Women’s 2021 Rugby World Cup final like never before #NZLvENG

Women's Rugby World Cup 2021 final like never before

For 80-minutes of the 2021 Rugby World Cup final, the tide shifted from hemisphere to hemisphere, as New Zealand struggled to overcome the world’s leading rugby team England. Yet in the end, a demonstration of rugby soul from the Southern hemisphere proved to be the winner on the day by the nearest of margins.

Played at Eden Park on Saturday, November 12, this women’s rugby match brought to life how, no matter the gender, any fixture that can hold the world’s attention like these two team’s did is worthy of a championship clash. This Cup final concluded at 34-31, the closest of results, only narrowly won on the final play of a titanic struggle.

Some have pinpointed key moments as pivotal to the result, and there is no doubt a nasty head clash between England’s Lydia Thompson and Portia Woodman did cut the Red Roses potency. But, try to explain how the English team led for the majority of the game. They had to use all of their energy reserves, and can be proud that they did not falter from the high standards achieved since 2017 that earned them top seeding for this tournament.

Playing the third World Cup final at Eden Park, and playing to the biggest crowd ever for a women’s rugby International, the game held their full attention right til the last seconds. And the 42,579 spectators all stayed to witness the prize giving, with signatures given to those who had found new idols in rugby union. The Black Ferns, Red Roses, Les Bleuets, and all the nations that competed were deserving of praise for elevating the sport; whether it was a women’s or men’s event, this surely was a Rugby World Cup final to hit new levels of interest.

Entertaining throughout. The final scoreline exchanged a massive 65 points. 11 tries in total. The most points accumulated in any Rugby World Cup final. Out of any of the previous cup finals, and for the home side continued a trend of finals victories.

Six world titles, five times defeating England in the last fixture of a tournament that England have won twice themselves, and came so close to taking the silverware back home.

Won by the barest of margins mind you. By the finest of outcomes, a challenged lineout saw the ball turned over and a New Zealand maul freekick saw the game concluded after 80, epic minutes.

Women’s 2021 Rugby World Cup final like never before

‘Like never before’ is a turn of phrase the New Zealand Black Ferns used for this women’s Rugby World Cup. The first to be hosted by New Zealand, the reigning World Champions entered the tournament farther down the seedings than they might have been several years earlier. But the Coronavirus pandemic minimized their International exposure, causing internal friction and heavy losses at the end of 2021 added to the need for an internal review.

The heartbreak, the highs, and lows between the last World Cups, as well as the postponement of the event from the original 2021, saw the Black Ferns unsettled. All while England continued to a massive 30-match winning streak. They were the superior nation, and it took the introduction of new coach Wayne Smith and a lot of soul-searching before the New Zealand team found their mojo again.

Less confident that they could successfully retain the trophy, that nuance placed pressure on England who appeared to manage those expectations better. They began the Cup final with the best intentions. A tryout wide was quickly followed by a familiar driving maul try to Amy Cokayne. She would compile three tries in this match, to be the second player to score a hat trick in a Rugby World Cup final.

It saw a good response from the hosts too, and down 19-26, it was unfamiliar territory for the usually dominant Kiwi women. Wayne Smith summarized their attitude when saying “We knew from six months ago that if we were going to play them then we were going to have to develop our unstructured game, we were going to have to play something different and take some risks.” So when their backline moved the ball wide, Stacey Fluher showed that underlying confidence would drive her side toward their objective.

England would respond, again and again, taking back the lead through penalties and several tries that were answered in kind by New Zealand. A brace to replacement winger Ayesha Leti-l’iga gave New Zealand a narrow lead – and saw a parallel with the thrilling final 10 minutes of the 2011 Eden Park final. The pressure was squarely on the hosts, who made several poor mistakes to provide England with territory near the Black Ferns line.

Down to the last play, a lineout is usually a strength of the Red Roses. 9/10 times, they would have scored, so for New Zealand to challenge and get a fingertip in the way of Abbie Ward’s usually secure hands, was the undoing of the best-laid plans by Simon Middleton and Sarah Hunter.

England’s head coach could not be prouder of his team

Sitting beside his embattled captain, Simon Middleton made no excuses. He labeled the match one of the very best. At the press conference, he declared “I feel hugely positive about what we just witnessed. I don’t think we could have asked for a single thing more of our players.”

“I thought we played really well in the tournament. I thought we played really well tonight, we just came unstuck against a side that just had a bit more than us. And full credit to the Black Ferns. To all the Black Ferns and their staff, they are worthy World Champions. But I’m sat here, and I could not be prouder of the players.”

Sarah Hunter too was adamant, nothing more could be done. Feeling “hurt” and saying it would take time to absorb, she carried herself with distinction. Highly respected, becoming the world record holder for most tests in women’s rugby during the tournament. Fans of the English team will offer their full support, as the woman returns to England over the next days and weeks.

By comparison, the wide smiles were clearly on the faces of the New Zealand squad. Co-captain Ruahei Demant was adamant the whole squad contributed to this one result. Telling media, “We knew where the space was, we just had to get the ball there and we knew that their lineout drive was killing us, so we tried to keep the ball in and not concede any penalties. It took 80 minutes and it took 23 players. I guess, to sum up the game I’m just really proud of all 32 of us really.”

Wayne Smith was also proud. ‘The Professor’ who had recovered from a health scare and when asked to join the Black Ferns, openly had some hesitation. How could he train a women’s side? He took inspiration from a coaching idol, Laurie O’Rielly. And helped resurrect the Black Ferns ‘sense of self.’

Yet after this RWC final win – his third as a coach – now he expressed his love for the girls. Saying postgame, “I said to the team this morning that I loved them and was proud of them. I’ve never been more proud of a team. We just wanted to go out and play and be true to our DNA in what we were trying to do.”

And the theatre of Eden Park was the ultimate setting for Smith, and his fellow coaching mentor, Sir Graham Henry, to depart the game. In coaching terms only; both will be valuable observers and will surely have more input as the game globally is enriched by this women’s Rugby World Cup final that shows to all fans where the game is headed. Professional, fully contracted women that can also be ambassadors for the sport, can inspire others to look for a pathway in XVs or in rugby sevens.

This is the new recognition that the last decade of development has built. That when Ruby Tui spoke of rugby administrators saying women would never be paid, and would never sell out stadiums, the new modern women’s game is proving them so wrong! Celebrating on the sidelines, Tui told a reporter, “They said nobody cared about women’s rugby, well guess what? We out here. We’re going nowhere.” And now with her massive reach, it is showing that a women’s player can have the same global impact as Sonny Bill Williams or Cheslin Kolbe.

With the next Rugby World Cup set to be played in France less than 300 days away, fans can enjoy a slight breather before the excitement levels ramp up yet again for the men’s tournament in France. And with the WXV International competition set to redress a lack of women’s fixtures, the future looks bright for rugby union.

In the earlier bronze medal playoff match, France defeated Canada 36-0.


“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images