Opening day women’s rugby celebration at Eden Park Rugby World Cup 2021

women's rugby celebration at Eden Park Rugby World Cup 2021

With the opening day one full of celebrations for women’s rugby, the Eden Park Rugby World Cup 2021 venue was ‘pumping’ from start to finish.

Beginning with the first-class encounter between fourth-seed Frances’ Les Bleuets and South Africa, the day progressed with the World Rugby top-ranked England Red Roses side meeting Fiji – a real crowd favourite – before the night’s climax; the New Zealand Black Ferns hosting the Australian Wallaroos.

Mixed in with a performance by Rita Ora, the atmosphere was driven by the largest crowd attendance for any New Zealand International women’s fixture – across all sports. A reported 40,000, and it was pumping from 2:00 pm until the final whistle of the night. And those on hand would not be disappointed at the Eden Park Rugby World Cup 2021 opening day.

Day 1: Eden Park Rugby World Cup 2021 triple-header

A healthy crowd was on hand for the ceremonial Maori welcome, Powhiri. Respectful to the host nation, it would kick off a triple-header of three quality rugby union International matches.

France v South Africa

Les Bleuets are highly fancied here, and to start with at the Eden Park Rugby World Cup 2021 day one fixture, they seemed to run out to a healthy opening half lead. Respectable, and they played a style that matched their form over multiple Women’s Six Nations campaigns.

Formidable, it may have affected South African women’s attitudes, to begin with. They seemed less effective to start with. If not intimidated on the big stage, the Springbok’s women must have taken on advice during the break, as they came out and scored to change the dynamic of the game. Led by a strong running openside flanker who gained plenty of meters down the tramlines. Sizophila Solontsi, along with Aseza Hele, terrorized France, though full credit to the European team, they controlled territorial pressure well.

A sharply taken quick tap from the French halfback Laure Sansus with 10-minutes to go provided some spark for her Les Bleuets teammates.  It galvanized the side, to redeem the pre-tournament form guide. France has plenty of height in their locking pair, yet it was their organized defense that saw off the South African team’s advances. While they were not as dominant as most predicted, the game ended well with a fluent backline move seeing a grubber kick collected by Joanna Grisez, to complete their first assignment.

Rating: France 5/10 – quite disappointing, and if they cannot improve by 50%, they will fall to England. Of note, they probably have one of the form halves in Sanus.

South Africa 6/10 – worked extremely hard, fans can see the improvement yet height on the outside edges is lacking. Superb back row is their secret weapon

France 40 – Tries: Laure Sansus (2), Gabrielle Vernier, Emilie Boulard, Caroline Drouin, Joanna Grisez; Conversions: Caroline Drouin (2), Lina Queyroi (3)

South Africa 5 – Try: Nomawethu Mabenge try


England  v Fiji

Facing the Fijiana women, it was the England red roses team who would play in their away colours for the Eden Park Rugby World Cup opening day. England was not phased at all though and immediately held the territorial advantage. And to nobody’s surprise, they crossed first. A lineout drive maintained the Fijian forwards’ attention, enough for Claudia MacDonald to scamper down the left-hand edge.

Though that was not the entire theme of this opening 40-minutes of rugby. It would herald a stern challenge from the Southern hemisphere women too – buoyed by a groundswell of supporters. Like any underdog, Fiji met fire with fire through their energy and willingness to ‘pass the ball out of trouble’. A good instinct, it would bring fans to their feet multiple times over the 40 minutes.

Quick taps and unpredictability were key assets that served them well over this first match. In fact, surging runs were common, offloads being used to maximum effect, with one completed with an excellent try to Alowesi Nakoci.

That style was very entertaining and showed great intent. Yes, first-ever Rugby World Cup participants against two-time winners England, so bursts of excitement tempered by lost possession that did not always end in success. They still needed to be accurate. Something England can count on in every game they prepare for.

Reacting smartly, and securely is why they are seeded number one. Hooker Amy Cokayne epitomizes that factor. A try in either half was her ‘meat pies’ she earned but for all the finishes, it is the solid line defence and settled reactions that count for much, much more. Across the park, the Red Roses are peppered with talent. Emily Scarrett is their taliswoman, yet from Lydia Thompson to Zoe Aldcroft, the contributions are balanced.

Simon Middleton’s squad has the experience and the awareness of playing a large number of Test matches that has established a baseline. Meeting Fiji first-up might have resulted in a __ scoreline blowout, but few will argue that it was one-sided. Fiji stood up well, but they would receive a classic England Rugby lesson.

A lesson that over two dozen International sides have now endured, on the Red Rose’s record run of consecutive victories. This Eden Park Rugby World Cup 2011 ground will likely see more of that team’s fine rugby example over the next five weeks.

Ranking: England 8/10 – a high rating due to completion. Even though a slight scare when Fiji opened up out wide, systems and awareness see them ready to Peak.

Fiji 7/10 – they might have got more, if not for a poor start to the second half. 80 full minutes maybe beyond them, yet they will test France and South Africa especially.

England 84 – Tries: Claudia MacDonald (4), Amy Cokayne (2), Lydia Thompson (2), Abbie Ward, Helena Rowland, Zoe Aldcroft, Abby Dow, Leanne Infante, Connie Powell; Conversions: Emily Scarratt (5), Zoe Harrison (2)

Fiji 19 – Tries: Alowesi Nakoci, Sesenieli Donu, Lavena Cavuru; Cons: Cavuru (2)


Headline act entertainment provides a pumping soundtrack at Eden Park

Providing a break in between the high-scoring action of ENGvFIJ was International popstar, Rita Ora. Providing a southern hemisphere version of [say] a Jennifer Lopez halftime SuperBowl show. Highly stylized, her pop sound resonated with the crowd and held the tempo for the thrilling game to follow.

New Zealand v Australia

When the singing of the national anthems ended, it was back to the core business of the opening day. And anticipation had proceeded the match, and it might have inspired a sense of occasion for the Australian Wallaroos. They aimed to deflate an idea that New Zealand might just ‘turn up and win’. It was definitely not the case this Night.

Australia was emphatic with their value of possession. Up to 80 percent as they used the territory to imprint their handprint after 30 minutes. Three tries stunned the local fans, and it saw the Black Ferns needing to repair the holes in their outside defence. Twice, overrun by the Aussie women’s outside attack, it threatened to unravel the current World Champions’ ambitions. Though as per usual, a repulse was forthcoming. Two tries on either edge of the park helped see them leave the field at 12-17 down.

A prolonged pause in play did not help either side. Probably as they understood the other’s strengths at this stage. So it now became a harder reality for each. For Australia, to add to its original strategy, and for New Zealand to demonstrate where its improvements have occurred. That took a long time to occur for the hosts (than Wayne Smith might have liked). Not used to seeing the Wallaroos hold out for this length of time, they stayed cool under pressure which will benefit them further into this tournament.

Though in essence, when a double blow of twin yellow cards occurred, it was just a ‘matter of time’.

The Kiwi women might not have played in front of such a large crowd, yet their energy continued longer than Australia could sustain. Their effort was admirable it was just all played in the Wallaroos’ half. Territory fell in the Black Ferns’ favour, with better handling and ball speed edging them from 17-17 to 36-17 in a matter of 20 minutes. Good return on their effort.

Ruby Tui was the epitome of that. Working across both sides of the field, apart from an unrequired grubber kick, her efforts were rewarded with a well-created try. Portia Woodman added to her collection, with a hat trick. Though the forwards must be given their just desserts. Tackle counts from the tight five were over and above measures from past World Cup games. So the Australians still held the ball that required defence – just not consistent.

In the end, the match ran away from the visitors. They could not continue the standards required – they must be admired for the surprise with which they broke out to a good lead. It is just [like Fiji] you win a game in 80 minutes. So lesson learned, and the Black Ferns know every game will bring new aspects to their game that the NZ coaching superpowers group could only have prepared.

Rating: Black Ferns 7/10 – some “beautiful free-flowing rugby” as Ruahei Demont described it, yet none of the Fern’s players will say that was good enough. Must build into the tournament, manage internal emotions [arousal levels], and as Portia Woodman said, “XVs is such a long game, we gotta play 80 minutes better”. Exactly

Wallaroos 7/10 – if their strategy had held firm, they would have stayed within striking distance. Retain a full complement of players, and they will push others.

New Zealand 41 – Tries: Portia Woodman (3), Ruby Tui (2), Joanah Ngan-Woo, Awhina Tangen-Wainohu; Conversions: Kendra Cocksedge, Renee Holmes (2)

Australia 17 – Tries: Bienne Terita (2), Ivania Wong; Con: Arabella McKenzie


Rugby World Cup 2021 continues on Sunday, October 9, in Whangarei. USA v Italy | Japan v Canada | Wales v Scotland.

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“Main photo credit courtesy of  Nick Heath Twitter