England’s clash with New Zealand can send women’s rugby into stratosphere

Sport

There are some big games of rugby this month but Saturday’s World Cup final between the Black Ferns and England is right up there. Interest has skyrocketed to such an extent over the past 24 hours that a world record attendance is assured at Eden Park for a contest with the potential to launch women’s rugby into another commercial stratosphere.

Organisers say there has been huge demand for the last remaining seats, with thousands of New Zealanders clamouring to watch the defending world champions against the Red Roses in an intriguing clash of styles and outlooks. As a result the stadium will be full to its 40,000 capacity, beating the previous record of 34,235 for a women’s fixture set at the same venue last month.

Those lucky enough to attend will be even more fortunate if the final yields half the entertainment generated by the semi-finals on Saturday, one of the greatest days in Women’s Rugby World Cup history. Actually, let’s rewind that sentence and erase the word “women’s”. If ever there was definitive proof that female team sport can be more watchable than the male equivalent, this was it.

Perhaps Thomas Ramos, scorer of 20 points in France’s men’s Test win over Australia, would have nailed the last-gasp penalty from virtually bang in front that poor Caroline Drouin dragged wide to allow the Black Ferns to advance to the final. Otherwise the two matches contained every element needed for momentous sporting drama, with the players and coaches of France, New Zealand, Canada and England collectively deserving significant credit.

From the perspective of a branch of the game still in commercially uncharted territory, it was also potential gold dust. England’s captain Sarah Hunter launch an impassioned plea for further investment across the board after Canada’s amateurs had threatened to pull off a remarkable underdog win against the professional Red Roses. “I hope all the nations that don’t invest as much as England say: ‘That’s where we need to go next because that’s what the women’s game globally needs,’” urged Hunter. “Hopefully this World Cup is the start of that.”

It is certainly hard to argue, for example, that New Zealand’s Ruby Tui or England’s Abby Dow are lesser crowd pleasers than, say, Sevu Reece or Damian Penaud. Having scored one of the second-half tries that edged the Black Ferns past France’s mostly outstanding defence, it was also the charismatic Tui who best summed up the possibilities of this week’s final from a marketing perspective.

“Women’s rugby is knocking on the door and I’d say to everybody: ‘You don’t want to miss out on this,’” said the New Zealand winger, an Olympic sevens gold medallist in 2020. “Whatever happens in the final I just hope people walk away going: ‘Wow, I should have been watching women’s rugby for a long time.’ We know we have it in us and we know what we have to do. It’s just a case of who’s going to turn up. You can train the house down but it’s the big pressure moments that matter.”

Those England squad members still scarred by defeat to the same opposition in the 2017 final can testify to that. Having led 17-10 at half-time in Belfast, the Red Roses went down 41-32 and the disappointment has niggled away at their head coach Simon Middleton ever since. “It’s a desperate feeling and one you don’t want to experience too many times,” said Middleton. “It’s a case of having something so close it’s in your grasp and then it’s gone. You also know how much of a difference it would make to the game and to the players if you succeed. This week is exactly the same.”

On paper England should be well prepared this time, having gone 30 Tests unbeaten and worked hard on their ability to defend a lead in the final quarter. The issue will be whether the hosts’ sizzling runners can go one better than Canada, who caused England plenty of inconvenience. Kick poorly and leave defensive holes and Wayne Smith’s New Zealand, even with minimal possession, will gleefully seize every opportunity. “The way the Black Ferns have turned round in the last year is phenomenal,” acknowledged Middleton. “That shows the momentum they’ve got. It’s something we’ll have to wrest away from them.”

Both Middleton and Hunter appear to be approaching the final furlongs of their Red Rose stewardship and would dearly love to deliver a tournament victory to boost the profile of the 2025 event, which is being held in England. “It would be immense,” said Middleton. “It’ll be an unbelievable tournament anyway … but winning here would accelerate it like the women winning the Euros has accelerated football. There are a lot of players starting to creak but it’s about how you make sure your physical preparation is as good as it can be. Then it’s about what you’ve got inside. We’ll see.”