The 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup was given the send-off it deserved with a titanic battle between England and New Zealand. This match, shown live in the primetime evening slot on ITV1 started in terrific fashion with a minute’s silence for the late Colin Meads between the anthems and the haka, a start that the game lived up to. After an early New Zealand try, the Red Roses took control of the first half, only for a late try to make the halftime score 17-10 in favour of the defending champions. However the Black Ferns upped the ante in the second half and ran out 32-41 winners, earning their 5th World Cup tournament victory.
This was a disappointing loss for the Red Roses, the only fully professional team in the tournament, but there was also plenty for the players to be proud of and a good sign of things to come:
Though there were a number of players representing England in their 4th World Cup, there were also a number of players making their debuts in this year’s tournament, with 2 notable names in the starting XV for the final.
With many England centres having spent time in 7s recently, Megan Jones took the chance given to her to grab a place in the World Cup squad. Impressive when used earlier in the tournament, it was great to see her trusted with a starting spot against the Black Ferns with Danielle Waterman missing through concussion. She may not have been as impressive as in some of the earlier games, but she held her own at outside centre, allowing Emily Scarratt to move to fullback, from where she caused the Black Ferns a number of issues in the first half.
Even more impressive though was prop Sarah Bern. The 20-year-old just seemed to get better as the tournament went on and was probably one of England’s best players in the opening 40. She followed up her try in the semi-final with a strong early run down the right wing and was causing the New Zealand scum so many issues, helping lead to a penalty try.
Both these players should continue to improve and be even better come the next tournament in 2021, I just worry that the RFU’s decision to cut the number of professional contracts to focus on 7s will negatively impact their progression, especially that of Bern who I highly doubt will be part of the 7s setup.
Back when Stuart Lancaster was in charge of the men’s national team, there were often comments made about the way he often appeared to pre-plan his substitutions rather than react to how the game is going. It felt like Simon Middleton had gone to the Stuart Lancaster School of Substitutions for the final. The entire front row was replaced soon after half time, despite having a clear advantage over their Kiwi counterparts. Even more surprising to me was the early replacement of Rachael Burford, as I have often felt that she is the linchpin of the defence. The French looked much more likely to score after Burford was removed in the semi-final, and it certainly felt like the Kiwis started to get the upper hand once the substitutions began.
They were also defending very narrow on a regular basis, with Scarratt and Kay Wilson having to defend against a number of cross-kicks to their wing. While one of these was off target and led to nothing, 2 of these resulted in New Zealand tries. I understand that a narrow defence is often preferred as it is easier to scramble defence outside rather than through the middle, but if you are going to invite such a skilful team to attack you in a certain way, you need to make sure that you can cope with it.
More than that, I don’t understand the tactics that England were trying to play after the break. It felt like almost every time the Red Roses got the ball, they were kicking possession back to New Zealand and inviting them to attack again. There was clearly some quality in the England attack, so I don’t understand why they didn’t trust themselves to keep the ball and go through the phases a bit more. In an interview after the game, Scarratt was quoted as saying “Rugby is really hard to play without the ball and we didn’t have the ball in the second half”. As good as the Black Ferns were in the second half, they were certainly given a helping hand by England.
Luck of the Irish
Let me start this section by making something very clear: New Zealand were the better team over 80 minutes and fully deserved the win. That said, there were a number of decisions that they could consider lucky to have gone their way.
Selica Winiata’s opening try came from a lucky bounce that benefited her. If that had bounced almost anywhere else or been taken on the full by Portia Woodman – who England kept quiet on the night – then it is unlikely this try would have been scored.
Their 1st try after half time should have been disallowed as fly half Victoria Subritzky-Nafatali presented the ball after being tackled on the line, before grabbing the ball again and offloading from the floor to try scorer Toka Natua when still on the floor. This is a clear penalty to England and would have given the Red Roses a chance to clear their lines and get possession back. Natua’s 3rd try was also questionable as to my eyes it seemed that the ball was knocked on when she initially presented the ball in the tackle and got back to her feet about 10m out. I was very surprised by how quickly the TMO awarded the try in that case as when I saw the initial replay I felt it was a knock on and I still feel that having watched the incident numerous times.
I also felt that hat-trick hero Natua was lucky not to receive a yellow early in the game for what was deemed to be a high tackle but also contained no arms and think that the Black Ferns should have received a team yellow for persistent offending much earlier than the 76thminute, considering how early in the game referee Joy Neville gave a warning to the captain.
As I said, I still feel that the Black Ferns deserved the win, but on the biggest stage it is important to get the big calls right. I think that on the whole the officials did a good job in the game, but these decisions could have easily changed the course of the match.
Keep an eye out for my views on the tournament as a whole, likely due up in the next few days as I’ve had a busy couple of days.