but he’s got mates up here as well, he fits our kind of game model in that Ewan Ashman, Akker van de Merwe mould, doesn’t he? He’s a banger, so he ticks the box on a lot of fronts there.

“But I haven’t spoken to him, I haven’t spoken to Luke, so there’s nothing there in terms of that actually materialising.”

In the meantime, Sanderson will concentrate on the task of preparing his players for Sunday’s Gallagher Premiership semi-final clash with reigning champions Leicester Tigers and to that end, has enlisted the help of rugby league great Jamie Peacock.

Peacock won nine Super League Grand Finals, four Challenge Cup finals and four World Club Challenges during his glittering playing career, and Sanderson is hoping his “champion attitude” will rub off on his charges.

He said: “We’ve got JP coming in, who’ll have a little chat to us about what champion attitude looks like.

“He’s won nine Super Leagues and four World Challenges or whatever it is. He was a legend, so we’ll hopefully take a little leaf out of his book and add it to our own.”

Sale last won the Premiership final in 2006, and lost out in the semi-finals to Exeter two years ago.

This time around, they have proven winners George Ford, who was in the Tigers side which lifted the trophy last season, and Manu Tuilagi among their ranks, and Sanderson is convinced their winning mentality is key.

Asked how important it could be, he said: “It’s crucial, isn’t it, because these are leaders who come to the fore at this time of the season.

“There are guys that have to step up on the field and are able to keep their heads and respond and find ways when the plan doesn’t work – which it invariably doesn’t against the better teams – find ways of navigating to good outcomes, to better outcomes.

“Being able to draw on their experience is crucial, like I did this morning and I will tomorrow as we go through the week. I’ll continue to lean on them, not that it’s a chore for them, they want to.”

England and Wales will head for New Zealand in October as the world champions host the sport’s elite teams in the inaugural WXV tournament.

World Rugby has confirmed the venues and dates for the new three-tier competition, which seeks to increase “the competitiveness, reach and impact” of the 15-a-side women’s game across the globe.

Eighteen teams will take part in the event, with the top six battling it out in WXV 1 in New Zealand across three weekends on October 21 and 28 and November 4, the next six contesting WXV 2 in South Africa on October 14, 21 and 28, and WXV 3 using the same dates but with the venue dependent on the nations qualifying.

World Rugby chairman Sir Bill Beaumont said: “We made a pledge at a spectacular Rugby World Cup 2021 in New Zealand to accelerate the advancement of the women’s game.

“Much progress is being made at rapid pace and today we are marking another milestone with confirmation of the dates and venues for the inaugural WXV competition.

“With women and girls leading our strategy to grow the sport on a global basis, this competition will increase the reach and impact of the sport and drive the overall competitiveness of women’s international rugby as we look forward to an expanded 16-team Rugby World Cup 2025 in England and subsequent Rugby World Cups in Australia in 2029 and USA in 2033.”

Beaten World Cup finalists England, France and Wales have already booked their places in WXV 1, while Scotland and Ireland will participate in WXV 2 and WXV 3 respectively.

The World Rugby Pacific Four Series 2023 will determine the remaining three teams in WXV 1 and one team in WXV 2, with Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States contesting the competition featuring the top two teams in Oceania and North America.

WXV will comprise two sides from Europe and one each from Asia, Oceania, Africa and South America.

Each division in the annual tournament will be played out as a cross-pool format, with promotion and relegation – although not for the first two years leading up to the 2025 World Cup – adding spice.

Former England captain Sarah Hunter is confident the competition will help raise standards globally and hone teams for World Cup battle.

Hunter said: “To know that when you look at the calendar as England – and having recently played for England – that you’ll be playing some of the best teams in the world, it can only make you better, and to know that it’s not just every four years you get that opportunity to do so.

“I just think it’s a really exciting concept, that every year you’re going to be playing in one of the toughest competitions there is.”

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