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Weight of expectation is a heavy burden to carry for the Red Roses

By Ben Smith
(Photo by Hagen Hopkins - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

It must be a terribly uncomfortable thought gnawing away in the back of the minds of the Red Roses, as much as they try to suppress it, it will be there.

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The stomach-churning thought that their long-running winning streak will come to a grinding halt at the most unwanted time, on the turf at Eden Park this week.

It’s a mental hurdle even for neutrals to digest that this team could go without the crown jewel. Surely the unthinkable can’t happen, the winning run ending cruelly on 30 wins in the game England want most.

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But history has proven time and time again, the best team doesn’t always win the title. Tournament play allows for anomalies, curveballs and ‘unfair’ outcomes.

We’ve heard how England deserve this one, for leading the game in the right direction and for how hard they’ve all worked.

Are they now entitled to walk away with the World Cup? If so, hand it to them now. If it is to be decided on the rugby, let’s wait and see.

The Ferns want to play a brand of rugby that excites crowds, gets people interested and gets youngsters to pick up a rugby ball. Is that not taking the game forward, by inspiring the next generation?

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Where are the kids that want to roll a maul down and flop over the line like Amy Cokayne? There are many different ways to take the game forward and not all of them involve pay cheques.

No doubt England can play if they want to, they have the talent, but the fact that they have opted for conservative play for large stages of pool play perhaps shows they have missed an opportunity to become the rock stars of the World Cup.

It is the time to shine, take the stage and show the world what you’ve got, bring in the neutrals and turn them into rugby fans. In that respect, the Ferns have been the team to watch, not England.

The Red Roses, who supposedly have all the tools, have decided to leave most of them in the toolbox for the most part in the early stages of the competition.

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We’ve seen flashes of England playing expansive, when the game was out of reach for South Africa they turned it on and ran it out of their exit zone with a safe cushion of 40-points after half a dozen pushover tries.

The starts have been slow, with the rolling maul relied upon heavily to kickstart the motor into gear.

It took an age to get going against Fijiana, who themselves put three tries together in a game where England eventually flicked the switch to put 60 points on them in the second half.

Their toughest test in the pools against France was not a test defensively for the Roses. The French barely had the ball, forced to tackle themselves to a standstill with over 200 of them. England battered them with carry after carry.

The torrential rain against the Wallaroos didn’t allow for an attacking spectacle and England typically bulldozed their way to a healthy scoreline.

Abby Dow’s all-time try against Canada in the semi-final showed what we have been missing with one of the greatest length of the field tries ever.

England possess the ability to play any way they want to, we just haven’t seen as much ball movement as everyone would like.

On the other side, the Red Roses’ weaknesses have not been put under the blowtorch just yet. They have they have leaked tries on the fringes when teams have dared to go there, which is not often.

That will bring some optimism to the Black Ferns coaching staff, who possess the most potent outside backs at this tournament with Portia Woodman and Ruby Tui in blistering form.

The disastrous end of year tour couldn’t be further in the rear view mirror as super coaches Wayne Smith, Graham Henry and Mike Cron have transformed the team back into an attacking powerhouse.

It is the hosts who are playing with the most speed at this World Cup. It’s not so much the winning as it is rediscovering the way of rugby that is most enjoyable to play that has been a hallmark of the turnaround.

They want to cause chaos, live outside the box, create free form attack and take risk. They play with freedom and expression, the opposite of England who are playing to win, methodically restricted by choice and strategy.

Yet the Ferns do not carry the burden of expectations, despite hosting the World Cup and possessing a history of success at the tournament with five previous titles.

The weight of expectation is carried by England, fully professional for the longest, riding a long winning-streak, with the most complete squad and resources who “have to win”.

Picture this, 50,000 Kiwis surrounding the tournament favourites at Eden Park, the home of New Zealand Rugby, ignited into a frenzy by a stirring Black Ferns haka.

No doubt this is a double-edged sword that could derail the Ferns as well, over-awed and starstruck by the moment, but tell us this isn’t a recipe for a classic English bottle job.

Don’t the Roses have a history of losing to the Black Ferns in World Cup finals?

Three years of full professionalism will come down to just 80-minutes. The marathon becomes a sprint and while the Red Roses have been reliable over the long-haul, you do not want to race a Ferrari over a short distance.

If the Roses engine takes too long to fire up, it could be like watching a car crash in slow motion. Irresistible to watch, but painfully cruel as the winning streak comes to a dreadful end.

Tens of thousands of Kiwis will turn out to see this great England side in action, and they’ve been promised a treat. That they will beat the Ferns in their own backyard.

Let’s see it then. Come on England, come on.

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