USA joined pool winners New Zealand, England and France in the semi-finals of Women's Rugby World Cup 2017 as the best runner-up across the three pools.
The Women's Eagles, winners of the inaugural World Cup in 1991, lost their Pool B decider 47-26 to England at Billings Park on Thursday, but the bonus points secured in wins over Italy and Spain meant they kept the best runner-up spot they had held at the start of the day.
USA secured a try-bonus point when Kris Thomas touched down with the last play of the match against the defending champions to strengthen their cause, but Canada and hosts Ireland failed to get anything out of their matches with New Zealand and France respectively.
Their reward is a meeting with four-time champions New Zealand, who were the first to confirm their place with a dominant 48-5 victory over Canada in the Pool A decider that will also see them return to the summit of the World Rugby Women's Rankings on Monday.
The other semi-final pits familiar rivals England against France after Les Bleues avenged their Six Nations defeat by Ireland with three first-half tries for a 21-5 victory that brought the curtain down on the pool stages in Dublin.
There were also first wins of the tournament for Australia, Spain and Wales.
The action now moves to Belfast for the knockout stages with the ninth place semi-final between Italy and Japan kicking off proceedings at Queen's University at 12:00 local time (GMT+1) on Tuesday, followed by the other tie involving Spain and Hong Kong and the fifth place play-off between Canada and Wales. The fifth place play-off between Ireland and Australia will open proceedings at the Kingspan Stadium at 14:00 with attention then turning to the two semi-finals.
POOL A: NEW ZEALAND 48-5 CANADA
Prop Aldora Itunu scored a hat-trick as New Zealand blew Canada away to take their place in the semi-finals for the sixth time in seven tournaments they have featured in.
Canada had turned down an early shot at goal and so it was New Zealand who opened the scoring when Portia Woodman, fresh from her eight tries against Hong Kong, made the break and then released full-back Selica Winiata to run in the first try of this Pool A decider.
Elissa Alarie had to be alert to safely touch down a kick through from Kelly Brazier ahead of the New Zealand centre, but the second try did come in the 17th minute when Itunu managed to force the ball down, initially having put the ball on prop Carolyn McEwen's boot.
The prop, who had been held up seconds earlier, then grabbed a second try after driving over in the 23rd minute to make it 19-0 as the Black Ferns continued to keep Canada penned in their own half. However, she was sin-binned just before the half hour mark for a high tackle.
Canada, though, couldn't make the most of their advantage and instead New Zealand secured the bonus point when second-rows Charmaine Smith and Eloise Blackwell combined well for Stacey Waaka to dot down. Back to their full complement, her fellow centre Kelly Brazier ran in a fifth try on the stroke of half-time for a commanding 29-0 lead.
The WRWC 2014 runners-up needed to score first if they were to begin the fight-back to get the bonus point they needed to remain in contention for a semi-final place, but instead it was captain Fiao'o Faamausili who celebrated becoming the first Black Fern to reach 50 caps with a try in the 52nd minute.
Julianne Zussman thought she had a try for Canada minutes later but it was chalked off with referee Alhambra Nievas ruling she had been tackled and hadn't released the ball in the build-up. New Zealand then lost Blackwell to the sin-bin for a neck roll and Canada finally broke through, Olympic bronze medallists Kelly Russell and Karen Paquin combining in the build up to Jacey Grunswick going over.
However, an error immediately handed the initiative back to the Black Ferns with a strong run by Victoria Subritzy-Nafatali resulting in a try for winger Renee Wickliffe in the left corner. The four-time champions weren't finished there wtih Itunu completing her hat-trick after replacement Theresa Fitzpatrick was stopped just short under the posts.
New Zealand coach Glenn Moore: “The yellow cards were not a pleasing aspect of that performance and our penalty count was too high. I realise that when you’re making most of the play some of those things go against you, but I’m disappointed with those two areas. On the positive side, we made a big step up in our lineout, both in defence and attack. We can do a bit of work as well around the way we’re recycling the ball. We’ll prepare for the semi-final and we’re not too bothered who we come up against, so it’s job done so far. We’ve scored some good tries and we created opportunities, so I’m happy with that.”
Aon Player of the Match and hat-trick scorer Aldora Itunu: “I’m actually a bit overwhelmed right now. It’s been a long time getting here and it’s great to have three wins and to be through to the semi-finals. There’s a great collective spirit in the squad, really good vibes, and today we were determined to keep going right to the final whistle. Of course we can make improvements, but I think we’ve got better with each of our three matches so far.”
Canada full-back Elissa Alarie: “Yes we’re disappointed and there’s a lot of emotion right now. We’ve known for quite a while that New Zealand were in our pool and even though we played great rugby at times, we just made too many mistakes. We needed to hold onto the ball and move it wide because that’s our strength but we didn’t do that often enough. It was a do or die situation because we didn’t get that bonus point against Wales and yes, we’re disappointed to have missed out on a semi-final. Still, we’ll keep playing and trying to win every match, and maybe give some game time to the younger players to keep building our programme.”
POOL A: WALES 39-15 HONG KONG
Wales scored four tries in the last 30 minutes to finally break the resolve of a spirited Hong Kong side at UCD Bowl and record their first win at Ireland 2017.
Hong Kong had conceded 219 points in their first two matches against Canada and New Zealand but they started positively against Wales, a side ranked 14 places above them, and came close to scoring the opening try when their lineout drive was dragged down just short.
However, the Welsh defence has been outstanding at WRWC 2017 and they managed to clear the danger and take the lead in the 14th minute through Shona Powell-Hughes, the number eight controlling the ball at the back of the scrum to touch down after Hong Kong full-back Adrienne Garvey had denied Mel Clay with a try-saving tackle.
Keira Bevan raced 70 metres to seemingly score her side's second try in the 19th minute, but when checked by the television match official it was ruled out for a knock-on by Jess Kavanagh-Williams to the scrum-half's dismay.
Within minutes Garvey had written her name into Hong Kong's history books as the scorer of their first World Cup points with a penalty and, after Siwan Lillicrap was sin-binned for repeated Welsh infringments, the Asian side scored their first try through Natasha Olson-Thorne.
The centre received the ball and spun out of the Welsh tackle to race clear and spark wild celebrations among her team-mates on the pitch and on the bench, although coach Jo Hull could be seen trying to get the message down to her players to keep their composure.
Wales, though, responded with two tries to lead 17-10 at half-time, both of them the result of cross-kicks by fly-half Elinor Snowsill. First she went right and dropped the ball on a sixpence for winger Kavanagh-Williams, then she went across to the left, the ball bouncing in front of Jasmine Joyce who just managed to gather and hold onto it to touch down.
Hong Kong started the second half strongly and where rewarded when fly-half Rose Hopewell-Fong chased her own kick and forced her opposite number Snowsill to touch down in goal. From the resulting scrum, Hong Kong went through the phases before Mak Ho Yee fired the ball to winger Chong Ka Yan to spark more celebrations.
Wales brought on their experienced flanker Rachel Taylor for teenager Lleucu George minutes later and the Europeans grabbed the match by the scruff of the neck as full-back Jodie Evans broke and, having been tripped just short, popped the ball up to Kavanagh-Williams for her second try.
The winger thought she had her hat-trick in the 55th minute but it was ruled out by the TMO after she put a foot on the touchline as she raced clear. Wales did get their fifth try just after the hour mark after Powell-Hughes found her captain Carys Phillips, before flanker Sioned Harries was rewarded for her strong running with two tries in the final 10 minutes.
Wales coach Rowland Phillips: “We were very competitive against New Zealand, and then against Canada, we put ourselves in a position to win, so those two performances were really positive. Today, however, was not so good. I’m really disappointed because our attitude and our concentration need to be 100 per cent for us to really compete against the top teams. I didn’t see that today and collectively we just didn’t perform to an acceptable level. Still, over the three games we’ve made improvements, there is a confidence generated primarily from those games against New Zealand and Canada. I want us to be more the team that played New Zealand and Canada and less the team that played Hong Kong.”
Hong Kong coach Jo Hull: “We had some opportunities out there and we just need to be more accurate in attack. Also, we made a few mistakes under pressure again, but I was pleased with our defence and our work at the breakdown was good against a physical Welsh side. Our first two games against Canada and New Zealand got us ready for the sort of challenge that Wales offer. Overall, it’s an honour to be involved against strong teams and we’ll prepare as well as we can.”
POOL B: ENGLAND 47-26 USA
Emily Scarratt overtook Katy Mclean as England’s leading points scorer in a game where both players crossed for tries as the Red Roses seamlessly progressed through to the semi-finals in bright and breezy conditions at Billings Park.
Having seen New Zealand brush Canada aside 48-5 to complete the pool stages with a perfect record and finish top of Pool A, England were equally dominant as they overwhelmed the USA, Scarratt scoring the first of seven tries to pass Mclean’s previous mark of 405 points.
England had the game wrapped up early, scoring at a point a minute with only seven conceded in reply, before a strong finish from the Women’s Eagles saw them claim the try-scoring bonus point that enhanced their prospects of claiming the best runners-up spot and reaching the last four for the first time since 1998, Kris Thomas crossing for the all-important fourth score with the clock in red.
Simon Middleton’s side were superior in every facet of the game until the final half an hour, at which point play became more fragmented and the Women’s Eagles were finally able to get their exciting back three of full-back Cheta Emba and wingers Naya Tapper and Thomas into some space.
Shortly after missing a simple penalty kick, Scarratt got England up and running in the 11th minute when she got the faintest of touches to Mclean’s well-weighted grubber into the in-goal area.
A combination of two failed lineouts and Mclean’s pinpoint tactical kicking then enabled England to go from one end of the field to another and score their second, referee Joy Neville awarding a penalty try after USA hooker Kathryn Augustyn illegally sacked a powerful driving maul, an offence that earned her a yellow card.
England stayed camped inside the USA half and openside flanker Marlie Packer dotted down from the back of two more powerful drives while the opposition were short-handed. Back-row colleagues Alex Matthews and captain Sarah Hunter were also enjoying fine games as the Red Roses reeled off 28 points without reply.
Pete Steinberg’s side finally got on the board when flanker Kate Zackary burrowed over from close range but Mclean waltzed through a gap on the stroke of half-time to ensure the Red Roses had the final say in a totally dominant first half.
It only took England two minutes to add to increase their lead at the start of the second half, winger Amy Wilson-Hardy getting on the end of a good backs move after Abbie Scott’s initial break.
Hooker Amy Cockayne started and finished another irrepressible lineout drive as England continued their scoring spree. But a raft of substitutions disrupted their flow and the USA came back at the defending champions strongly, scoring their second try through Emba.
Tapper then used her pace to round replacement Rachael Burford and score the Women’s Eagles' third try with 10 minutes to go. It looked as if time would be against them to secure a try-bonus point but with the final play of the game a deft offload from replacement forward Abby Gustaitis opened up the England defence and Thomas turned on the after-burners to race home from 35 metres.
Aon Player of the Match Alex Matthews: “We had a lot of momentum with those driving mauls in the first half but we lost it a bit after half-time. Still a win’s a win. Huge credit to the USA, they’re massively physical but we knew we could take them on at the set piece which we did. It was by far the toughest game of the pool and we had to step it up. Recovery now and then on to Belfast – the first part of the job is done.”
USA coach Pete Steinberg: “Look, we’re really inexperienced and at the end we had prop Nicole James with one cap going up against Rochelle Clark who has more than 120 caps. We knew it was going to be tough and we really struggled to stay with England in the first half. They were excellent for about 20 minutes, scored four tries and effectively put the game away. While we showed in the second half that we can play at this level, we’re just not consistent enough. Our target at the outset was four tries, we haven’t been in the semi-finals for 19 years, so that has been our focus. We know as well that as a young team we’ll be a lot better because of this game. Spain and Italy do not play at the pace of England, and for many of our players that was the toughest and fastest game they’ve ever played.”
USA winger Kris Thomas: “We went out to win the game, but during the second half we were aware of the importance of a four-try bonus point. We struggled to deal with England’s kicking game in the first half, however, once we adjusted to that we really started to create some chances out wide. I knew in the lead-up to my try that it was pretty much the last play of the match, so to get that bonus point at the end was great. Hopefully, it’ll be enough to get us into the last four.”
POOL B: SPAIN 8-22 ITALY
Three second-half tries gave Spain their first win of Women's Rugby World Cup 2017 and third place in Pool B.
Spain emerged with a point to prove, having lost their Six Nations place to Italy back in 2007 so the women's competition mirrored the men's line-up, and should have scored inside five minutes when they worked the ball wide, but flanker Paula Medin knocked on with the line at her mercy.
Las Leonas continue to dominate territory and possession in the first quarter, forcing Italy to make three times as many tackles as them, but handling errors or loose passes meant they couldn't turn it into points on the scoreboard.
Instead it was Italy who opened the scoring with winger Michela Sillari's 20th minute penalty. Spain continued to enjoy the bulk of possession but couldn't get over the line, instead having to settle for a penalty by fly-half Patrica García as the teams went in locked at 3-3 at half-time.
Sillari made a good break down the left within minutes of the restart but couldn't find a team-mate in support and instead it was Spain who edged ahead with the game's first try, Iera Echebarria fielding Beatrice Rigoni's chip and chase with ease and launching a counter-attack that ended with scrum-half Anne Fernandez de Corres shrugging off a tackle to dot down.
The Azzurre looked to have responded within five minutes when flanker Isabella Locatelli charged down the right touchline before finding Rigoni, the fly-half stepping the defence and stretching for the line. However, it was ruled out for Sillari being offside at the preceding ruck after reaching back to get the ball.
That decision rocked Italy and two quick-fire tries from Spain finally gave them some breathing space on the scoreboard to reflect the possession they had enjoyed. First quick ball along the backline saw winger Echebarria coast inside three defenders to score and then, after a series of pick-and-goes, captain Aroa Gonzalez offloaded to Maria Bravo for the try.
Italy refused to crumble, though, with full-back Manuela Furlan stopped just short after a break down the left touchline and they finally got their try through captain Sara Barattin with five minutes to go.
Spain second-row Maria Ribera: “After two defeats, we really needed that win. We want to play a fast game, moving the ball away from the breakdown as quickly as possible and we couldn’t do that effectively against England and the USA. It’s also important for us to beat a team that plays in the Six Nations. Our dream is to get into that tournament and I think we deserve it now. If we have more matches at that level we will be more competitive in the World Cup. It’s going to be hard in the next phase in Belfast, but this result has certainly given us confidence.”
Italy replacement Valentina Ruzza: “Yes, that’s a disappointing result for us. We definitely believed we could win and we gave everything, so all we can do for the rest of the tournament is keep working. I don’t think it was any issue with pressure, we were in the right frame of mind and really motivated, but we just didn’t take the chances that we created. I think we are at pretty much the same level as Spain and the difference today was that they took their chances. We’ll keep our heads up and stay positive.”
POOL C: AUSTRALIA 29-15 JAPAN
Full-back Samantha Treherne scored twice as Australia survived a stirring fightback from Japan to record their first win since Women's Rugby World Cup 2014.
The Wallaroos used their hard-running forwards, Aon Player of the Match and number eight Grace Hamilton making 28 carries alone, to dominate territory and possession in the first half, posting 19 unanswered points before the Sakura 15 closed the gap to four after scoring three unconverted tries approaching the final quarter.
However, Japan’s heavy tackle count eventually told – they completed 206 in the match – and the game was up for the Asian champions when Nareta Marsters scored and Treharne crossed for her second between the 67th and 72nd minutes.
Heroic defending from Japan had kept Australia at bay until the 17th minute when Treherne got on the end of a good offload from hooker Cheyenne Campbell.
It seemed certain that Marsters would double the Wallaroos’ lead six minutes later when she fended off her opposite number before racing towards the line. However, Japan full-back Mayu Shimizu made a brilliant last-ditch tackle to prevent the powerfully-built right winger from grounding the ball.
Marsters went close again on the half-hour mark after Australia launched an attack from a five-metre scrum but the ever-alert Hamilton was on hand to finish off the job and dot down from a metre out. Treherne was on target with the conversion as the Australia lead went into double figures.
Japan then enjoyed their best spell of the half but Australia held firm and then turned defence into attack when sevens star Mahalia Murphy forced a turnover with a big hit on her own 22. Chloe Butler picked up the loose ball and then unleashed Murphy on a clear 70-metre run to the line.
However, Japan’s patience was rewarded when on the stroke of half-time a 25-phase move involving a series of pick-and-goes ended with prop Saki Minami crashing over from close range.
After dominating the first 12 minutes of the second half without any reward, Australia were hit by a sucker punch when teenage scrum-half Moe Tsukui stole the ball at the breakdown and her pass set Riho Kurogi free down the right touchline. Maki Takano then celebrated her birthday with a 58th-minute try from close range to bring Japan right back in it, but the Sakura 15 could not sustain the same levels of intensity thereafter and started to fall off tackles.
Marsters profited from a Sharni Williams bust up the middle to score Australia’s third before Treherne rounded off good work from the forwards by squeezing over in the corner.
Australia coach Paul Verrell: “We had a good start to the tournament against Ireland – bit unlucky not to get a win there – and then we were shown up a little in the France game, so good to be back on track and get a win. This is good publicity for us back home and while sevens for women is understandably the main focus in Australia, we’re pushing forward here and today was another step. We had a game plan to be direct and physical and in the end it worked for us. We’re going to Belfast looking to get as high a ranking as we can and we want to finish number five now.”
Japan captain Seina Saito: “This is our first World Cup and clearly it’s very difficult to win any of the games, but we’re developing. Our target beforehand was to finish in the top eight and obviously now we can’t do that but we’ll be doing our very best to finish as high as possible.”
POOL C: FRANCE 21-5 IRELAND
France produced an exhilarating display of running rugby as well as showing their defensive qualities to reach the Women’s Rugby World Cup semi-finals for the seventh time in the competition’s history and set up a mouth-watering clash with England.
The defending champions won’t want to face France in this mood, Les Bleues’ brand of high-octane rugby proving too much for an Ireland side that was unable to give the raucous home crowd at the UCD Bowl the result they craved.
Quick ball and some superb handling was the key to France’s success as they took the game to Ireland from the off, scoring three unanswered tries, all converted by full-back Montserrat Amedee, in the first half.
The 21-0 lead did not flatter Les Bleues who coped brilliantly with the loss of Lenaig Corson to the sin-bin in the 44th minute, showing the sort of resilience and discipline in defence that had seen them concede only two tries in the tournament in a second half that stayed scoreless until Cliodhna Moloney darted over at the death.
Top spot in Pool C was the prize awaiting the win, but there was only ever one team in it.
Superb openside flanker Romane Menager cut inside Ireland’s drift defence for France’s first try with seven minutes gone before further slick inter-play between backs and forwards led to a score for outside-centre Caroline Ladagnous.
Midway through the half Ireland managed to string together some phases in attack but they failed to make any headway with their ‘one-out rugby’ and France went further in front when Ladagnous pounced for her second after tight-head Julie Duval had been brought down just short of the line.
It took Jenny Murphy’s 11th tackle of the half to prevent Chloé Pelle from racing home from her own 22 as France continued to press forward, while a powerful run up the left flank by rangy second-row Corson also threatened the Irish line before the half ended.
Understandably, Ireland came out firing at the start of the second half knowing that only a win would keep their hopes alive of becoming the first host to lift the trophy, and Corson resorted to lying on the wrong side in a bid to repel the pressure.
Number eight Safi N'Diaye’s tackle count went through the roof as Les Bleues snuffed out anything that Ireland threw at them during the 10-minute period when they were short-handed and the same pattern followed once restored to their full complement of players.
It looked as if Ireland had blown their best chance to open their account when replacement Katie Fitzhenry failed to hang onto an unsympathetic pass a couple of metres out, but Moloney ensured the home fans went home with some crumb of comfort by scoring with the last play of the game.
France scrum-half Yanna Rivoalen: “During the first half we really succeeded in playing the sort of match that we wanted to. We were very sharp and everything that we did well resulted in those three tries. Then during the second half we probably tried to force it a bit, making too many 50-50 offloads and there were a few too many handling errors. We knew that the Irish would never give in, so it was a first half of attacking and a second half of defending. It was a really great victory in the end and we know we’ve got to work on a few things because the further you go in this tournament the more the errors will cost you dear.”
Ireland coach Tom Tierney: “We’re heartbroken, the players gave it absolutely everything and it just wasn’t meant to be. We’ve another tournament in Belfast to get ready for, and obviously, that wasn’t the tournament we wanted to be in. We take this defeat on the chin and it’s not going to be easy for the next couple of days. We knew they were going to come at us in the first 20 minutes, we tried our best but unfortunately in that first half we just didn’t have the ball. France were very, very clinical and they showed what a good side they are. We were under massive pressure in that first half and to keep it to 21 points over the course of 80 minutes is great credit to the players. But the way those first 20 minutes unfolded defined the game.”
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