The level of interest surrounding England’s World Cup final against New Zealand has been crazy and my social media feed has been full of anticipation and excitement as we head into the final eagerly awaited at a sold-out Eden Park, which is great news for the Game.
The English starting XV excites me. I didn’t predict Holly Aitchison would turn 12 as she hasn’t played many minutes in the tournament so far, but she is an amazing distributor and provides the team with that second flyhalf role that Helena Rowland has played before.
This means the team have a bit more balance again and are able to position Emily Scarratt as the predominant hardline runner, which really suits England. It’s a bit of a statement of intent from Simon Middleton that he wants to play a bit of a wider game, which I think they have the talent in their backs to execute and they’ve been keen to see all along.
England captain Sarah Hunter explains how the long break between the Rugby World Cup semi-final and final has affected her side and what it means for the sport
As with all tactical decisions in elite sport, there is an element of risk in selecting a less experienced player in such a pressured game, but Middleton must be convinced that Aitchison can offer him and enable the team to better exploit the threat. that Scarratt can pose to any opposition.
Of course, it will be hugely disappointing for the players who are out, either through injury or those who aren’t part of the matchday squad. It’s particularly difficult for Helena Rowland given the form she was in and who can’t play after suffering an injury in the semi-finals. There will also be some disappointed girls in the team, like Rosie Galligan and Jess Breach – who didn’t get as many minutes on the pitch as she thought.
For these players it will be really important that they treat this selection positively and focus on the squad making sure Matchday 23 has everything they need. It’s definitely hard to deal with disappointment, but knowing these girls like me, I’m sure they’ll work hard to be the best teammates.
For players, as the final edges draw closer, you just want to make sure you’ve completed the final training session, all other preparations are ticked off, and you can focus on dealing with the inevitable nerfs. Thinking back to the three finals I’ve been to, I just wanted to stay busy doing things and not think about the fact that I was days away from a World Cup final.
As far as this group goes though, in all honesty, I think the girls have been ready for this moment for a long time and are going to deal with their nerves and everything that comes with it in their own way. At least the team was able to travel to New Zealand during downtime and some have friends and family there which will have been a welcome distraction I’m sure.
It’s time for Sarah Hunter to win the World Cup captaincy crown
England have appeared in the last four finals but have only won once and the memories of those past experiences, some joyful, some painful, will no doubt come back to the more experienced members of the Reds squad. Roses. This week, I thought about the preparation for this 2014 final against Canada and the speech I gave to the team, it’s true that the Paris tournament was the one where everything fell into place for us but the responsibility of leading your country to the final should not be underestimated.
Like many former athletes, I am intensely competitive and proud of all that I have achieved in my career, but I feel fully prepared to hand over the role of ‘last World Cup winner’ to Sarah Hunter. Saturday morning ! Sarah is an amazing person and a phenomenal leader and will know exactly what to say in the locker room. She is surrounded by an abundance of leadership and talent like Emily Scarratt, Abbie Ward and Marlie Packer – who will take over whatever Sarah needs. As was the case in 2014, leadership will have to come from all over the field.
Looking back five years after the 2017 final New Zealand were favourites, we had the opportunity to turn them around and for the first half we did, but they responded in the second half in a way that we just couldn’t answer. I’m sure the girls will have talked about what will happen if New Zealand show us something different, what will happen if they show us a tight game rather than their usual expansive approach.
The pain of this defeat means England will no doubt be much better prepared than we were in 2017. You hear some of Simon Middleton’s speeches about how they are better prepared as a group and all that which he learned as a coach in 2017. This time around I hope we find that England have discussed and rehearsed different scenarios they could face and how to combat them, and that will make a huge difference .
Coming into this showdown against the Black Ferns, the feeling is somewhat different compared to the last two finals we lost to them (in 2010 and 2017), the preparation, the tournament experience in each team and the form of both teams firmly position England as the favorites they may prefer.
Inside the locker room
The girls have been together for so long now and the pre-game approach will have evolved throughout the tournament. They’ve been doing this week in and week out for the past seven weeks, so the locker room will be a really organized place to find out how they’re best mentally preparing for what’s to come. I imagine there will be a lot of music played before the game and there will be individuals who handle themselves very differently.
Some girls may leave their headphones on depending on their needs, others may be dancing. Then you will find players chatting with people who find a source of support. This is the advantage of the locker room and an experienced group, people know what they have to do personally and respect the individual approaches of those around them.
Facing the Haka and the noisy crowd
Although there are other examples of the men’s game, the Black Ferns are the only opponents you face in England who will do a pre-match Haka. As a neutral, it’s amazing to see this unfold and I’m sure it will elicit a lot of emotion and loud support from the New Zealand fans in the stadium.
As for facing the Haka as a player, it’s changed from what it was before, as I think you now have to stand 20 meters away. I remember in 2010 we started getting closer and we got closer to them as they were coming our way we were literally nose to nose with the Kiwi players and I remember Maggie Alphonsi running that . This will be something to be talked about on the team, most likely just a case of allowing the Black Ferns to follow their processes and be respectful.
During the preparation for the 2014 World Cup, we started to move from the long line of players to a circle as soon as it was over and this has continued until now. This was deliberate as it meant that, having shown our respect to this tradition, we closed in a tight circle and the captain had the last laugh with the girls – rather than the last pre-game moment being the one that was dictated by a black fern. stares at you, instead they are left there while you close ranks for the last few seconds.
These are small but interesting details I guess, they won’t entirely dictate the outcome of course, but they all contribute to the feeling of calm and control that Red Roses will be looking for. England will have decent support in the crowd, but the players will try to block out all the noise and will no doubt have thought about how they handle it to ensure they can hear line-up calls, especially. ensuring that all communication around strategy changes is properly received. and how that message is transmitted down the line.
England is best player for player
I don’t believe England will focus too much on how New Zealand line up, they will just look after themselves, but we know they won’t want to play a kicking game inaccurate, because giving New Zealand the chance to counterattack could be very dangerous.
New Zealand have clearly built their momentum throughout the tournament and kicked off this year, they’re a different side to the one we saw last fall in England who suffered back-to-back defeats. But pound for pound, the Red Roses absolutely have the players and the experience to beat them on Saturday morning. New Zealand have scored some very good tries so far in this tournament, but the English group have been so dominant that I don’t see New Zealand being able to live with that for 80 minutes.
Poppy Cleall said earlier this week that playing New Zealand in a sold-out Eden Park is what rugby fairy tales are made of and I wholeheartedly agree. The Red Roses, with Sarah Hunter at the helm, had hardly made a mistake in the two or more years before this final, they deserved the chance to beat New Zealand at home in front of the world. and fully underline their dominance in the world game – easing the pain of some New Zealand World Cup defeats along the way.
It only remains for them to deliver their best performance when it counts, if this resurgent Black Ferns side are at their best, and with the crowd behind them, then it will take nothing less than an England team at the peak of his art. . Do that and this team will all be heroes.
Follow our blog live as England take on New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup final on Saturday, kick off at 6.30am