A year on from the thrilling Women’s Rugby World Cup 2021 final, England and New Zealand are set to do battle again in another high stakes test match.
Saturday’s WXV 1 encounter will effectively double as a decider for the inaugural edition of the tournament, when the Black Ferns meet the Red Roses at Go Media Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland.
Australia’s upset win over France in Dunedin on Saturday night has blown WXV 1 wide open, with four of the six teams in with a chance of taking the title. It means that both world champions New Zealand and England will head into their game knowing exactly what they need to do in order to become champions.
However, English prop Sarah Bern, who played all but the last seven minutes of last year’s final, said the focus for this year’s version of the Red Roses remained building towards their home Women’s Rugby World Cup in 2025.
“We’re still finding out where we are as a team. That’s why it’s exciting to have a good, hard game,” Bern said.
“We’ve had some really tough games against Canada, so this is another challenge. Everyone always wants to win, but it’s never guaranteed. We’ve got a short build into the next World Cup and we’re really focusing on how we’re playing and heading towards that.”
“One of those days”
Bern’s memories of the final at Eden Park, that finished 34-31 to New Zealand, are frustrating.
“It felt like everything that day was against us. We had players injured in the team run, Zoe Aldcroft [had to be replaced early on], unfortunately the red card… I think it was just one of those days where it wasn’t meant to be.
“In rugby, you can be as prepared as you can, you can feel good and strong, but sometimes it’s just not your day.”
The side that will run out against the Black Ferns on Saturday is a very different group from last year, from top to bottom. Bern said that the new staff, including former captain Sarah Hunter and incoming head coach John Mitchell, have made things “fresh”.
“It’s always natural at the end of a World Cup cycle to have change, so we have said goodbye to a lot of experience,” she explained.
“I think the most experienced player left is Marlie Packer. So, the girls have done really, really well to step into those roles, and we’ve pulled together as a team.”
It does feel like a similar situation to their opponents, as New Zealand have gone through a restructure on the field and in the coaching box too.
The Black Ferns are without most of their sevens players and have a new director of rugby in Allan Bunting.
“They’re still free-flowing,” said Bern of what she’d noticed about the world champions this year.
“That’s the Black Ferns we all love and know, but we’ve seen a bit more in their kicking game as well.
“We want to win, we want to play the game the way we play – hard-hitting, new exciting attacking stuff and test it out against the top teams in the world.”
Growing the game
Bern is full of praise for the WXV concept, believing that it will play a key role in developing women’s rugby.
“I think it’s brilliant that we have the different tiers and that we’re growing the women’s game globally,” she said.
“Hopefully it’ll encourage more unions around the world to invest in their women’s sides and show what great quality of games we can play.”
Bern is hopeful that she’ll be able to play a WXV 1 tournament on home soil soon too.
“It’ll be so exciting to have it back in England if we have that opportunity, and to continually grow the game,” Bern added.
“To be able to say, ‘Hey guys, come and have a look at this amazing game we’re putting on’.”
That’s exactly what the Red Roses are looking to do this Saturday night in Auckland again, while also making sure they are on the right side of the scoreboard when the final whistle blows.
Bern is certain that if they stick to their processes, they’ll be able to enjoy the blockbuster match-up.
“I think it’s going to be really exciting to see where we are on Saturday as a team.”