All-conquering England will be driven by the prospect of more women’s Rugby World Cup glory when they face Canada before defending champions New Zealand look to end a losing run against France in the semi-finals on Saturday.
England take on the Canadians in a repeat of the 2014 World Cup final before the French try to halt New Zealand, who, like the English, have blasted into the last four by playing powerful running rugby.
A full house is expected in Auckland for Saturday’s double-header at Eden Park, which will also host the final a week later.
England are on a 29-Test winning streak — a record for both men’s and women’s rugby. They won the women’s Rugby World Cup in 1994 and 2014, have played in five other finals and are red-hot favourites to lift the trophy this year.
England coach Simon Middleton said Thursday that his side were looking forward to facing New Zealand in the final, if the hosts could get past France.
“To play the Black Ferns at Eden Park in a World Cup final in their country, when they are the holders — if you can tick that box you have pretty much ticked every box as a player,” said Middleton, who believes anything other than England winning the World Cup would be a failure.
“But that is as far as it goes. We’ve got to get there and Canada are formidable opponents.”
England’s veteran captain Sarah Hunter, 37, will make her 139th Test appearance and knows her side must contain Canada’s 23-year-old all-action skipper Sophie de Goede.
“She’s a great talent. She does it all for them. She’s captain, calls their line-outs and kicks their goals,” said Hunter, who was co-captain when England won the 2014 World Cup.
“They really look to her, so for us, it’s about how we can nullify that threat.”
Canada coach Kevin Rouet wants his side to unsettle England.
“If we get success in the scrum, the maul and kicking battle, that’s where we could just make them think: ‘Oh, it won’t be easy’,” he said.
‘Do or die’
Holders New Zealand have won the women’s Rugby World Cup five times. They enjoyed big wins on their way to the last four over Australia, Scotland and Wales, twice, both in the group stages and last weekend’s quarter-final.
But France have beaten New Zealand in each of their last four meetings, including heavy back-to-back wins on French soil last November.
The Black Ferns have improved since former All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith took charge this year and playmaker Ruahei Demant said New Zealand now expected to score whenever they got the ball.
“I think the French should be worried,” she said. “They defend with heart,’ she added of a France team who kept England at bay for long periods before losing 13-7 in their group match.
“The game plan we have to combat them will be an exciting brand of rugby to watch. That’s what this business end of the tournament is about — every game is do or die. If you don’t get this week right, there is no next week.”
France coach Thomas Darracq predicted the Black Ferns would feel pressure at home and said recent French wins over New Zealand had dented the hosts’ aura.
“I hope that the stadium will be full, which will galvanise us. In any case, the pressure will be on the New Zealanders,” he said.
“For a very long time, we always saw them as ‘the New Zealand ogres’ — we did not play them much, there was the haka and all the culture behind it, with its force and power.
“Today, all that has been toned down because we play them more often and because we beat them recently too.”