Sue Day and Melodie Robinson played in the first England v New Zealand final at a Women's Rugby World Cup back in 2002 and know how special the rivalry is between the most successful teams in the tournament's history.
We caught up with the former internationals and fellow TV commentator Willie Los'e to get their thoughts ahead of the 2017 title decider at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday.
Willie, how do you look back on the semi-finals?
“The thing that stood out for me in the first semi-final between New Zealand and USA was the accuracy of New Zealand and their ability to create space, which they have tried to do in other games without too much success, drawing in the defence and allowing space for players like Woodman, Winiata and Wickliffe. The other thing that stood out was the distribution skills of Kelly Brazier. I think she is one of the best players in the world at any level and across either gender as well. She is incredible, her option-taking and her kicks were pretty much on point.
“In the second semi-final, the thing that stood out was just how good England are defending. In that first passage of play where France held possession, a stat came up showing that England had made 57 tackles and France had made five yet there was no penetration and no points on the board. It is an English team that obviously backs their systems, they’ve got good communication and they defend with a whole lot of passion and are really disciplined. You could not have asked for a better final because they really are the two best teams in the tournament.”
What can we expect from the two teams in this final?
Willie: “I think you’ll see a contrast of styles. England, having beaten New Zealand in New Zealand this year, know that if they keep it tight and suffocate New Zealand and not give them too much possession, that just works into their game plan. They have a big forward pack that is very disciplined, but also very skilful, who like playing the confrontational game. For New Zealand, it is a matter of doing what France did but actually getting the rewards of scoring points when they do go through the phases.
“New Zealand won’t go away from what has been successful for them in the last couple of games. They’ll look to match England up front and then hope that their backs are a lot more skilful and create space for players like Woodman and co. I think she is going to have a quiet final, sadly, because everybody knows the threat that she he is and they’re going to push her down that space that America didn’t do. I am not expecting Woodman to score four tries against England, but I am expecting New Zealand to play a similar style and I think you’ll find that there will be players out there, on the wings, who aren’t normally there, I mean forwards, who could be scoring tries.”
Melodie: “We are going to expect two very different performances from both sides I would say, but equally both are going to be fantastic and will showcase how great women are at the game. For England, now that they don’t have Danielle Waterman at full-back and they have Scarratt back there that says to me that they are still going to use a long kicking game because both her and Katy Mclean have got amazing boots, the best in the business. They will lose quite a bit of attacking prowess from the counterattack from kick receipt with Waterman gone but Scarratt offers a different style altogether.
“From New Zealand they have had a really consistent team starting 15 so we are going to see more of the same which is those big forwards trying to take it up with the one-two passes and then try and release it out to the backs after a few phases. Two contrasting styles. One will be like the Lions rugby team and that will be England, and New Zealand will play typically like Kiwi teams do so they will try and run around. That is great, it is what it is with typical New Zealand versus northern hemisphere games and it is going to be intriguing to see which style wins.”
Sue: “It is going to be a classic, it is going to be a huge battle up front first of all because both teams are going to want to get on the front foot and dominate possession. England, we have seen play quite a forward-dominated game, kicking for the corners. New Zealand are playing much more expansive rugby in the latter half of the tournament, although we know that England can do that as well so possibly a class of styles, but it is all going to be about who can get on top up front early on I think. I know the battle out wide is going to be interesting and exciting and that is probably where many of the points will be scored, but the game as ever – and I say this as an outside back – it is all going to be decided by the forwards. Whoever can get on top up front, whoever gets that good ball on the front-foot, whoever dominates the set piece, they will win the game.”
Melodie, have we seen the best of England and New Zealand yet?
“I think that New Zealand has been probably the better form team, but it is difficult to know also because of the some of the opposition the two sides have played. Playing Hong Kong kind of blew the points difference out for New Zealand. I actually don’t think we have seen England release their outside backs like we saw in the Six Nations yet, so if they get comfortable with a try or two off a rolling maul I think we will see them do that too. Actually they have got more to give, New Zealand are near their peak.”
Sue, as a former winger, what makes New Zealand winger Portia Woodman such a special player?
“She has got everything. She has absolute raw out-and-out pace first of all and you can’t argue with that, but on top of that she has got real size and she is brilliant in the contact. She has got great strength, upper body and lower body, so she is brilliant in the hand-off. A great step, a great swerve and she is really good defensively as well so she puts the hits in. On top of all of that she has got a really good rugby brain and knows where the gaps are and she pops up in the right place at the right time.”
Willie, you've seen a lot of Woodman in sevens and 15s, what stands out for you?
“She is an x-factor player who trains hard. With her father and uncle being All Blacks, she comes from a great background, but it is more than that. She didn’t take up rugby until later because she didn’t want to be compared to dad and wanted to do another professional sport. She grew up with track and field, hence the speed that she’s got, and she played netball, and was a very good player at that as well, and then when rugby was invited to the Olympics Games she decided to come across. She didn’t have a lot of skills when she first came across and she has had to work hard on that. Defensively she was vulnerable and opposition teams in the early part of her career in New Zealand would target her.
“There was a lovely article on her in the New Zealand paper the other day, after that semi-final, where they made comparisons between Portia Woodman, Selica Winiata and the best All Blacks in the first 15 tests (of their careers) and only Joe Rokocoko can match Portia Woodman. In his first 15 tests, Rokocoko scored 22 tries like Woodman – that's more than Doug Howlett, Jonah Lomu and Christian Cullen. To bear comparison with some of the greats that have ever played the game in New Zealand speaks volumes for how good she is. I’ve been lucky enough to see her in sevens where she has scored 142 tries and set the world on fire at the Olympics and then she has done the same in Dublin and Belfast. She is one of the great athletes in the world and we are every lucky to have her in our game.”
Melodie, two months ago England beat New Zealand – will that result have any bearing on this final?
“It will have quite an emotional bearing because New Zealand will be really hurting and smarting from that loss, particularly because it was in New Zealand. It is the second time ahead of a World Cup that they have lost to England at home (in 2001), so there is that and that will stir up those competitive feelings that the two teams have against each other as well. As we know there is a pretty healthy rivalry there. I think New Zealand will have learnt that they have got to be disciplined because when their captain got sin-binned England scored two tries off rolling mauls. They are also going to know that they are going to have to be able to defend those rolling mauls and no New Zealand teams, even the All Blacks, can hardly do that so it is one hell of a challenge.
“For England that will just have given them a huge amount of confidence, particularly because they didn’t just win it through their forwards, their backs were outstanding as well. For them it is just more of the same and knowing that they do have a set piece that is dominant over New Zealand and for them to use that in the right way and in the right position on the field. Their kicking game was excellent there too, they have better kicks that New Zealand too.”
Sue, what makes an England-New Zealand Women's Rugby World Cup final so special?
“It makes it such a special rivalry for that very reason, there have been a number of them already in the past. New Zealand had the upper hand for many, many years. England finally managed to win the final in 2014 and then the last year or so England have beaten New Zealand in New Zealand and New Zealand have beaten England in England, so you know it is anybody’s game. Whoever turns up, whoever is on their game, whoever plays the best will win the game and that is what makes it so exciting, you just don’t know what the result will be. Every final they have played so far, England and New Zealand, has been a classic in its own way and we should just expect the same thing again today.”
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