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Middleton: Black Ferns under 'massive' pressure to win RWC final at home

By Finn Morton
Simon Middleton congratulates Canadian players following England's win in the World Cup semi-final. Photo by Hannah Peters - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images

Red Roses head coach Simon Middleton believes the Black Ferns are under “massive” pressure to defend their World Cup crown in front of their home supporters this weekend.

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Under the tutelage and guidance of super coach Wayne Smith, the Black Ferns have embarked on an epic journey at their home World Cup – and have inspired the nation with their character.

The Black Ferns had lost two Test matches against both England and France by emphatic margins on their end-of-season tour last year, but have well and truly turned their fortunes around.

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Superstars including Stacey Fluhler, Portia Woodman and Kendra Cocksedge have showcased their unwavering determination on the field, and appreciation of the occasion off it.

While the women in black faced their toughest test of the tournament so far in the semi-final, sneaking past France by one-point in a thriller, it doesn’t get any easier in the decider.

The Black Ferns have New Zealand rugby fans daring to dream ahead of their epic clash against World No. 1 England at Auckland’s famous rugby venue.

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Call it mind games, call it reality, but while pressure is part of elite sport the Red Roses have made sure to remind the Black Ferns of the stakes of Saturday’s decider in front of a New Zealand crowd.

“It’d be more intimidating for them to lose in front of their home crowd is a tough gig. The pressure on them in absolutely massive,” Middleton told reporters.

“We’ve been to some pretty hostile environments, Bayonne this year was incredible. But you thrive on it.

“I watched the girls come off the field at the end of the warmup in Bayonne, when we’re going for the Six Nations title against France in France, again probably as tough as it can be.

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“The crowd were really getting stuck into them. You could see it lift them.”

Other than a disastrous start to their World Cup campaign, going behind 17-nil against rivals Australia in their opener, the Black Ferns were relatively untested until their semi-final.

New Zealand scored 209 points during their first four Test matches in the tournament, before facing France for a spot in the decider.

The women in black had lost two Test matches against France last November, but were spurred on by the home crowd in a hard-fought clash.

New Zealand rugby fans aren’t going to forget the 2011 epic World Cup final decider against Les Bleus anytime soon – and just like that Test 11-years ago, fans from both nations held their breath as the match came down to the dying stages.

French flyhalf Caroline Drouin missed a chance to give her side the lead with a penalty goal inside the last minute, and the Black Ferns desperately did what they could to run out the clock.

The Black Ferns were well and truly pioneers of women’s rugby in Aotearoa, and they’re now just 80-mintues away from rugby immortality.

As for the Red Roses, who had qualified for the final after beating Canada earlier in the day, they watched as the chaotic end to the Test unfolded.

Coach Middleton fired another shot at the Black Ferns ahead of the final though, saying they were “lucky” to have beaten France.

“We were all sat in the room downstairs, all the girls and all the staff, and I have never heard so many screams in my life,” he said.

“It was great fun because you could see the drama of it all unfolding. Your heart goes out to Caroline Drouin because it was such a tough moment for her.

“Some could argue the Black Ferns are lucky to be in the final but that’s sport.

“As Sarah (Hunter) mentioned earlier, you take your chances when they come and nobody can predict what’s going to happen in sport.

“The atmosphere was incredible in the room and we were just enjoying it, as you do when you know you’re in there, that you’re already in the final.”

World No. 1 England are currently on a 30-Test winning streak, and would be aware of the daunting prospect of that record coming to an end at the worst time possible.

But England captain Sarah Hunter said the team hasn’t felt the pressure this week, and has instead felt quite “relaxed” ahead of the final.

“We’ve had such a great week. We’ve had a great week of training, we’ve had a great week of being together, it just feels real relaxed, it doesn’t feel like we’re about to play a final,” Hunter said.

“I think that’s exactly where you want the squad to be, both staff and players, because I guess staff probably feel that pressure.

“There’s just been this sense of calmness and enjoying the week. Anyone that was at training yesterday could see the energy that was there, the enjoyment of a Wednesday session that I don’t think we’ve ever said.

“There’s that real sense of wanting to be together… just go in and play without fear. There’s things in life that you don’t get to do very often and very few people get to do, and that’s to play in a World Cup final.

“If you don’t enjoy playing in the biggest occasions then you’re in the wrong place. We just want people to be in that and just go enjoy themselves, play without that fear.

“In sport things don’t always go your way but we’ll always look back and know we have done everything we can do on Saturday, regardless of the result, and we can be proud of that.”

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