(Reuters) - The exponential growth in the profile of women's sport means there is a heavy weight of expectation about what the ninth Rugby World Cup can deliver when it kicks off in front of a record crowd in New Zealand this weekend.
On the pitch, England expect to formalise the power shift from the southern to northern hemispheres with their third title, even if reigning champions New Zealand can be anticipated to offer stiff resistance in their own backyard.
They both kick off their tournaments in what could be a sell-out triple-header at Auckland's Eden Park on Saturday - England against World Cup newcomers Fiji and New Zealand against neighbours Australia.
As well as attracting once unimaginable crowds World Rugby is hoping the Oct. 8-Nov. 12 tournament, which was delayed for a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, will prove to be a catalyst for the 15-women game.
"This tournament will light the fuse for what will be a golden decade of opportunity, certainty and growth for women's test rugby," World Rugby chief executive Alan Gilpin said at the tournament launch on Monday.
"The time is now. Our vision is a sport where ... visibility in the women's game matches the men's game, where targeted investment leads to transformational change and where we have strong and sustainable competition and growth plans."
There are challenges, however, not least the unfriendly match timings the first World Cup in the southern hemisphere presents for the huge potential television audiences above the equator.
There are also concerns that the tournament may expose the lack of depth in the women's game with England, and to a lesser extent New Zealand and France, a clear cut above the other nine sides.
All 12 teams will at least have the space to be at their best, however, with the tournament period extended to allow a full week turnaround between matches.
England will start as big favourites on the back of their 25-match winning streak over the last three years, which includes 56-15 and 43-12 victories over New Zealand's Black Ferns late last year.
The power game the Red Roses have built under coach Simon Middleton has laid waste to all-comers and they have made the rolling maul, probably the hardest manoeuvre to defend in the modern game, into a potent weapon.
France have come closest to challenging England with their own forward-dominated game, and also thrashed New Zealand twice last year, but slipped to fourth in the world behind Canada after losing to an improving Italy last month.
The Black Ferns have long been the dominant side in women's rugby - winning five of the seven World Cups they have taken part in - but New Zealand's prolonged isolation during the pandemic cost them dear.
While England, and to a lesser extent France, accelerated their professional programmes, New Zealand's top players were stuck in a holding pattern without test rugby for 27 months.
Since the rude shock of last November's European tour, however, former All Blacks assistant Wayne Smith has taken over and led the Black Ferns to six wins out of six this year.
The structure of the tournament, particularly the make-up of the quarter-final fixtures based on seedings, means the Big Three should avoid each other until the semi-finals even though England and France are both in Pool C. [L4N3110P2]
By that stage, New Zealand could be riding a tidal wave of support from their rugby-mad compatriots after playing for three weeks in front of partisan home crowds.
"It does have a different feeling," flyhalf Hazel Tubic, a veteran of New Zealand's 2017 triumph, said on Tuesday.
"In the past week we've had people like, 'Oh gosh, you're the Black Ferns' and kids asking us for photos. We've never had that before."
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by Peter Rutherford)