Confident England are red-hot favourites but holders and hosts New Zealand will have a point to prove when the women’s Rugby World Cup starts on Saturday in record-breaking fashion.
The tournament kicks off with a mouthwatering triple bill, all at Auckland’s Eden Park, when South Africa play France, Fiji take on England and New Zealand host Australia.
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More than 30,000 tickets have already been sold for the opening day, a record attendance for the women’s Rugby World Cup, eclipsing the 20,000 who saw the 2014 final in Paris.
New Zealand organisers hope it could even be a sell-out 47,000 crowd, another landmark for a competition which began in low-key fashion in 1991 and saw just a few thousand fans for that final.
Two-time world champions England are on a 25-match winning streak and have not lost since 2019, when they were beaten by New Zealand’s Black Ferns.
The Red Roses won a fourth straight women’s Six Nations title earlier this year and confidence is sky-high after demolishing neighbours Wales 73-7 in a warm-up game.
“Yeah, we’ve got to win it,” replied England head coach Simon Middleton, asked if anything other than victory in the final on November 12 would be a failure.
“This is the best-prepared squad and the best strength in depth we’ve ever had.”
But Middleton knows the favourites’ tag is no guarantee of success, especially as defending champions New Zealand have home advantage and passionate supporters behind them.
The Black Ferns are the most successful team in the history of the competition, winning it five times, but they lost twice to both England and France on last year’s European tour.
- All Blacks influence -There will be a strong All Blacks influence on the women’s side.
Wayne Smith, the Black Ferns’ director of rugby, is a highly respected name with experience of winning a Rugby World Cup on home turf.
He was assistant coach to Graham Henry — who has been texting Smith tips — when the All Blacks won the men’s Rugby World Cup in 2011.
Former All Blacks star Dan Carter has also been helping the Black Ferns’ kickers land their shots at goal.
Working alongside Smith as assistant coach is Whitney Hansen.
Her father Steve coached the All Blacks to their 2015 Rugby World Cup triumph.
As well as fine-tuning their game, Smith wants to instil in the Black Ferns the mental fortitude which helped the All Blacks deal with the pressure of being hosts in 2011.
“It’s all very well knowing how to calm yourself down and how to stay in the classroom, but you’ve got to do it under pressure,” Smith said.
Outside of New Zealand and England, France are dark horses to win their first World Cup.
They gave England their toughest game of the Six Nations when the Red Roses won 24-12 in Bayonne in April.
French scrum-half Laure Sansus grabbed six tries in the Six Nations and was named player of the tournament.
A shock 26-19 defeat to Italy in early September gave the French team a wake-up call.
“We’re not worried,” said lock Safi N’Diaye.
“We know what we are capable of, we know what we can do on the pitch.
“It was a mental trigger and the group has tightened up.
“It’s a World Cup, it’s a new adventure. We start from scratch every time.”
The World Cup features 12 teams divided into three pools in the first phase.
The top two from each pool, together with the two best third-placed teams, qualify for the quarter-finals.
Pool A: New Zealand, Australia, Wales, Scotland
Pool B: Canada, USA, Italy, Japan
Pool C: England, France, South Africa, Fiji