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Where will the World Cup Final be won and lost?

By Will Owen
Ruby Tui of New Zealand celebrates her try during Rugby World Cup 2021 Semifinal match between New Zealand and France at Eden Park on November 05, 2022, in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

There’s little we as spectators can say about World Cup Final week that could possibly do it justice. The two best, most deserving teams on the planet are currently gearing up to not only the biggest day of their careers, but the most important match in the history of the sport.

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Literally everything that happens between now and the final whistle matters. Every touch of the ball in training, every physical strain on the body, every wink of sleep and every second of recovery. It’s remarkable what these two sets of players and coaches are currently going through just for the sake of getting the better of one another. And we, the spectators, wouldn’t have it any other way.

When you’re looking at the two best teams in the world, you can’t simply ask “What’s going to win or lose the game?”, because there won’t be one specific thing that’ll make the difference. With England and New Zealand, we can speculate on how they will execute their drastically different gameplans, but with form out the window and new ideas up their sleeves, it can be impossible to predict.

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That said, we’re going to have a look at one area for each team that could make an impact. It may be a pointless exercise, but getting hyped for a final never hurt anyone.

Sarah Hunter looks back on the 2017 final with a foul taste in her mouth, citing New Zealand’s ability to change their gameplan exclusively for the last 40 minutes of a four-year World Cup cycle as the reason England came away with silver. Wayne Smith has spoken before about his willingness to hold back a gameplan for the latter stages of this tournament, and it’s still difficult to tell what exactly he means by that.

We’ve seen throughout this tournament that Ruahei Demant isn’t afraid to pull out creative kicks, but against France, the Black Ferns played slightly more of a tactical kicking game than they have in the rest of the tournament. This talented backline thrive off unstructured scenarios, and the best way to create those is by kicking into space and stressing the opposition.

New Zealand have spent all tournament attacking the wider spaces of the pitch. Now that teams are becoming wise to this, they’re beginning to leave space in behind – and it isn’t going unpunished. England are a team who love to all be on the same page and know exactly what direction they’re headed in – if the likes of Demant and Reneé Holmes can isolate Ellie Kildunne (if Helena Rowland isn’t fit) at the back, it could create huge opportunities for the Black Ferns to put England under pressure.

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Let’s have a look at one example of this from the semi-final. This was after Stacey Fluhler already scored a try from Demant pulling the strings in attack and running the ball, so France are aware of the threat out wide.

Playing a 3-2-3 forward structure, New Zealand have their entire backline set outside Demant, who calls for the ball in Bremner’s boot.

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Demant ships it on to Theresa Fitzpatrick and France fullback Emily Boulard (highlighted in blue) tracks across to cover. Fitzpatrick wastes no time trying to engage the inside defence and feeds Holmes immediately.

Nobody wants to defend a 1 v 1 against Ruby Tui – so Boulard joins the line. Holmes spots the space in behind and stabs in a really difficult grubber kick to defend. Boulard spins to chase the ball back.

We all know this ends with Tui toeing the ball on and grounding the ball in a characteristically world-class manner, but we’ll ignore that for a moment. The measure of how truly brilliant this kick is, is the list of potential outcomes. What’s the best case scenario here for France? It’s probably Boulard dropping on the ball (which is much easier said than done) and France clearing the ball up to near the 22 under heaps of pressure.

That’s the worst that could happen for the Black Ferns – a 25 metre net gain. Plus it would’ve required a pretty stellar piece of defence from France to pull it off. New Zealand used their own strengths out wide to their advantage to open up space in behind, and you could really see them leaning into this and opening up their kicking game even more this weekend.

With Zoe Harrison and Leanne Infante in the middle, Emily Scarratt out wide and hopefully Helena Rowland at the back, England will feel pretty comfortable getting dragged into a kicking battle. It’s the counter-punch of re-opening space for the likes of Fluhler that should really stress them.

England’s pack has looked sharp all tournament. Against Canada, they defended well for the most part, but once Canada got going, they slightly struggled to slow their ball down. This may be a one-off, but if it isn’t, the Black Ferns will really trouble them out wide. Look no further than Alisha Corrigan’s try to see the impact quick ball can have, even against the Red Roses’ defence.

Bizarrely, England’s best set of slowing the Canadian ball down came in the last 5 minutes. While Marlie Packer and Sarah Hunter are both world class players who have had fantastic tournaments, it was the impact of Sadia Kabeya and Poppy Cleall off the bench that really made the difference. Let’s dissect just one example of the impact these two made.

With Alex Tessier not stood in the “boot” position, Kabeya knows there’s no genuine threat outside of the ball carrier here. Fresh on the field, 16 phases into this defensive set (during which Kabeya has already made several tackles and slowed multiple rucks), Kabeya knows if she works 10% harder, it’ll make everyone else’s job that bit easier. As such, she absolutely hammers out of the defensive line to make a clinical chop tackle.

Supporting player Gillian Boag for Canada has to act fast to beat Cleall to the breakdown, which she does. Cleall doesn’t attempt a jackal, but instead uses her hefty frame to trap the ball under Boag, meaning it is available more slowly.

Afterwards, Cleall attempts to wrestle the ball off Justine Pelletier. The ball could feasibly be out here, so she knows Aimee Barrett-Theron isn’t going to penalise her. Barrett-Theron tells her to stop playing the ball, which she does.

This does, though, mean the ball is out as it is in Pelletier’s hands, buying England time to apply some linespeed on the next phase. Alex Matthews and Maud Muir rise to make a tackle on the excellent Nglula Fuamba.

The extra second’s worth of linespeed from Matthews and Muir was enough to create some separation between Fuamba and the supporting Sophie De Goede. Cleall gets over the ball and competes legally, forcing the ball to squirt loose. Canada do luckily retain possession for a couple more phases here, but it is eventually stripped by Ellie Kildunne.

This English defensive set around the 75 minute mark is one of the most interesting passages of play of the whole game. Hunter and Packer have more than earned their spots in the starting XV during this tournament, but Kabeya and Cleall both demonstrated that they could be nothing short of crucial if the Black Ferns had a similar attacking set in the dying moments.

The Black Ferns have talent plastered across their backline. It’s borderline undefendable if the ball gets that far – so you have to prevent it from getting to that point. England have to find a way to slow the New Zealand ball more than they did against the Canadians, or they’ll find themselves in a spot of bother.

With Kendra Cocksedge constantly playing an up-tempo game, backing the Black Ferns’ fitness over anybody else, Simon Middleton must be feeling curious over whether the inclusion of Kabeya could be one of those tiny factors that could win or lose England a World Cup.

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