The level of interest surrounding England’s World Cup final against New Zealand has been wild and my social media feed has been full of anticipation and excitement as we build towards the highly-awaited finale at a sold-out Eden Park, which is brilliant news for the game.
England’s starting XV excites me. I didn’t predict Holly Aitchison coming in at 12 as she hasn’t played many minutes in the tournament so far, but she’s an amazing distributor and provides the team with that second fly-half role that Helena Rowland played previously.
It means the team have a bit more balance again and are able to position Emily Scarratt as the predominant hardline runner, which really suits England. It’s a bit of a statement of intent from Simon Middleton which indicates he does want to play a bit of a wider game, which I believe they have the talent in the backs to execute and have been keen to see throughout.
As with all tactical decisions in elite sport, there is an element of risk in the selection of a less experienced player in such a high-pressure game but Middleton must be confident that Aitchison can deliver for him and allow the team to better exploit the threat that Scarratt can pose to any opposition.
Of course, it will be hugely disappointing for the players who miss out, either through injury or those who are not part of the matchday squad. It’s particularly rough for Helena Rowland given the form she was in that she isn’t able to play after picking up an injury in the semi-final. There will also be some disappointed girls in the squad, the likes of Rosie Galligan and Jess Breach – who hasn’t had as many minutes on the pitch as she thought she might have.
For those players, it will be really important that they deal with that selection positively and be focused on the group by making sure the matchday 23 have everything they need. It is undoubtedly hard to deal with the disappointment but knowing those girls as I do, I’m confident that they will work hard to be the absolute best team-mates.
For players, as the final edges closer, you just want to make sure you get through the last training session, that all of the other preparations are ticked off and that you can focus on managing the inevitable nerves. Looking back on the three finals I was part of, I just wanted to keep busy doing things and not think about the fact that I was just days away from a World Cup final.
In terms of this group though, in all honesty, I think that the girls have been ready for this moment for a long time and will be managing their nerves and everything else that goes with it, in their own individual ways. The squad have at least been able to go out and about in New Zealand during downtime and some have friends and family out there which will have been a welcome distraction I’m sure.
Time for Sarah Hunter to take on World Cup-winning captaincy crown
England have featured in the last four finals but won only once and memories of those past experiences, some joyful, some painful, will no doubt come flooding back to the more experienced members of the Red Roses squad. This week I’ve been thinking about the lead-up to that 2014 final against Canada and the speech I gave to the team, it’s true to say that the Paris tournament was the one where it all came together for us but the responsibility of leading your country out in a final is not to be underestimated.
Like many former athletes, I’m intensely competitive and proud of everything I achieved in my career, but I feel very ready to transfer the ‘last World Cup winning-captain’ mantle to Sarah Hunter come Saturday morning! Sarah’s an incredible person and a phenomenal leader and will know exactly what to say in the dressing room. She’s surrounded by an abundance of leadership and talent in the likes of Emily Scarratt, Abbie Ward and Marlie Packer – who will pick up on anything else that Sarah needs them to. As was the case in 2014, leadership will need to come from all over the pitch.
Looking back five years to the 2017 final, New Zealand were favourites, we had the opportunity to turn them over and for the first half we did, but they responded in the second half in a manner that we just couldn’t respond to. I’m sure the girls will have talked about what happens if New Zealand show us something different, what happens if they show us a tight game rather than their usual expansive approach.
The pain of that defeat means that England will undoubtedly be much better prepared than we were in 2017. You listen to some of the talks Simon Middleton has given about how better prepared they are as a group and how much he learned as a coach in 2017. This time around, I hope that we will find England have discussed and rehearsed different scenarios they could face and how to combat them, and that will make a huge difference.
Heading into this showdown vs the Black Ferns does feel somewhat different compared to the last two finals we lost to them (in 2010 and 2017) the preparation, the tournament experience in each squad and the form of both sides firmly positions England as favourites which they may prefer.
Inside the dressing room
The girls have been together for such a long period of time now and the pre-match approach will have evolved throughout the tournament. They’ve been doing this week-in, week-out for the last seven weeks so the dressing room will be a really organised place of how best they prepare themselves mentally for what lies ahead. I’d imagine there will be a lot of music being played pre-match and there will be individuals managing themselves in very different ways.
Some of the girls might leave their headphones on depending on what they need, others might be in the middle of it dancing. Then you’ll find some players having chats with people who they find a source of support. That’s the perk of the dressing room and an experienced group, people know what they personally need to do and respect the individual approaches of those around them.
On facing the Haka and noisy crowds
While there are more examples from the men’s game, the Black Ferns are the only opponents that you face as England who will do a pre-match Haka. As a neutral, it is amazing to watch these take place and I am sure it will draw out a lot of emotion and noisy support from New Zealand fans in the stadium.
In terms of facing the Haka as a player, it’s changed from how it used to be, as I believe that you now have to stand 20 metres away. I remember back in 2010 we started closer and moved towards them as they moved toward us, we were literally nose-to-nose with the Kiwi players and I remember Maggie Alphonsi leading that. It will be something that’s talked about in the squad, most likely just a case of allowing the Black Ferns to go through their processes and being respectful.
In the build-up to the 2014 World Cup, we began to move from the long line of players straight into a circle as soon as it was over and that has been maintained so far. This was deliberate as it means that, having shown our respect to that tradition, we closed into a tight circle and the captain got the last words to the girls – rather than the last pre-match moment being one which was dictated by a Black Fern staring you down, instead they are left there while you close ranks for the final seconds.
These are small but interesting details I guess, they won’t wholly dictate the outcome of course but they all contribute to the sense of calm and control that the Red Roses will seek. England will have a decent amount of support in the crowd but the players will try to block out all the noise and will no doubt have considered how they manage it to ensure they can hear lineout calls, ensuring any communication around changes to strategy is properly received and how that messaging is passed along the line.
England are better player-for-player
I don’t believe that England will be focusing too much on how New Zealand will line up, they’ll just be looking after themselves but we know they won’t want to play an inaccurate kicking game because giving New Zealand opportunity to counterattack could be very dangerous.
New Zealand have clearly been building momentum throughout the tournament and kicked on this year, they are a different squad to the one we saw last autumn over in England which suffered back-to-back defeats. But pound-for-pound the Red Roses have absolutely got the players and experience to beat them on Saturday morning. New Zealand have scored some great tries so far this tournament, but England’s pack have been so dominant that I can’t see New Zealand being able to live with that for 80 minutes.
Poppy Cleall said earlier this week that facing New Zealand at a sold-out Eden Park is what rugby fairytales are made of and I’d absolutely agree. The Red Roses, with Sarah Hunter at the helm have hardly put a step wrong in the two years or more building into this final, they have earned the right to this chance to beat New Zealand, on their home turf, while the world is watching and fully underscore their dominance in the World game – easing the pain of some New Zealand World Cup defeats along the way.
All that remains now is for them to deliver their best performance when it counts, if this resurgent Black Ferns squad are at their best, and with the crowd behind them, then it will require nothing less than an England team at the top of their game. Do that and this squad will all be heroes.
Follow our live blog as England take on New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup final on Saturday, kick-off at 6.30am