All you need to know about the Women’s World Cup final between England and New Zealand
England v New Zealand under the lights at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast on a Saturday night – what a Women’s World Cup final it is going to be.
It’s the defending champions against the four-time champions. It’s England’s fifth straight World Cup final and their fourth against the Black Ferns. England lost the previous three, finishing runners-up in 2002, 2006 and 2010, and the rivalry between the two is huge.
England not only beat the Black Ferns on New Zealand soil for the first time since 2001 in June but they also usurped them as the world’s No 1 team in the rankings. Yet this week New Zealand were back on top courtesy of their victory over higher-ranked Canada in the pool stages. We don’t have to wait long to find out who is the world’s best team, however; that will be decided on Saturday night – and it should be a cracker of a World Cup final.
Flanker Marlie Packer has been at the forefront of England’s route to the final and is not intimidated by the Black Ferns’ record in the tournament. “There’s no fear factor,” she says. “At the end of the day we’re a very confident team and we don’t fear anyone. We’d never underestimate New Zealand and they’d never underestimate us. At the same time it’s a case of concentrating on ourselves. It’s going to be a massive physical battle. I love the physical battle.
“Everybody’s game has raised since 2014 and the competitiveness has raised. That is what people want to see – quality players, tough games and a physical battle with players putting it all into the shirt for their country. This is a whole other level compared to 2014.”
The increase in standards has been widely heralded and one of the standout improvements has been in kicking. In this area, England and New Zealand lead the way. Katy Mclean’s ability to execute accurate touchfinders and play a territorial game has been crucial for England, and she is ably supported by the boot of Emily Scarratt and the box-kicking of Natasha Hunt. As Hunt says: “Katy has put us in the right areas of the field, understanding when and where we need to kick. She’s been phenomenal and that’s been huge for us.”
Those dressed in black have several kicking options too. Kendra Cocksedge, Kelly Brazier and Victoria Subritzky-Nafatali are all involved and Mclean says: “They’ve got a really dangerous kicking game.”
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Subritzky-Nafatali, by her own admission, doesn’t look like your traditional fly-half. The 25-year-old, who has German, Polish, Samoan and Maori heritage, started out as a back-row and moved to the ten spot aged 17 when “I gained a bit of skill”. Asked if she thinks England and New Zealand are the two best kicking sides in the competition, she replies: “I think New Zealand are the best at everything.”
She goes on to pay tribute to the supporters as well as the team, but it’s those sort of comments that represent the fine line between confidence and arrogance, a fine line that is often debated when discussing New Zealand rugby.
What isn’t up for debate is the pure joy Subritzky-Nafatali demonstrates when representing New Zealand, positioning herself at the end of the line-up for the anthems and swaying to the music with a huge smile on her face.
“We have a really unique culture here and the group is really tight,” says Black Ferns coach Glenn Moore. “They enjoy each other’s company and have a lot of fun. A lot of them gravitate towards music and it’s a musical team. We grow strength out of that.”
Moore has named an unchanged starting XV for the final and there is only one tweak on the bench, Kristina Sue coming in for Linda Itunu as they revert to a 5-3 split between forwards and backs replacements.
England head coach Simon Middleton has made one change, enforced by the fact Danielle Waterman failed an HIA during the semi-final against France. Emily Scarratt moves to full-back with Megan Jones coming in at 13, and Amy Wilson Hardy earns a place on the bench.
“Emily is an accomplished full-back, she’s played there a lot, and when Jonesy has come in she’s played really well at 13,” says Middleton. “She gives us a good balance to the side in terms of she’s an aggressive defender so will get us on the front foot. With Emily at full-back, we will have more of a kicking game from there.”
Both coaches believe their sides have improved since they met in June, when England won 29-21 in Rotorua. In Belfast we will find out who has improved the most.
“The two best teams in the world qualified for the final,” says Moore. “We’ve all come off the same format – four-day turnarounds – and it will come down to the best team on the day.
“I think it will be an arm-wrestle early on for sure. We’ll just have to see how the game unfolds. Both teams will have done their analysis on each other and it will be two teams putting their best out there. It will be a very physical, bruising encounter.”
Middleton concurs, saying: “They’re a very physical side. They’ve got some great talent and they like to get on the front foot – that’s when they’re at their best. They’ve developed as they’ve gone through the tournament. They’ve been outstanding as an attacking and defensive force, and they’ve scored some great tries. They’ve moved their game on since we played (in June) but I’d like to think we have as well. It’s pretty evenly matched.”
The bookmakers are finding it difficult to pick a favourite – but we don’t have long to wait to find out who is the best team in the world.
England v New Zealand, Saturday 26 August, 7.45pm, Kingspan Stadium, Live on ITV & 5live
England: E Scarratt; L Thompson, M Jones, R Burford, K Wilson; K Mclean, N Hunt; V Cornborough, A Cokayne, S Bern, A Scott, T Taylor, A Matthews, M Packer, S Hunter (captain).
Replacements: V Fleetwood, R Clark, J Lucas, H Millar-Mills, I Noel-Smith, LT Mason, A Reed, A Wilson Hardy.
New Zealand: S Winiata; P Woodman, S Waaka, K Brazier, R Wickliffe; V Subritzky-Nafatali, K Cocksedge; T Natua, F Faamausili (captain), A Itunu, E Blackwell, C Smith, C McMenamin, S Goss, A Savage.
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Replacements: TK Ngata-Aerengamate, S Talawadua, A Nelson, B Wood, L Ketu, K Sue, T Fitzpatrick, C Hohepa.
Referee: Joy Neville (Ireland).