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What did we learn from the 2021 Rugby World Cup?

By Lucy Lomax
New Zealand celebrate with the Rugby World Cup trophy after winning the Rugby World Cup 2021 Final match between New Zealand and England at Eden Park on November 12, 2022 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Now that the dust has settled on this year’s tournament, no doubt the jubilation will extend long into the festive season for Black Ferns fans (and most likely any neutral fan of attacking, running rugby) and the pain will continue to linger on for the Red Roses and their supporters.

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It’s always important to reflect and take learnings from monumental events (especially ones that took five years to happen), arguing what went well (selling out Eden Park for the final, the Black Ferns finally getting the sort of recognition they deserve), and the things that can be improved in three years’ time in England (getting rid of triple headers, more sociable kick-off times, and choosing stadiums wisely).

Let’s discuss the topics above and summarise where we’re at as we move towards the Rugby World Cup in 2025.

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1. New Zealand reign supreme at World Cups
Stating the obvious, of course we all knew this, they had five titles under their belt before a ball was kicked. However, what we didn’t quite know is they were capable of the gargantuan turn around the team went through after their disastrous northern tour last year. The painful warts-and-all cultural review which followed led to the eventual appointment of coaching wizard Wayne Smith (and other mythical All Blacks coaching staff of old) and…we know the rest. The team was led by new co-captains Ruahei Demant and Kennedy Simon, they stuck to their DNA of attacking, free flowing, (some call it ‘chaotic’), unscripted rugby and obliteration on the field ensued, with only England and France able to keep up with the pace (indeed England did so with 14 players for 60 minutes).

No one can underestimate the transformation of this New Zealand side from being dismantled by England in November 2021 with a minus points difference of 41 in the second game, to winning a World Cup final against the same opposition, ending a 30-game winning streak whilst at it. Miraculous.

2. Home crowds can make magic happen
There are many what-ifs in sport, and none more so than THAT World Cup Final-especially for England fans. What if Leanne Infante hadn’t been injured, what if Lydia Thompson had tackled Portia Woodman lower, what if Zoe Aldcroft, Sarah Hunter, Marlie Packer and Amy Cokayne had been on the pitch for that final lineout? What if Kennedy Simon’s yellow card had been a red or England had opted to kick for the posts instead of the corner in the dying minutes- the fact is to all the above, we will never know.

But what I would feel happy to bet my bottom dollar on is that New Zealand wouldn’t have been the force to be reckoned with or perhaps even managed to reach the final had it not been for the physical support of their nation behind them- thousands turning up every match whether in Whangerei or Auckland to scream their admiration and encouragement.

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The atmosphere of the final was like nothing I have ever experienced before, the noise whenever a Black Fern made even an inch of space or gave an offload and bump that up a notch for a Ruby Tui or Portia Woodman touch- it was electric. What if the Black Ferns hadn’t had 41,000 behind them in that final?

Inspire a nation the Black Ferns did, but it also worked the other way round, with the nation inspiring the Black Ferns to do the impossible and achieve a fairy-tale ending.

With the growth of the women’s game globally, home advantage will only continue to become more and more of a factor. Gone are the days where a World Cup final attracted 13,000 like we saw at the Twickenham Stoop in 2010 when England last hosted the tournament. We’re now talking potentially five times that size and it is nothing short of what the women’s game deserves.

Whether England will be able to accomplish the same feat on the field in front of 80,000 home supporters at Twickenham in three years’ time remains to be seen, but from the evidence of the past six weeks, a home crowd can sway the odds into your favour.

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3. Head injuries continue to plague the game
On a less positive note, head injuries continue to be a talking point in the world of rugby and how best to reduce their occurrence is still a topic which brings debate. This was no different for the tournament just gone. Only two red cards were dished out throughout the entire competition, with many arguing this should have at least been double, considering the head collisions which took place in the Black Ferns v France semi-final. However, whatever the referees’ stance was for this tournament, the fact remains that three players went off in the final alone due to head injury protocols with two, Portia Woodman and Zoe Aldcroft not returning to the field.

Two of these three incidents were a result of poor tackle technique, but getting this right in a split second, under pressure, whilst you and/or your target is moving at speed, can’t possibly happen 100% of the time. The best way to discourage high tackles and make the game safer through the implementation of the laws continues to rumble on.

4. Introducing new teams to the tournament added surprise and intrigue
As ScrumQueens founder Ali Donnelly put it when speaking to the Women’s Rugby Pod last week: ‘Shock horror, you give women an opportunity to play and they do really well.’ Introducing new teams into the mix such as Japan, Fiji and South Africa, with these countries not having played many of the other nations in years or ever before in Fiji’s case, brought mystery, intrigue and delight.

However, I don’t think it was until we actually saw South Africa, Fiji and Japan take to the field against the best sides in the world that we fully appreciated what they bring.

Fiji scored three insanely entertaining tries against England, won their first ever World Cup game and were thrilling (if not exhausting!) to watch, South Africa impressed with their physicality and showcased players such as Aseza Hele who could have been a contender for Breakthrough Player of the Year had the Women Springboks gone further than the pool stages. Japan were delightful and uplifting in equal measure with their offloading style of play and big hearts. As their Head Coach Leslie McKenzie put it after their final pool game loss against Italy: “I was entertained, everyone was entertained, who doesn’t want to see a replacement second row come on and put a kick through in to the 22, that’s gorgeous.”

The benefit of having more national teams gain exposure to top level World Cup rugby will only be amplified in 2025 when the tournament increases from 12 to 16 and this will also allow for four pools of four, dramatically reducing the chances of two teams in the same pool playing each other again in the early knock-out stages.

No one likes foregone conclusions in sport and I think even the most avid rugby supporter would have been disappointed to learn Wales were playing New Zealand in their quarter-finals for the second time in 13 days and the USA and Canada were to face off twice within the space of a week!

5. Does anyone really like triple headers?
For a fan it’s hard to get up for three matches in a weekend, let alone three in one afternoon. This structure doesn’t benefit crowd numbers, viewing figures (or the journalists working at the tournament) and isn’t brilliant for the players when they see people leaving just before their game kicks off (which happened after the Scotland v New Zealand pool game), the poor French and Fijian teams who played after must have felt slightly disappointed. I understand the necessity to fit multiple matches into a tight schedule and the cost of using numerous stadiums as opposed to one, this is why I can get my head around double headers being used for pool stage matches, however, when the knock-outs come round surely these matches need to be celebrated in their own right like what happens at the men’s World Cup?

It will be interesting to see what the RFU decide to do, especially with an increase in the number of teams in 2025.

6. Kick-off times- not good for a European audience or growing the game
This will be easier for England in 2025 due to the fact that more nations will be closer to the same time zone (and the fact that New Zealand’s was only kind to countries in the Oceania region such as Fiji and Australia). My main gripe was the quarter-final which was hell for sleep schedules in Europe, but mainly England fans.

Wales and France had it slightly easier with their respective kick-off times being later in the morning on the Saturday, but Red Roses fans would have been livid hearing the kick-off for their quarter-final against Australia was at 1:30 in the morning (during which time the clocks went back!), when actually switching England’s game to the second quarter-final slot of the day and putting Canada v USA first would have suited the North American time zone better too.

Let’s make women’s rugby as easy to watch as possible! Given that the time zone was relatively similar for England, Wales, Scotland, South Africa, France and Italy, it feels the European audience should have been given more consideration. Obviously geographically speaking where the tournament is hosted will always bring about compromise and the host nation broadcaster will always get the pick of the bunch, but the planning did seem more avoidable than New Zealand Rugby and the organising committee would care to admit.

7. Stadiums matter
On the whole, I believe NZR got it right when it came to the choice of stadiums. Using Eden Park for the opening day and the semis and final was a success, despite the stadium not being full for the former two match days. The choice of Whangerei also meant Northlands got to experience live women’s rugby and they came out in their thousands. The Northlands Event Centre has a full stand on one side and a small seated stand on the opposite. However, there was a large bank behind the half stand which made for a fantastic atmosphere when filled.

Granted, we were extremely lucky with the weather, but this stadium was great for fitting over 10,000 into the quarter-finals and 16,000 for New Zealand’s pool stage match against Scotland, whilst maintaining an intimate, family feel. However, the same could not be said of Waitakere Stadium in Auckland. The capacity of this ground was only 4,900 and from a match day experience point of view it was lacking. The big screen was not exactly big and too far away from the seats for the average person to see the score or time clock. There was no separate score board or time clock anywhere to be found in the stadium. Also, the athletics track surrounding the pitch also meant the crowd was a good 30 metres away from the action on the pitch which affected the atmosphere.

Let’s hope come 2025 England pick their stadiums wisely. We know the RFU plan to spread it across the country which from a participation and accessibility point of view is brilliant, however, we need to make sure the chosen stadiums are fit for purpose, allowing for a fantastic match day experience and fan zone to go alongside the spectacle on the pitch.

On the whole, as we head into 2025, there are many positives to take from 2021. With more teams turning professional, particularly in the northern hemisphere, the standard of rugby can only improve.

With the tournament being hosted in England and the RFU one of the most progressive unions for the women’s game, you have to feel optimistic that the marketing and organisation of the tournament will be the best it’s ever been. Throw into the mix the fact that England have some of the best sports stadiums in the world, the participation of the women’s game in the country is on the up and we are continually seeing records being broken for attendances at international and club level, then one gets a warm feeling that 2025 could be record breaking and potentially the catalyst for rugby which mirrors the trajectory of England’s Lionesses earlier this year.

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