New Zealand will enter uncharted territory on Saturday, walking out at Eden Park in front of a record crowd to begin a home Rugby World Cup campaign.

The few remaining tickets for Saturday’s opening Rugby World Cup 2021 matchday are selling fast, meaning the stands should be packed when the Black Ferns take on Australia in Pool A at 19:15 local time (GMT+13).

Veteran scrum-half Kendra Cocksedge has noticed the increase in interest and attention around the team and the tournament.

On the eve of her fourth and final Rugby World Cup, Cocksedge insists that her team-mates are determined to embrace the pressure that comes with chasing the title on home soil.

“There’s over 30,000 people [with tickets for matchday one],” Cocksedge said. “We have never experienced that before.

“The girls are really excited, we’ve never had this much media. The players but also the staff are getting noticed more on the street. It all lets us promote the game more.

“This week we have been focusing on doing what we need to do well in the game. We talked about pressure and the pressure of playing the World Cup on home turf and embracing it.

“We need to run out on Saturday and soak it all up.”

Cocksedge, who won both RWC 2010 and RWC 2017, is the most experienced member of a Black Ferns side that will be captained by Ruahei Demant and includes sevens stars Sarah Hirini, Portia Woodman, Stacey Fluhler and Ruby Tui.

The Wallaroos, meanwhile, have stuck largely with the side that lost 22-14 to New Zealand at the Adelaide Oval on 27 August.

RWC Sevens 2022 winner Sharni Williams is one of three changes from that team, coming into the centres to partner Georgina Friedrichs. Scrum-half Iliseva Batibasaga will play her first tournament match in 12 years, having previously appeared at RWC 2006 and RWC 2010.

“Most of the pressure is on our hosts, the Black Ferns,” Wallaroos coach Jay Tregonning said.

“The reality is that if you are playing international rugby at the highest level, this is the atmosphere and the pressure that you should be craving.

“As rugby players, what could be better than opening a Rugby World Cup in front of a record-breaking crowd against the host nation?”

Ferer to lead France against South Africa

RWC 2021 will officially get underway at Eden Park at 14:15 local time (GMT+13) on Saturday when France take on South Africa in the opening match of the delayed showpiece tournament.

Céline Ferer will captain Les Bleues for the Pool C encounter in the absence of Gaëlle Hermet, while uncapped winger Joanna Grisez has been handed a test debut.

"Absolutely nothing [changes],” Ferer said of assuming the captaincy. “I'm obviously very honoured but otherwise it's not going to change my habits at all. It's a temporary hat that I'm wearing.”

France coach Thomas Darracq said: “Céline is a player who really has an important place in the group, both with her number of selections, which exceeds 50, and because of her important aura in the team.”

The Springbok Women will be captained by second-row Nolusindiso Booi, who is set to appear at a third Rugby World Cup.

All four players in the wider South Africa squad with previous Rugby World Cup experience have been included in the 23, one of whom, Zenay Jordaan, will equal the Springok Women cap record (34) if called upon from the replacements’ bench.

“It is a massive opportunity for us, and it is a great honour to represent your country on the biggest stage of all rugby stages which is the World Cup, so we look forward to the opening match,” prop Babalwa Latsha said.

“To run onto the pitch at a World Cup for your nation, it is mind-blowingly amazing, so I am really grateful for the opportunity, and I think that we’re going to put on a great performance on the day.”

“All eyes on Saturday”

England, the number one team in the World Rugby Women’s Rankings powered by Capgemini, will get their Pool C campaign underway against Fiji at 16:45 local time on Saturday.

Sadia Kabeya starts in place of Marlie Packer, who has a foot injury, while there is a place on the bench for winger Abby Dow, who has recovered from a broken leg suffered at the beginning of April.

“It seems like this has been a long time coming, not just since we have been here but with the Rugby World Cup being postponed,” captain Sarah Hunter said.

“As soon as Monday came with the welcoming ceremony, that made it real. All eyes on Saturday for Fiji.

“There is a real buzz among the squad, we have done everything we can in training, we just want to see what we can do. Everyone is raring to go.”

Rugby World Cup debutants, Fiji are the lowest ranked of the 12 competing nations and have never previously played England in a test match.

Captain Sereima Leweniqila will start in the second row, rather than her usual number eight, alongside Asinate Serevi, daughter of World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee Waisale. The youngest player at RWC 2021, 18-year-old Sulita Waisega will line up at blindside flanker.

Asked what advice her father had given her, Serevi said: “Take every opportunity as it comes, go for whatever is in front of you, give it everything because you will never get this opportunity again, it’s the biggest stage in the world and he has been here as well.

“For him to watch me be here as well has been a crazy experience for our whole family.”

Whangārei welcomes RWC 2021

Attention will switch to the Northland Events Centre in Whangārei on Sunday when round one continues with matches in Pool A and B.

The action will get underway at 12:45 local time (GMT+13) as the USA take on Italy in the opening match of Pool B.

Only 0.14 rating points separate fifth-placed Italy from the USA in sixth in the rankings, making this the closest match-up of the opening round.

The Azzurre head into the match on the back of a confidence-boosting defeat of France, while the Women’s Eagles have won only two of their last five matches. Whoever wins this one will improve their chances of making the quarter-finals.

Next up in Whangārei, at 15:15 local time, is the second match in Pool B as RWC 2014 finalists Canada get their campaign underway against Japan.

The two nations have only ever met once before, at RWC 1994, when captain Stephanie White scored two of Canada’s nine tries in a 57-0 win in Melrose.

Twenty-eight years on, White’s daughter Sophie de Goede will lead Canada out for the match at Northland Events Centre as the North Americans hope history repeats on the pitch.

Since losing 28-0 to the Black Ferns in June, Canada have won four matches in a row. Japan’s form in 2022 has been more patchy, beating Australia, Fiji, Ireland and South Africa but losing heavily to New Zealand two weeks ago.

The opening round of RWC 2021 comes to an end with an intriguing encounter between Wales and Scotland in Whangārei (kick-off 17:45 local time) in Pool A.

A stunning second-half comeback gave Wales a 24-19 victory when the teams met in the Women’s Six Nations in April, however, Ioan Cunningham’s side have lost five matches in a row since then.

Scotland, appearing at their first Rugby World Cup since 2010, have not won a match in 2022, though, having lost their only warm-up 21-17 against the USA.

It is certain to be a close affair at Northlands Events Centre on Sunday, with the team that comes out on top doing their hopes of qualifying for the quarter-finals no harm ahead of matches against Australia and the hosts, New Zealand.