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No.1 vs No.2: Will New Zealand suffer from lack of game time?

By Lucy Lomax
Lydia Thompson of England attempts to stop Portia Woodman of New Zealand during the Women's Rugby World Cup 2017 Final (Photo by Charles McQuillan - World Rugby via Getty Images/World Rugby via Getty Images)

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For the first time in over two years, the number one side in the world will meet the number two. The World Cup runners up will meet the World Cup champions. It’s a battle of northern hemisphere versus southern hemisphere and under a year out from the World Cup, it’s a match up rugby fans will be extremely excited to see and a contest the women’s international calendar needs.

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It’s the big one. England v New Zealand, at Sandy Park this Sunday.

The Red Roses Autumn International series sees them take on the top six teams in the world over four weekends and first off they first face the Black Ferns in back-to-back matches, followed by Canada (3rd) and the USA (6th).

England have had the luxury of international Test competition in the albeit truncated Six Nations earlier this year and even in covid-ravaged 2020, whereas the Black Ferns haven’t played a Test in over two years since they won the Super Series in San Diego back in the summer of 2019. (That their male counterparts the All Blacks have played 17 Tests since the 2019 World Cup speaks volumes of the priorities of New Zealand Rugby).

In their last meeting in that competition, England slipped to their seventh defeat in eight against the formidable world champions, and this time on home soil, will be looking to make the most of fans in seats and send a warning signal of what people can expect to see from them at next year’s postponed World Cup.

Lydia Thompson, who in the 2017 World Cup final against New Zealand, scored one of the tournament’s best tries knows only too well the threats the Kiwis bring and despite England’s opposition not having played together in 27 months, the winger is still very wary of what they bring to the field.

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“We’ve been really lucky to get our international game going (during Covid) and to have some good ruby behind us,” said the 47-times capped Red Rose.

“But we will be keen to challenge ourselves and that’s why playing New Zealand back to back is such a good opportunity for us. We know they are always going to be sharp whether they’ve played recently or not.

“We know every single person who pulls on the Black Ferns jersey has an incredible skill set and it’s awesome to have this opportunity to see where we stand with them.

“It’s going to be an exploratory game for us. They have a lovely offload, running game and physical game and they have world class players in their back line who have a fantastic kicking and stepping game.

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“They bring the whole package and they’ll exploit us if we leave a space or gap, they read the game really well and are intuitive. They’ll be tough.”

England Head Coach Simon Middleton named a 40-player training squad ahead of the Autumns including 11 uncapped players. One of those, who is on the bench on Sunday, is 20-year-old Maud Muir who has been in storming form in the Premier 15s this season for Wasps Women.

Middleton has openly said the versatile front row has the potential to go to the World Cup and needs the opportunity to prove herself. Could this weekend against the World champions be her chance?

Middleton said: “Does Maud making her debut against New Zealand make me nervous? No. Just look at who’s she’s playing with in the Premier 15s.”

Good point.

The Wasps front row said: “I’m going to take every day and training session as it comes and yes, I want to be in that World Cup squad but first I need to get my first cap and work hard in training and focus on myself.

“All the players in the front row are so easy to talk to especially Sarah Bern who’s been helping me with lineouts and scrums at the minute. It’s competitive and we all thrive off each other. These next four games we’re playing some of the best teams in the world and it’s important for our development.”

With names like Portia Woodman, Kelly Brazier and Stacey Fluhler in the New Zealand squad, only months after winning sevens gold at the Tokyo Olympics, and World Cup winners such as Kendra Cocksedge, the Red Roses will be facing stiff competition in Exeter this weekend, which it has to be said isn’t always the case in the Six Nations since England turned professional.

England have won the last three Six Nations titles with only their games against France providing entertainment for the neutral. The women’s international game needs tight games and with New Zealand boasting an overwhelmingly strong record against the English, this game promises to fulfil this in spades.

What we see on Sunday will be indicative of the standard of rugby we can expect from the world’s two best sides at next year’s World Cup and with the original 2021 tournament postponed, it will provide a welcome stopgap and no doubt some thrilling and competitive rugby before the main event in 12 months’ time.

England Women v New Zealand Women
Sunday 31st Nov, Sandy Park, Exeter
BBC Two: Kick-off 14:30

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