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'I think it is cool too... 30,000 people are coming here to support women'

By Stefan Frost
(L-R) Rachel Malcolm (Scotland), Saki Minami (Japan), Siwan Lillicrap (Wales), Shannon Perry (Australia), Gaelle Hermet (France), Sarah Hunter (England), Kennedy Simon (New Zealand), Sereima Leweniqila (Fiji), Kate Zackary (USA), Nolusindiso Booi (South Africa), Sophie de Goede (Canada) and Elisa Giordano (Italy) pose in front of a mural specially created for the tournament during the Rugby World Cup 2021 Captains' Photocall at Eden Park on 2 October, 2022 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

The captains of 12 nations competing at the Women’s Rugby World Cup met at Eden Park on Sunday with the showpiece spectacle set to kick off on the 8th October.

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Representatives from each country gathered for photo calls and when interviewed, all oozed excitement for what lay ahead.

Five-time winners New Zealand are on hosting duties and could oversee record-breaking crowds, with more than 30,000 tickets already sold for the opening day at Eden Park.

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Rita Ora to headline Rugby World Cup 2021 opening party
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Rita Ora to headline Rugby World Cup 2021 opening party

Fans attending will get to watch a triple header, culminating in the Black Ferns facing Australia, who they beat twice in late August to retain the O’Reilly Cup.

Eden Park last hosted a World Cup final in 2011, when the All Blacks reclaimed their world title, and the Black Ferns will hope something similar plays out this time around.

They are, in truth, the reigning champions, having beaten England 41–32 to reclaim their crown back in 2017.

But despite having home advantage, New Zealand will not enter the tournament as favourites. That title is bestowed upon England who are in red hot form, entering the competition on a 25-game win streak.

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As part of that run, the Red Roses did the double over the Black Ferns last Autumn, blowing them apart 43-12, before backing up that statement win with another 56-15 bashing in early November.

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Though none of that was playing on New Zealand co-captain Ruahei Demant’s mind when she arrived at the photo call. The meaning and importance of a home tournament was her sole focus.

“I will probably feel emotions I have never felt before. You kind of dream of opportunities like this, playing a Rugby World Cup at home but you never think it would happen,” Demant said. “To be one of the lucky ones, the right time in our careers, the stars are aligned.

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“I think it is cool too, just the fact that 30,000 people are coming here to support women – that has never been done before in New Zealand, never before. It is exciting to see the growth among fans and support for women’s sport in general, let alone women’s rugby.”

Fellow co-captain Kennedy Simon was equally enthused and took the time to heap praises on Black Ferns head coach Wayne Smith, whose tenure only began in April of this year.

“It is really exciting that we get to play in front of our family, our home crowd. Preparations have been going awesome. We have got The Professor, Wayne Smith. He is an incredible human who just makes everyone feel at ease and makes just the environment such a hard-working, thriving place,” Simon said.

It would be an exceptional achievement if Smith’s side take home rugby’s biggest prize, but to do so they must topple an England outfit that have their eyes locked on the World Cup trophy.

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“It’s incredible what this team has done, the journey we’ve been on and the games that we’ve won but we take nothing for granted,” England captain Sarah Hunter said. “We celebrate those moments and significant milestones but we’re here for the World Cup and our focus is on our next job, which is Fiji and our preparation for that.”

Fiji made history by qualifying for their first ever World Cup and will relish the opportunity to make their tournament debut against England.

“It has been a tremendous journey,” said Fiji captain Sereima Leweniqila. “We are both grateful and excited ahead of our first Rugby World Cup match ever. Since before we left for New Zealand, we have received great and ongoing support, something very new for us. When we arrived in the country, we have met the local Fijian community and we hope they will show up in numbers.”

South Africa and France will open the competition on Saturday with the northern hemisphere side favourited to win. The Springbok Women are the third lowest ranked team competing and will have to fall back on their physicality and power if they are to claim a surprise victory.

But for South Africa captain Nolusindiso Booi, it is as much about inspiring investment and the next generation of players, as it is about winning.

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“One has to understand the significance of this tournament and how it can elevate the women’s game on a global scale, but even more so, how it can promote the game back home in South Africa,” Booi said.

“We need to prove to all of those who will take the time to watch us that we are indeed a team worth investing in, whether it is financially or emotionally.

“We have often said – and we honestly believe it – that we want to touch the lives of young girls back home, that we want to show them there is a future and a place for you if you play rugby.”

As the ninth edition of the Women’s Rugby World Cup edges closer, much of the focus will be on the audience and outreach the tournament generates. If the opening day at Eden Park is a sign of things to come, this may just be the best tournament yet.

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