The Red Roses are setting out to win the first ever WXV1 competition this weekend, yet they have a tough test ahead of them in the form of a familiar foe. England take on the Black Ferns this Saturday, in a re-match of last year’s Rugby World Cup Final in New Zealand.
The Red Roses are back in Auckland, and take on the Black Ferns just a 15 minute drive away from the defeat of 12 months ago. The two top ranked Women’s sides clash in Auckland’s Go Media Stadium, with last year’s dramatic 34-31 defeat at Eden Park burning in the memory of England fans. However, this weekend could well see a different outcome on New Zealand soil, with England coming into the match firing, whilst the Black Ferns suffered a rare dip in form.
The Red Roses have won their opening two WXV matches, with emphatic wins over Australia (42-7) and Canada (45-12) paving their way as competition favourites. New Zealand had their 16-match unbeaten run ended by a valiant French side in the opening round (18-17), yet have returned to winning form in last weekend’s 70-7 hammering of Wales. A win against the Black Ferns is the most straight-forward route to the 2023 WXV1 title, however two losing bonus points would also clinch England the silverware.
England’s Interim Head Coach Louis Deacon believes that this match is all to play for, and that no side has a given right to a victory at the top level. Deacon spoke in today’s pre-match media conference, ahead of the blockbuster finale to the tournament in New Zealand.
“Yeah, we watch all the games. But I think, with the top teams on the day anybody can beat anybody, I suppose. Even your labelled ‘world champions’ or ‘number one team in the world’, or whatever it is, on the day, anyone can win. You know, it’s a one game shoot-out.
“So you know, the likes of France, who are an outstanding team also, New Zealand and ourselves, on our day, we can beat anybody. I think that’s what makes sport so exciting. You don’t always have the given right. You’ve got to earn it, and that’s why we’ve prepared the best we can do this week. It’s been probably one of our best preparation weeks.
“I’m massively proud of the players, who’ve backed it up week on week. It’s been a long, long, pre-season and then competition. So like Marlie (Packer) says, there’s a lot PB’s (personal bests) still going on in training. So I am really proud of the players, and the way they have attacked the week.”
Speaking of England’s Captain, Marlie Packer has re-iterated that the Red Roses are not eyeing up this test against the Black Ferns as a ‘revenge match’. The Red Roses are undergoing a transitional era, with plenty of new faces in both the players and coaching staff set to test where they are at, against the Black Ferns. Packer first stated this in the post-match media after England’s win over Canada last week, with this message hammered home, as the Red Roses look to see how this new-look side fares against the reigning World Champions.
“I think for us, this week has been, we need to make sure that we’re performing at our best. We’ve had a great week in training, and I don’t think it takes it away from the fact that we’re playing New Zealand, but actually, we’ve been training now for 10 weeks together, to hit our peak at this specific point.
“So actually, we’re getting personal bests in speed, we’re getting personal bests in the gym. And that’s nothing to do with New Zealand, that’s the way we’ve been training to get to this point. I think, you know, that added bit, or the fact of we’re playing the World Champions in their own backyard, does give it that bit of an edge.
“I think it’s actually really exciting to have that, and we’re a very new group. New look Red Roses, and you’ve got the likes of Maisy Allen, other young players that, weren’t involved in that World Cup journey. This is a really exciting fixture for them, and one they just need to soak up and enjoy it. And not have to worry about the fact that we’re playing the World Champions and actually just enjoy the occasion.”
One player who was in fact involved in the Red Roses’ heartbreaking defeat 12 months ago, is hooker Lark Atkins-Davies. The Bristol Bears star had an albeit brief seven minute run out in the closing moments on the Rugby World Cup Final, but knows all too well how special of an occasion it is to take on the revered Black Ferns, and line-up against their iconic Haka on New Zealand soil.
“It’s a massive part of the game and what you experience when you play New Zealand, and I think we are always really respectful of that. But, we also want to make sure that we show togetherness when we face it (the Haka), I think that’s really important for us. So, the occasion, the moments, hopefully we get an incredible crowd like we did at Eden Park last year.
“It was brilliant to see loads of fans there. I think for me personally in those moments, it’s just about taking a breath and thinking ‘wow, this is special’. How often, especially us, do we get to play the best teams in the world, at home for them and hopefully have an amazing crowd. I think you just take a breath and think ‘right, let’s go. Let’s go and perform, let’s go and play rugby.’ It’s always incredibly exciting and a special moment”
Packer echoed the thoughts of her teammate, in how taking on the Black Ferns as visitors is a special yet undoubtedly challenging occasion. The Saracen was England’s vice-captain under Sarah Hunter for last year’s Rugby World Cup Final, and she is now ready to take the fight to the Black Ferns after taking over full control of the armband. Hunter retired as England’s most capped player earlier this year, and has since moved into a coaching role within the Red Roses set-up.
“It’s tough to come over here and play. Eden Park last year was just a sea of black shirts in the whole stadium and just two pockets of white (shirts), our English fans. It’s tough, but like it can be done. We have beaten New Zealand here, back in 2017 in Rotorua, which was an absolute epic game in itself. That feeling is very special. And I know the way we’ve trained and been this whole competition, that I’m pretty sure we’ll be feeling in a really good place this Saturday.”
“When I got asked (to be captain) it’s just one of those things, that I’m just super privileged and proud to do. I take my hat off to Sarah, I never knew how hard the job was, and how much work she did until I took on the role. That bit for me is that she’s actually still been in and around camp, I can check in with her and just sense check things when I need to for the group.
“To be fair, I’ve got a good leadership group as well, that I can go to and just check in, but also share the load. I think that they do that very well, which then makes my job a lot easier. For me, it’s all about (putting) the team first, and making sure that the team are in the best place for it. Whether it’s a gym session, an on-pitch session or, you know, going out there and playing the Black Ferns on Saturday.”
Lark Atkin-Davies had an especially stunning performance against Canada last weekend, as the hooker grounded the ball for four tries, with England’s rolling maul proving unstoppable. The North Americans certainly did not have an answer for England’s set-piece success, however Atkin-Davies expects New Zealand to have prepared for the the Red Roses driving pack.
“They’re an incredibly physical side. So we expect that, you know, we’re going to be met with that. They’re also particularly athletic as well. So, line-out wise you know, we’ve been preparing by looking at the detail from the games that they’ve played.
“Like I said, we do our learning, we do our analysis to make sure that we’re prepped and ready. So, I think as well as making sure we have that we also make sure that we focus on ourselves. But yeah, a lot of work has gone into it. You could see some different players at the line-out but we’re ready to face it if that’s what they bring.”
“I think it comes down to the forward pack in general, we all have a role to play. It’s massively important that we know our role in each maul that we do. So yeah, we’ve obviously got that, so making sure that we all know our roles, but also obviously Louis Deacon is making sure that we get the time we need to obviously practice, we train incredibly hard as a forward pack.
“Every part of that squad within the forwards, will train so hard against each other, to make sure that it’s (the rolling maul) a massive weapon for us. So, very much coaching, and each individual to make sure that we can go, and the hookers at the back of the maul, or whether it be a flanker, to go and score that try”
England make just two changes from the side that ran roughshod over Canada last week, with Tatyana Heard coming into the centres and Rosie Galligan packing down the second row.
The match will be shown live on ITVX, and due to the time-zone difference in New Zealand, UK viewers will have to set their alarms for the 06:00am kick-off this Saturday November 4th.
ENGLAND TEAM TO PLAY NEW ZEALAND BLACK FERNS: WXV1
STARTING XV: 15. Ellie Kildunne 14. Abby Dow 13. Helena Rowland 12. Tatyana Heard 11. Claudia MacDonald 10. Holly Aitchison 9. Natasha Hunt 1. Mackenzie Carson 2. Lark Atkin-Davies 3. Sarah Bern 4. Zoe Aldcoft 5. Rosie Galligan 6. Morwenna Talling 7. Marlie Packer 8. Alex Matthews
REPLACEMENTS: 16. Connie Powell 17. Hannah Botterman 18. Maud Muir 19. Sarah Beckett 20. Maisy Allen 21. Ella Wyrwas 22. Megan Jones 23. Jess Breach