Hosts New Zealand will renew one of the most storied rivalries in Rugby World Cup history when they meet England in the RWC 2021 final at Eden Park on Saturday.
It means the RWC 2021 will be contested by the top two nations in the World Rugby Women’s Rankings powered by Capgemini, while Canada and France will meet in the bronze final.
But what did we learn from the two semi-finals at Eden Park? We recap the action to find out.
Hosts inspired by support
Black Ferns director of rugby Wayne Smith admitted his side’s nerve-shredding 25-24 defeat of France at Eden Park “wasn’t too good on the ticker”.
Eleven years after he was part of the coaching team that oversaw the All Blacks’ one-point win against France in the men’s RWC 2011 final at the same stadium, it is understandable Smith felt a sense of déjà vu.
But, while he was open about the mistakes his team made in the first half on Saturday and suggested the Black Ferns have “some more ground” to make up on England if they are to win a sixth Rugby World Cup, the hosts have already achieved something less tangible. They have caught the New Zealand public’s attention.
So far, 107,600 fans have attended RWC 2021 matches, and that number is set to rise significantly next Saturday after the semi-finals precipitated a surge in ticket sales.
“I don’t think people realise how much of a difference it makes to us out there on the field, to know that our families, our country are supporting us and are proud of us,” Black Ferns co-captain Ruahei Demant said.
“People are coming to support women and women’s rugby like never before, time and time again.”
Black Ferns fans lucky enough to have tickets for Saturday should travel to Eden Park in the knowledge that their side will be better for the examination France gave them.
No side at RWC 2021 thus far had managed to smother the hosts’ attack as Les Bleues did for large parts of their semi-final.
What will please them, and Smith, is the manner in which the team overcame the challenges they faced at Eden Park.
At the heart of that effort was the centre partnership between Theresa Fitzpatrick and Stacey Fluhler. Hugely experienced on the sevens stage, Saturday was only the fifth test they had started together.
Both had a huge impact on both sides of the ball, providing a calmness in attack and defence while contributing a try apiece and tellingly were kept together for the full 80 minutes.
England will pose a different challenge again in the final but Fitzpatrick, Fluhler and New Zealand will be confident of rising to it.
Dow shows her class
On the afternoon he named his squad to compete at RWC 2021, England coach Simon Middleton insisted it would have been a bigger risk not to select Abby Dow than take her to New Zealand.
At that point in late September, Dow had not played for more than five months, since breaking her leg against Wales in April and was not guaranteed to be fit to face Fiji in the Red Roses’ RWC 2021 opener.
Middleton, though, reasoned that the Wasps winger possessed a world-class finishing ability and was a potential game-changer.
That is why England invested so much in her recovery, reaping the dividends in the second half against Canada as Dow scored a stunning try to ultimately secure victory.
She had already supplied a fine finish in the first half but her second try of the match – and fourth of RWC 2021 – was particularly special.
It was also timely, coming at the end of a sustained Canadian attack in which the England defence repelled more than 10 phases of pressure before winning back possession.
From there, Zoe Harrison fed Claudia MacDonald – another player who feared her RWC 2021 dream was over earlier this year – on the left wing and she beat three defenders while taking play from the England line to midway between the 22 and the 10-metre line.
Dow had open field in front of her but was still deep inside her own half and had plenty to do when possession came her way.
That she outpaced both covering defenders, Alysha Corrigan and Paige Farries, to score while Ellie Kildunne struggled to keep up in support, only serves to underline her importance to the Red Roses ahead of next weekend’s final.
“To be honest I can’t speak highly enough of both Abby and our medical department, who told us to give them six months,” Middleton said afterwards.
“She’s so valuable we were never going to question that, and the team have spent nights on nights with her, and Abby committed fully to doing the rehab and that’s why she performed how she did.
“Also, her and Claudia pulling together to get that winning try with the season they’ve had, you can’t write that stuff. Abby’s try was incredible and it’s one of those moments in sport that was a magical moment whether we won or not.”
Bronze final not to be missed
Anyone who has a ticket for Saturday at Eden Park would be advised to get there in plenty of time to take in the bronze final.
No team sets out at the start of a Rugby World Cup with the aim of playing off for third place, but the match offers both Canada and France the chance to finish the tournament on a high.
The meeting of the third and fourth teams in the rankings should be as nail-biting as anything that has gone before at RWC 2021.
No Rugby World Cup in history – men’s or women’s – has produced a pair of semi-finals as close as those played in Auckland last weekend, and either France or Canada could have found themselves in the final this weekend had crucial moments gone differently.
Of course, Drouin’s missed penalty is the moment that will live in the memory, but Ruby Tui scored her try by a matter of millimetres. Had Renee Holmes put a fraction more, or less, on her kick through then maybe the winger doesn’t score.
Likewise, Canada were inches from the England goal line early in the second half when they were turned over and MacDonald and Dow combined to go the length of the pitch. If they had scored, they would have been a conversion away from taking the lead.
On such fine margins sport is decided, and neither side will want to suffer the same fate for the second week in a row.
Les Bleues, meanwhile, have a proud record in Rugby World Cup bronze finals, having only lost one in which they have competed – against Australia at RWC 2010.
France have finished third on six occasions to date, beating Canada in the third-place play-off at both RWC 2002 and RWC 2006.
Safi N’Diaye has played in two bronze finals, winning them both, and she backed her team-mates to rebound from their semi-final heartache against Canada next weekend.
“We'll have to digest this [loss against New Zealand] and we will give everything for the third place,” N’Diaye said.
“We had this dream of going to the final and we were so close but we're going to get up again.
“We're going to talk to each other in the dressing room, we're going to talk to each other so that we can get this third place. We came here to look for something else and I know that we have a group that can do it.”