IT'S A different tournament this year. Spain enter the women's Five Nations championship for the first time, replacing a struggling Ireland team which has withdrawn to concentrate on rebuilding its domestic rugby.
The environment of the tournament is also changing profoundly. England open their campaign against Spain at Banbury today with semi-professionalism conveyed by lottery funding and standards of preparation so emphatically improved that the players are fit to be compared with international athletes in any sport.
They may not, quite, be on the verge of riches, but England's leading players can now obtain funding for equipment, medical care, gymnasium and other training costs and also enough to tide them over if they decide to revert to part-time employment.
The money comes from a national lottery world-class performance grant.
"It gives us so much more freedom," Carol Isherwood, performance director of the Rugby Football Union for Women, said.
"It can be a shattering experience trying to fit in six or seven training sessions per week when you are also working full-time."
But the important thing is not so much the money, as the status the grant imparts. "Because the lottery has recognised them as being comparable with international athletes in other sports, it gives the girls the feeling that they have been accepted - that means more than any monetary value," said Isherwood.
The funding also hands England the key to challenging for the 2002 World Cup and, especially, to catching the brilliant world champions, New Zealand.
While competition in the Five Nations is stern, England cannot advance until they meet New Zealand more regularly, not to mention America, Canada and Australia, the other major teams.
The world-class performance grant will fund England's participation in the Canada Cup in September, when New Zealand, Canada and, it is to be hoped, other top nations will be competing.
Isherwood is trying to arrange for the team to travel to New Zealand and Australia after the tournament.
Today's game may not prove quite as taxing because, even though Spain were the surprise package of the last World Cup in 1998, they lost to England in a recent friendly.
England's new-look team contains neither of the staple figures of the last decade - Gill Burns, the former captain, played for England A against England Emerging Players yesterday and Emma Mitchell, the scrum-half, has a knee injury.
Paula George, at full-back, assumes the captaincy.
This season's Five Nations fixtures:
February 4: Wales 10, France 27 (Swansea); February 6: England v Spain (Banbury); February 18: France v England (Massy); February 19: Spain v Scotland (Murcia); March 5: England v Wales (Newbury); March 5: Scotland v France (Edinburgh); March 18: France v Spain (Dax); March 19: Wales v Scotland (Caerphilly); April 1: Scotland v England (Edinburgh); April 1: Spain v Wales (TBC).
Sunday Times 6 Feb. 2000: p 5