A look ahead to England v Canada and New Zealand v France
Women’s Rugby World Cup Semi-finals: The Key Battles
Semi-finals Saturday is nearly upon us. Eden Park will host back-to-back games to determine who will reach the Rugby World Cup final – and there are some intriguing talking points.
England take on Canada in the first semi-final, with the world’s No 1 side favourites to extend their winning run to 30 matches and reach a seventh World Cup final, albeit that it is expected to be a far closer contest than the Red Roses’ 51-12 victory last year.
They play a similar style of rugby, with both demonstrating the strength of their driving maul throughout this tournament, but they have dangerous runners in their ranks, too, so it will be interesting to see if they are deployed.
The second semi-final pits New Zealand against France in what is a much harder game to predict. France beat the Black Ferns convincingly twice a year ago but both sides have undergone changes to their coaching set-ups since then, with New Zealand playing a completely different brand of rugby now.
France have yet to hit top gear in this tournament but they do tend to raise their game against the best teams, as we saw against England in the pool stages, so it should be a fascinating contest.
Here we drill down into some of the focal points for the two matches. Make sure you don’t miss any of the action with our Rugby World Cup live stream guide.
Women’s Rugby World Cup Semi-finals: The Key Battles
Amateur v professional
Canada are the last amateur team standing in this tournament, not that they like to be described as such. And in fairness, they have been as professional in their preparation as they can be for a group of players not being paid.
Those that could took time off work to commit to extra camps in the build-up to the World Cup to ensure they were in the best shape mentally and physically on arrival in New Zealand.
They are an extremely well-drilled side – that is shown through the effectiveness of their set-piece – but they also present a running threat, with coach Kevin Rouet saying he wants Canada “to be the best structured and unstructured team in the World Cup”.
It’s worked so far as they are on an eight-Test winning run themselves – the best in their history – and they are sure to challenge England, who have been professional for three years.
Regardless of the result, the hope is that this is the last World Cup where we do see professional teams up against amateur ones. Yes, it’s unlikely we will have 16 fully pro teams in 2025 but even some sort of contracts for more nations would be beneficial.
Canada are already an incredible team – but how much better could they be with more investment, whether from their union or World Rugby? After all, in recent years they have been far more successful than their men’s 15s team, who failed to even qualify for RWC 2023.
Oh, the great No 8s. Hunter, 37, became the most-capped England rugby player last week. She’s been playing Test rugby for 15 years and this is her fourth World Cup.
She proved what a master of controlling the ball at the back of a scrum she is in torrential rain in the quarter-final against Australia and is also prominent in other facets of the game, whether jumping in the lineout, carrying hard or making tackles.
De Goede – the younger of the two at just 23 – is also an all-rounder, but she probably has a few more strings to her bow and has been (in this writer’s view at least) the best player at this World Cup.
As well as being Canada’s main lineout target, a regular carrier and an athletic presence at restarts, she is also their goalkicker. Yes, a back-rower who kicks.
Both have also shown incredible leadership throughout this tournament and their captaincy is sure to come to the fore again during Saturday’s semi-final.
Driving maul v driving maul
The Red Roses maul has been a big talking point at this World Cup, with some critical of England’s reliance on the lineout drive (23 of their 35 tries at this tournament have come from lineout possession) , but there is no denying it has been mightily effective.
So, too, has Canada’s. It was their driving maul that so overwhelmed Japan in their opening fixture and they have been clinical in that area during the rest of their campaign.
Now the top two mauls in this tournament are going head-to-head. Will one be able to nullify the other or will they cancel each other out?
The lineout nauses in the two squads will surely have been poring over the footage this week to try to find a chink in their opponent’s set-up and it should be a quality tactical battle. Or they may opt to surprise us all and spread it wide!
As for the suggestion that England don’t have a ‘Plan B’, coach Simon Middleton was quick to highlight that the same could be said of the Black Ferns.
“We’re confident we’ve got whatever game we need to get the performance we want,” he said. “I think New Zealand have got a bigger problem because they can only score with their backs, but nobody is making a fuss about that.”
Attack v defence
The New Zealand v France semi-final is a perfect illustration of attack versus defence. The Black Ferns have scored the joint-most tries so far in this year’s tournament (35, level with England, and a fifth of them scored by Portia Woodman) while France have conceded just two tries and 21 points overall.
Can New Zealand continue to play the all-out attacking game that has so delighted crowds at the World Cup in the face of the French line speed? And can France contain the running threats of the likes of Woodman, Ruby Tui and Stacey Fluhler?
Black Ferns director of rugby Wayne Smith has described the French defence as “just about unbreakable” but there is no doubt he is relishing the challenge of breaking it and will have a few creative plays up his sleeve.
Likewise France coach Thomas Darracq has been keen to keep the pressure on New Zealand, emphasising how the tournament hosts are favourites given their five previous World Cup triumphs, despite the fact that France have won the last four matches between the two.
He did admit, though, that playing them more regularly in recent years, including those two big victories a year ago, means players are less intimidated when facing New Zealand.
“Whether it was the men’s or women’s teams, we felt like it was the New Zealand ogre,” said Darracq. “We didn’t play them much, the haka, the whole culture and everything from that strength and power of the All Blacks and the Black Ferns.
“I think that today it has been mitigated a little because we meet them more often, because we beat them recently too.”
Renee Holmes v France’s kickers
Holmes was on the bench for last week’s quarter-final against Wales but is back in the No 15 shirt for this weekend’s fixture against France, with Wayne Smith opting for the “specialist full-back” given the potency of les Bleues’ kicking game and shifting Ruby Tui to the wing.
Smith spoke of the various kicking options France have at their disposal, from scrum-half Pauline Bourdon’s box-kicking to the left foot of full-back Emilie Boulard to the attacking kicking of Caroline Drouin at fly-half. France average the most kicks (26) per game at this World Cup.
Holmes herself is “excited for the challenge”, adding: “Playing against a team that loves to kick is a happy day for a full-back.”
France v the haka
The Black Ferns have delivered some brilliant hakas throughout this World Cup, with the one at Eden Park on the opening day particularly powerful.
We have also seen teams prepare a ‘response’, with Australia, Scotland and Wales advancing towards the Black Ferns. So what will France do?
The men’s team stood in an arrow formation and walked forward ahead of the 2011 final at the same venue. Maybe we’ll see something similar on Saturday. It could be the perfect precursor to what should be a cracking match.
Head to our Rugby World Cup hub page for all the latest from New Zealand.
Download the digital edition of Rugby World straight to your tablet or subscribe to the print edition to get the magazine delivered to your door.
Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.