Following 25 matches across six weekends it will all come down to 80 minutes at Eden Park, as England and New Zealand go head-to-head in the Rugby World Cup 2021 final.
Saturday will be the fifth time the teams, numbers one and two in the World Rugby Women’s Rankings powered by Capgemini, have met in the showpiece match.
The Black Ferns have won each of those previous four Rugby World Cup finals, as well as their semi-final meeting at RWC 1998, but Wayne Smith and his team know they will not have it all their own way at a sold-out Eden Park (kick-off 19:30 local time).
Not only has no host nation previously won the tournament, but England head into the match on an unparalleled run of form having won their last 30 tests, dating back to a defeat to New Zealand in July 2019.
Included in that sequence were back-to-back record victories for the Red Roses against their old rivals, by an aggregate of 99-27, a little over a year ago.
New Zealand followed those losses up with a pair of defeats to France, but their form has improved considerably under Smith in 2022 and the hosts head into the final on an 11-match unbeaten run of their own.
Both the Black Ferns and the Red Roses have won all of their five matches at RWC 2021 so far, although each had to work hard to win their semi-finals last Saturday.
“We’ve played some good rugby and rugby that I’m really proud of. I wasn’t sure if I was doing the right thing when I came in, but I wanted to create a game that is true to our DNA,” New Zealand director of rugby, Smith said.
“You need a unique set of skills and mindset to play how we play. I wasn’t sure whether we’d be able to create that or not, but I think we’ve done that.
“We’re not perfect but hopefully, it’s a blueprint for the future because it’s excited the people and it's excited the girls.”
Black Fern Kendra Cocksedge added: “I’ve been able to express myself a bit more and as a scrum-half I love that, to be able to play freely and play what’s in front because that’s important and that’s my style of rugby.
“For someone who’s been around rugby for a long time like myself, I could have had a fixed mindset on that, but I’ve got a growth mindset and I actually love being able to play the way we are.”
Playing without fear
What is in no doubt is that these two teams deserve their place in the final. England have scored the most points at RWC 2021 while the Red Roses lineout alone has produced more tries (24) than any other competing nation bar New Zealand.
Like the Red Roses, the Black Ferns have averaged 7.6 tries per match in their five outings so far and they have also made the most line-breaks (9.2), offloads (15.8), post-contact metres (413) and tackle breaks (37.8) of any team per match at RWC 2021.
The hosts are also on a 13-match RWC winning run and director of rugby Smith has decided to stick largely with the team that edged France last weekend.
Charmaine McMenamin comes in to replace injured number eight Liana Mikaele-Tu’u as the only change to the 23-player squad that contested the semi-final.
England coach Simon Middleton has made three changes to the Red Roses starting line-up, all in the backline, where winger Lydia Thompson, centre Holly Aitchison and full-back Ellie Kildunne come in.
It means that there are a total of 15 survivors from the two squads that competed in the RWC 2017 final in Belfast, six from New Zealand and nine from England, which the Black Ferns won 41-32.
Three players selected to run out at Eden Park – England’s Sarah Hunter and Emily Scarratt and New Zealand’s Cocksedge – featured in the RWC 2010 final, won 13-10 by the Black Ferns. Saturday will be Cocksedge’s 68th and last test.
Red Roses captain Hunter, vice-captain Scarratt and flankers Alex Matthews and Marlie Packer, meanwhile, all played when England lifted their second and most recent Rugby World Cup title in Paris in 2014.
“We’ve had such a great week of training and being together, it just feels really relaxed. It doesn’t feel like we’re about to play a final at all,” Hunter said.
“I just think that the real sense of wanting to be together overrides the feeling of pressure. We’re just going to go in and play without fear because there’s many things you’ll never experience in life and for some, that’s to play in a Rugby World Cup final.
“We’re just going to be ourselves and enjoy it and play without the fear and without pressure.
“We know with this group that we always put our best selves out there and are as good as we can be. In sport, things don’t always go your way but regardless of the result, we can be proud of the team.”
Canada, France aim to end RWC 2021 on podium
Saturday’s action at Eden Park will kick-off at 16:30 local time (GMT+13) when Canada meet France in the RWC 2021 bronze final.
Both teams will want to finish the tournament on a high, having come so close to securing their place in the final.
Canada were a converted try from taking England to extra-time in the semi-finals, while Les Bleues had a late kick to beat the hosts.
France haven’t beaten Canada since 2013, losing their last four meetings with the North Americans, but they have a proud record in the bronze final.
Les Bleues have lost only one third-place play-off they have contested at Rugby World Cup, against Australia at RWC 2010, and beat Canada at this stage in both 2002 and 2006.
Canada, who have lost each of their three Rugby World Cup bronze finals, have made only one change to the team that ran England so close last weekend.
Sara Svoboda starts at blindside flanker with Fabiola Forteza dropping to the bench, where there is also a place for Emma Taylor.
“The key is to keep the positivity up as much as possible and to keep the love for each other up as much as possible,” scrum-half Justine Pelletier said.
“We're not going to change our game plan from A to Z, we're going to keep the same game plan but we're going to try to perfect it a little bit.”
France coach Thomas Darracq has also made only one change to his starting line-up as Assia Khalfaoui starts at tight-head prop, with Clara Joyeux named as a replacement. Laure Touye and Jessy Trémoulière are also selected on the bench.
“It’s important to focus on this weekend because we have the opportunity to finish on the podium. The group deserves that,” Les Bleues captain Gaëlle Hermet said.
“We all really care, for a thousand reasons, whether it's for the girls who are finishing their careers, whether it's for the staff members who will also stop afterwards, for the group which will never be the same again... There are a thousand reasons that make it important to finish on a beautiful note."