Rugby-England travel to World Cup in expectation, not hope

  • Rugby
  • Wednesday, 05 Oct 2022

FILE PHOTO: Rugby Union - Women's Rugby World Cup 2021 - England Training - Pennyhill Park, Bagshot, Britain - September 20, 2022 England's Sarah Hunter and team mates during training Action Images via Reuters/Paul Childs

LONDON (Reuters) - While most teams at the women's Rugby World Cup will arrive with various levels of hope, England will fully expect to cruise to the final and another probable showdown with New Zealand, the only side who look capable of beating them.

The teams have contested four of the last five finals with New Zealand winning all four but England, largely through turning professional in 2019, look to have opened a considerable gap between them and the rest, with even the Black Ferns struggling to hang on to their coattails.

The three years the England squad have been able to work together, with all the nutritional and medical support that comes with professionalism, has made them unrecognisable from the side beaten 41-32 by New Zealand in the 2017 final.

Other nations have followed suit, with various levels of contract, commitment and support, but they are all playing catch-up.

England's 73-7 thrashing of Wales in their final warm-up game last month stretched their winning run to a record 25, which included two thumping wins over New Zealand last year.

British bookmakers have England, who face France, South Africa and Fiji in the group stage, as heavy favourites with only New Zealand and the French in the same ballpark.

After naming his tournament squad, coach Simon Middleton recognised as much when he said: "We've got to win it. This is the best prepared squad with the best strength in depth we’ve ever had, but that doesn't mean we will win it.

"The one thing you can't guarantee is that you will win it because it doesn't work like that."

Middleton was an assistant coach when England beat Canada to win the World Cup in 2014 and six of the current squad were also involved in that success, including captain Sarah Hunter as she seeks to add to her 135 caps.

One notable absentee is Natasha "Mo" Hunt, the starting scrumhalf in the last two finals, with Leanne Infante, Lucy Packer and Claudia MacDonald chosen to battle for the shirt.

"The decision came down to the fact that we have a very specific way of playing in that we build our game around our 10 and our 12," said Middleton.

"Our nine's role is very simple - get to the breakdown, get the ball into the 10's hands quickly, go to the next one and keep repeating it.

"Mo is a very instinctive player - she wants to run, kick and pass. She wants to be at the centre of the gameplan and really influential within."

That approach, which demands great fitness and really stretches less conditioned opponents physically, has also developed on the back of three years of professionalism and England know that even if they are not firing on all cylinders they should still be able to eventually wear down anyone.

In reality, that "anyone" is still only really New Zealand, who even with Eden Park home advantage would need to find something special on Nov. 12 to halt the England juggernaut.

(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Peter Rutherford)

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