Challenge Accepted: World Cup contenders, obstacles and opportunities
When French backrow Romane Ménager crashed through a sea of white shirts to open the scoring in the winner takes all Six Nations finale in Bayonne back in April, at last it felt that England might be in a contest.
In the four games prior, England had racked up 258 points, conceding just 10.
Against Ireland, in front of a record crowd in Leicester, fans clad in green even came away with the feeling that their team had done pretty well to make life uncomfortable for a much stronger England team, yet the scoreboard still read England 69 Ireland 0.
That’s how good this current England team is. Living with them for a decent spell across 80 minutes can feel like a win, but inevitably their superior fitness, an impressive bench and all-round power makes even technically adept teams like France look second rate.
On the back of continued growth in crowds, broadcast coverage and standards, this World Cup should be the best yet, but England’s recent dominance – 25 wins in a row and counting – casts a shadow over the competitiveness of the international women’s game.
Help, and hope, is on the way in time for the 2025 World Cup, which England will host, via World Rugby’s long awaited global women’s test competition ‘WXV’, and England’s dominance has also forced, often reluctant, unions to invest in their elite women’s game.
Such has been the embarrassment of being on the end of yet another hiding at the hands of Simon Middleton’s team, that vague plans unions had to professionalise have been accelerated. Ireland, who said less than a year ago that contracts were not a priority, are now among a spate of countries offering their players a career as a rugby player – Wales, Scotland, Italy have also joined the ranks of professionalism in the past 12 months.
The combination of further professionalism, plus more test games for the top 18 sides in the world via ‘WXV’ means that we might be talking about a more competitive World Cup in three years’ time, but this time, it is surely England’s to lose.
England, or the Red Roses, as they are now styled, have always been one of the best teams in the world of course, but they have not always been favourites to win World Cups.
Like New Zealand, they have always had access to a strong pipeline of talent, but since they lost the final to the Black Ferns in 2017, something else has happened – England’s best players were handed the opportunity to become unbeatable.
It has become an axiom in sport that talent is everywhere, but it needs opportunity to thrive.
This is especially true in women’s sport where for so long women have been denied the opportunity to train full-time, to have time to rest and recover and to have access to the highest quality coaching and support.
When talent played talent, New Zealand usually won out – but England, with almost three extra years of opportunity via professionalism, have become a different beast.
For that reason, it’s almost impossible to see anyone else lifting the trophy in November.
New Zealand, who recently contracted their players, will of course be highly competitive and they have improved enormously since being thrashed by England and France less than a year ago.
But even the arrival of superstar winger Portia Woodman, fresh from Sevens duty, cannot shake off the fact that they look like what they are – a team on the up but not there yet.
There is a way they can win though – but they will need to find a bar we’ve not seen them reach over the past year consistently across the tournament and at the same time hope that something goes wrong behind the scenes in the England camp. There’s a landing zone for a home win – but there is minimal room for error.
Of the rest, France and Canada feel most likely to be in contention.
That France changed their coaching team with just a few months to go to the World Cup after defeat to England reflects their desire to do whatever it takes to reach their first final – a remarkably poor return for a country which has access to such a deep talent pool and one which has been at the forefront of investment.
Their loss to Italy in the warm-up games was a surprise, but their pool game against England is the absolute highlight of the early clashes. That it is one of the few games not taking place in the middle of the night (kick-off is at 8am in England) should also broaden the appeal to fans back here.
Canada’s decision to become one of the rare countries to visit Fiji before heading to New Zealand is a reminder too that they are taking their preparations seriously, and as regular semi-finalists – and finalists in 2014, on their day they have the potential to beat anyone.
This World Cup sees a welcome return of quarter-finals for the first time since 1998, previously ditched in recognition both of the massive chasm between the top four sides in the world and the rest, as well as the difficulty amateur players had in taking even more time out of their lives to play the extra games required.
Mismatches and lopsided scorelines are therefore likely all the way through to the semi-finals – a recognition of where the game is at, though with much hope for the future, especially when you consider that the majority of teams in New Zealand now contract their players.
Finally, while having a World Cup in New Zealand brings many advantages – nowhere can match the deep cultural links the country has with the game, the inevitably challenging kick-off times means it’s likely this event will struggle to resonate as it should or draw in new followers in Europe – home to rugby’s biggest TV audience and fanbase.
The 2022 Women’s Euros proved that there is a massive audience in this part of the world for well-profiled, well-marketed and well-invested women’s teams and whether the game can significantly capitalise off the back of a World Cup largely played when its biggest audience is in bed is a massive challenge.
This matters to a sport seeking to lure the sort of investment and fanbase that will secure its future – so let’s hope the competition can generate levels of excitement that transcends a time-zone.
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