Conservative England vs exciting New Zealand? Or unbeatable England vs naive New Zealand?
Conservative England versus exciting New Zealand? Or unbeatable England versus naïve New Zealand?
Whatever your take on these two teams, talk to anyone who’s watched them perform over the last six weeks and you’ll immediately grasp the deep fascination about how two sides with such contrasting styles will approach this weekend’s World Cup final.
England have honed their machine-like consistency over a remarkable run of 30 games, while arguably New Zealand are still finding themselves, with a new coach on board for just over six months – albeit the master Wayne Smith – and a game-plan which has been transformed from their turgid performances in Europe just a year ago.
Remember, these two sides have contested four World Cup finals – and New Zealand have won all of them. Yet never before though have the differences between the teams been so marked.
Fascinating selection in the centre with Holly Aitchison starting. Hints at a diff sort of style. 6-2 split on the bench. MacDonald would be right to be disappointed but understandable with Packer out. Botterman injured – her and Rowland are big losses! https://t.co/fZ19wPX4YH
— Scrumqueens – Women’s Rugby (@ScrumQueens) November 9, 2022
It’s not quite as simple to say that where England are strong, New Zealand are weak and vice versa, but there can hardly be two sides with such contrasting philosophies on how to play the game.
It’s obvious to anyone with working eyesight that England’s reliance on their forward play is enormous and that their driving lineout is their biggest asset. And the facts from Opta bear it out.
England’s ten tries, via their fearsome rolling maul at this World Cup is twice as many as any other side, and their 100% maul success rate means simply that once they get this rumbling along, they’re almost impossible to stop.
By contrast, for the Black Ferns, mauling is just not a consideration. In fact, they barely even bother.
Over the course of the entire World Cup New Zealand have formed just eight mauls (England have formed 42) – and they turned the ball over on two of those occasions.
It’s obvious too that even when they go off the top, England’s lineout remains a real point of difference. Indeed, that they statistically have the best lineout at the World Cup is unsurprising.
Speaking to BBC last week, lock Abbie Ward likened it to a menu with a deep variety of options. She wasn’t lying because when you analyse where Amy Cokayne puts the ball in, you realise pretty quickly how hard it is to defend. England can win the ball anywhere in the air with Cokayne’s efforts split almost evenly between front, middle, back throws.
Ward though, is the main target, taking twice as many as Zoe Aldcroft. If New Zealand can track her movement, then maybe they have a chance of competing there – with Maiakawanakaulani Roos their best option to pinch the ball.
What are New Zealand’s key strengths then? Their own set-piece has rapidly improved and even if they cannot compete with England’s line-out, the fact that they didn’t lose a single scrum last weekend against a tough France pack will give them huge confidence.
But largely it is surely their willingness to give it a lash and their commitment to unstructured running rugby that is their biggest asset.
No team has attempted to offload the ball more than New Zealand at this World Cup with 108 offloads over five games so far.
England on the other hand have offloaded just 39 times. England’s completion rate is better but that’s perhaps simply an indication that they play it safe – only when it’s on do they go for it, the Black Ferns by contrast will take a chance.
There are a raft of other stats too which point to the contrast in styles – for example England do what you expect when they are trying to get out of their 22 and kick it most of the time, whereas New Zealand strongly favour carrying it out – doing so 85% of the time rather than putting boot to ball.
But stats apart, perhaps what will decide this World Cup is who thrives on the pressure better, for there is no escaping the fact that there is enormous pressure on both sides, despite what the Black Ferns will tell you about their underdog status.
There are 40,000 fans at Eden Park on Saturday night, heavily and vocally favouring the Black Ferns.
In a country in which rugby is a staple diet, no matter the reality of the journey they’ve been on, there is expectation on them to win at home.
England on the other hand have years of winning under their belts, years of investment into their programme and an expectation that they can make that count.
"It's a massive part of the game that we need to put a huge emphasis on."
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) November 9, 2022
They’re used to hostile crowds in the south of France, but none quite this big, and none quite on a stage like this.
If, like me, you’re a neutral this weekend, who you want to win might come down to this – how do you like your rugby?
Me – I like it all. I love England’s unashamed effort to play so determinately to their strengths, as much as I love New Zealand’s unstructured approach to the game.
World Cup Finals involving these two teams do not tend to be banal affairs – the last final in 2017, was until last weekend, one of the best women’s test matches ever.
Despite the inevitable tired limbs and exhausted minds this weekend, here’s hoping for another incredible morning of rugby.
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