England have beaten all comers over the last three seasons and on Saturday in Auckland will formally seal their status as the best women’s rugby team on the planet if they can dethrone hosts New Zealand in the World Cup final.
The Black Ferns, winners of five of the seven World Cups they have contested, were the last team to beat the Red Roses back in 2019 but suffered heavy defeats in back-to-back tests in England last year that dented their aura.
That was after two years without any test rugby because of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, and Wayne Smith’s revitalised team will be confident of being closer to England’s prodigious standards in front of a packed house at Eden Park on Saturday.
England coach Simon Middleton’s suggestion that playing at home might work against the Black Ferns triggered a swift put-down from Smith, who helped mastermind two men’s World Cup triumphs with the All Blacks.
“I’ve been coaching for 36 years and Simon Middleton is just a newcomer – he’s trying to put pressure on by saying we might be intimidated by that,” Smith said after making one enforced change to his team on Thursday.
“We’re just really enjoying it and I think we’re in a place that probably a lot of people wouldn’t have thought we’d get.”
Smith has not been above a few mind games himself, however, repeatedly suggesting that England’s 30-match winning streak makes them the best team of all time.
That streak has been built on shrewd tactical kicking, often overwhelming forward power and a lineout drive that motors through defences like a well-oiled piece of heavy machinery.
Against that Smith has quickly put together a team playing a high-tempo, offloading style of game he believes is true to the DNA of New Zealand rugby.
“I wanted to teach the girls how to play on top and how to create the skills that only we need because we’re the only ones playing that sort of game,” he added.
“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 …”
Beating a France team that have been England’s closest challengers over the last three years in the semi-finals was an indication that New Zealand were heading in the right direction.
Smith is aware, however, that England will be the ultimate test even if the Black Ferns have won all four of their previous World Cup finals against England.
England captain Sarah Hunter, the most capped women’s player of all time, has played three finals, losing to New Zealand in 2010 and 2017 and beating Canada in 2014 to win the trophy.
“It’s a very different team to 2017 and we’ve come together as this group and we’ve been on our own individual journey as this team,” said the number eight, who will play her 140th test on Saturday.
“We’re here to do our own thing. Win or lose I think this team will be able to look back and be really proud of what we’ve done over the (last five) years.”
France will play Canada in the third-fourth place playoff at Eden Park earlier on Saturday.