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Welsh rugby enveloped in its latest existential crisis

As Wayne Pivac teeters on the edge of finding new gainful employment after a series of disappointing results, the wider-lens story tells of dysfunction and frustration

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'New Zealand are underdogs. You can't play 30 unbeaten tests and not be the favourites.'

By Rachael Burford
Abby Dow of England scores a tryduring Rugby World Cup 2021 Semifinal match between Canada and England at Eden Park on November 05, 2022, in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

It just speaks of how far women’s rugby has come to see two semi-finals like we did last weekend. I think a lot of people were actually quite surprised, me included in terms of the level, the speed, the intensity and how tight they were. For me, you expect those types of games perhaps in isolation, but not in the middle of a tournament when you’re already four games in. I thought it was just remarkable.

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But that France v New Zealand game. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game finish in that fashion. On one hand you’re like, heartbreak for France, and then on the other it’s like, fair play, New Zealand. The transformation they’ve had in less than a year has been incredible.

In a press conference earlier in the week Sarah Hirini said the pressure is off the Black Ferns going into the final because they’d ‘already won.’ I have to say I totally agree with that. They have already won in a sense.

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New Zealand have an excuse not to win at the weekend. Which is that they’ve been professional for only eight months compared to England who went pro in January 2019.

New Zealand were in absolute turmoil, had a change of coaches so close from the World Cup but since then they’ve got new attacking and defensive philosophies, they’ve filled out stadiums week after week and the viewing figures to watch their delayed quarter final on free to air TV beat the All Blacks v Japan game figures.

Half the battle is getting to the final, however, knowing how competitive they all are, they won’t want to lose to England on their own home turf. No chance!

Some will argue that England deserve to win this World Cup after all the funding and support put into the Red Roses and for the RFU leading the way and driving the professionalism of the game.

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England have set the standard and challenged the world to raise the level of investment that goes into the women’s game. If they reflect back and don’t win this World Cup, but in turn it accelerated countries like Wales and Scotland going professional, then that in a sense is a win.

However, that’s obviously not their first goal, that’s to get a winners medal and to come home with the cup but what they’ve done in the UK with record crowds being set at Six Nations matches, you could argue that for helping grow the game, England are the winners.

If you think of it from a Black Ferns’ perspective, it’s not the players fault that New Zealand Rugby have quite often been off the mark and have taken a while to clock on and invest in their 15s programme.

The Black Ferns players have had to make just as many sacrifices as the Red Roses, they were completely embarrassed in England and France last Autumn and a key player had to speak out about the culture inside the camp for change to arrive. If you think of all the turmoil that they’ve had to go through, in their minds, they deserve to win it.

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However, as we know, sport is about what happens on the day and who turns up and gives the best 80 minute performance.

People have asked me what difference the crowd will make on Saturday evening, and whether there is actually more pressure on New Zealand to deliver a performance and a win in front of the fans in the stadium. For me personally, I don’t think I’ve ever played in front of a home crowd and it felt like more pressure.

All it does is lift you, like when there’s a big line break or a big tackle, that energy just inspires you and you can feel it radiate from your teammates. You can barely hear each other and you feel really intense. The Black Ferns will relish being in front of their home fans and family. They don’t get these opportunities to play many tests at home so they will absolutely love it and draw upon it.

England have only ever faced a hostile crowd in France. And if you reflect on those results, there’ve been really tight games. Plus, if you think of Fiji versus England in their World Cup opener, the whole crowd was for Fiji and England really struggled in that first half. I would say, on that front, it’s advantage Black Ferns.

For England, I think the outside channels are quite vulnerable. I think they get really narrow and a lot of teams who have managed to stretch them or score against them, it’s been down their outside channels. I’d also say the kicking game is a big strength of theirs, but it depends who you’re kicking to. If you give too much loose ball to the Black Fern back three and give them a run up, England will be in trouble.

Goal kicking will also come into play. If it wasn’t for the boot of Emily Scarratt, England might not have beaten Canada.

I think by Emily’s standards she’s probably not played to the ability that we all know she’s capable of this tournament. She’s been rusty off the tee and there’s been a number of errors that you’d probably expect to see her make across an entire tournament that she’s made in one game.

I wonder if there’s been discussions in the team that if Emily misses her second kick, Zoe Harrison will step in.

The Black Ferns will be concerned about becoming isolated in the carry as England have the ability to affect turnovers with the likes of Zoe Aldrcroft, Marlie Parker and Amy Cokayne. I don’t think the work rate of New Zealand’s pack is at the level of England’s.

In my opinion, England need to move the ball around against them and stress them. If they try and just take them on upfront, I don’t think they’ll be successful. They’re going to have to move the ball to the outside channels. I just don’t think you can beat New Zealand by trying to go through them, you’ve got to stretch them and use imaginative stuff like cross-field kick passes.

It’s just a question of whether England are brave enough to play like that or not? If they don’t try and play with a bit more flair, they will struggle. Just look at Helena Rowland and how she opened Canada up last week by going on winding runs to the outside- in one of those scenarios she set up Abby Dow’s first try.

I think you’ll see England use their set piece to get in the right positions on the field. They really back their line out and driving maul so they don’t mind kicking it off as well.

We’ve seen the Black Ferns doing a lot of kicking this week at training and so you wonder if they will try lots of attacking kicks to get the ball in behind. Ruahei Demant has had an exceptional tournament. She plays really flat. But she’s got pace and great acceleration and that’s what often gets her through the gap. Plus, her offloading skills have really been top class.

I think New Zealand are underdogs, but only slightly. You can’t play 30 unbeaten tests and not be the favourites. Despite injuries, the depth of England’s squad is scary. The bench players could all start and they’d still have a winning team.

This final is not a foregone conclusion. World Cups are a very different beast and I think people underestimate that. Anything can happen.

My heart is with England and I think they will edge it. But my head is still on the fence. If you pushed me for a score prediction, I’d say 25-20 to England.

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