More than 40,000 fans will pack into Auckland’s Eden Park on Saturday to watch New Zealand and England battle it out for the women’s World Cup in an occasion that will present a marked contrast to the inaugural tournament back in 1991.
The New Zealand team that travelled to Wales for that tournament – which went unrecognised by rugby’s global governing body – paid NZ$5,000 ($3,003.50) for the privilege, raising the cash through sausage sizzles and bake sales.
On Saturday, World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont will be on hand at the spiritual home of New Zealand rugby to watch two fully professional teams clash at the end of a game-changing month for the women’s game.
England’s early adoption of professionalism has helped take them to the top of the game and the Black Ferns, awarded central contracts for the first time this year, will have to end their record run of 30 consecutive wins to snatch a sixth world title.
For the likes of New Zealand winger Ruby Tui, the tournament, delayed for a year by the COVID-19 pandemic, has already been a success because of the way the host nation has embraced the team on their way to the final.
“Imagine it in 2010, nobody knows who the Black Ferns are,” she said on Thursday.
“Nobody knows what they look like, nobody follows women’s rugby. We were told, ‘you will never be paid’, we were told, ‘we’re not giving you Eden Park for the Rugby World Cup, we’ll give you somewhere that holds 5,000 because you’re not going to sell it out’.
“We were told, ‘women’s rugby doesn’t matter’ and then here we are 12 years later with a sold-out Eden Park.”
Back in Britain, England fans will need early alarm calls to find out if the Red Roses can match the 2003 men’s team by claiming the game’s biggest prize in the southern hemisphere.
England captain Sarah Hunter, who on Saturday will play the 140th match in a test career that started in 2007 in the less rarified surroundings of Woollams Playing Fields in St. Albans, said the ninth World Cup had been “incredible”.
“From the outset I said that I think it’s got the potential to be the greatest women’s Rugby World Cup that we’ve seen and it hasn’t let us down,” she said.
“You look at the games that have been played and the attendances like selling out Eden Park – it’s the biggest women’s game has ever been.
“You’ve got people from all over the world having watch parties and that’s not something we’ve ever experienced before. It’s been next level.
“It feels like people are finally waking up to how great our sport is, and it bodes really exciting times for World Cups ahead.”
($1 = 1.6647 New Zealand dollars)