The Women’s Rugby World Cup will kick off in New Zealand on Saturday with one question on everyone’s mind: can anyone stop England?
After an extra year’s preparation due to the pandemic delay, England will take to the field against Fiji in Auckland on the opening day boasting a remarkable 25-game winning streak, and as the hot favourites to lift the trophy. France, New Zealand and Canada are the other contenders but England have honed a ruthless and almost unstoppable gameplan, generating astonishing try-scoring statistics from certain areas and at key times of matches.
In front of what’s expected to be a world record crowd of more than 35,000 for the opening triple-header at Eden Park, South Africa take on a fancied French team, who despite their prowess in Europe have never been beyond a World Cup semi-final. England then play their first Test against Fiji before the hosts, New Zealand, run out against Australia, giving three of the world’s top four sides an early chance to see how their main rivals are shaping up.
The focus on England’s dominance will surely suit everyone, especially the five-time World Cup winning Black Ferns, who, despite some poor results in recent years, still have the weight of an expectant rugby-mad nation on their shoulders. The issue for their brains trust of former All Black coaches, from Wayne Smith to Sir Graham Henry, is working out how England can be beaten.
A number of documentaries aired this week gave fans behind-the-scenes insight into several teams and provided some telling moments about how difficult stopping England will be. When New Zealand were thrashed 43-12 in Exeter a year ago, the footage in the latest Black Fern documentary cuts to the then head coach, Glenn Moore, who bellows “we got bullied” at his forlorn team in their post-match review.
Dive into the statistics and Moore’s succinct analysis stands up: England are bullies – with a dominant pack, ruthless driving lineout and unmatchable strength in depth.
Data analysis of England, France and New Zealand’s performances since the start of 2021 might initially suggest there is little between them. Thanks to Opta we know that it is France who have the better scrum (91%), tackle (91%) and goalkicking (69%) success rate of the three, while New Zealand’s gainline success of 67% puts them out in front.
But England have developed a significant edge in some key areas. The first is a fearsome lineout that destroys teams if it is allowed to get up and running. When England get a lineout anywhere in the opposition 22, their try success rate is 48%, a figure that rises to a frightening 71% when 5m out.
Aside from restricting the opportunities they get to throw in close to the line through immaculate discipline, there are scant ways to defend this. Given England’s success in the air, the best way is to keep the feet of all eight defending players on the ground and attempt to get behind the biggest point of power coming through the drive – but very few teams manage it.
England’s second major asset comes in their ability to recycle the ball faster than anyone else. In this year’s Six Nations, England’s average ruck speed was 2.83 seconds. France (3.41) were slower than everyone except Wales, while in the Pacific Fours competition, New Zealand did marginally better at 3.08 seconds with Canada behind on 3.57.
Though these sound like tiny margins, England’s ability to quickly get the ball into the hands of their powerful ball carriers eventually forces a defensive line to lose its shape. Ireland did a highly effective job in trying to stop this in their first half against them this year.
Deploying a dual tactic of softening their line speed and allowing England to play behind the gainline, Ireland relied on a strong drift defence to try to deny any attacking momentum, which did force some early mistakes. They also effectively managed to frustrate England at the breakdown, with their second defender looking to obstruct any player in a white shirt attempting to seal over the ball.
England crossed the line twice in the opening 40 minutes. However, as Ireland found out, if England haven’t beaten you by the hour mark, they are likely to beat you in the final quarter.
No team has scored more tries in the final 20 minutes than England over the past two years, with an average scoring rate of 18.6 points in that window. Almost four years of professionalism has helped England develop world-class athletes in peak physical condition who wear teams down. And if that doesn’t work they have a bench of enviable depth.
There is a World Cup outside the top four teams. With Wales and Italy recently turning professional and building for the future, this event comes at a significant turning point for women’s rugby. Both feature on day two of the competition on Sunday when the action moves to Whangarei: Wales take on Scotland and Italy play the USA, while contenders Canada play Japan.
Next year a breakthrough international competition, the WXV, kicks off that will feature the top 18 sides in the world. Investment and interest is on the rise across the sport.
For now though, set your alarm for some early starts. After a five-year wait, the World Cup is almost here.
Scrum Queens: The Story of Women’s Rugby by Ali Donnelly is published by Pitch Publishing.