The latest chapter of the Women’s Rugby World Cup story between England and New Zealand did not disappoint with fans lucky enough to be in the Kingspan Stadium or watching around the world treated to a pulsating final that ended with the Black Ferns triumphing 41-32 on Saturday.
New Zealand scored seven of the 11 tries in a match that was the proverbial game of two halves, recovering from 17-5 down in the first half to dominate possession and territory in the second to win the World Cup for the fifth time and ensure they also remain top of the World Rugby Women's Rankings.
Prop Toka Natua scored a hat-trick in the final in Belfast to ensure New Zealand captain Fiao’o Faamausili bowed out with her fourth title and the Black Ferns remain unbeaten in World Cup finals and against England in the showpiece event in the women’s game.
France joined New Zealand and England in the post-final festivities after edging an entertaining bronze final with USA 31-23 with captain Gaelle Mignot among their try-scorers.
Canada overcame a fast-starting Australia to finish fifth with a 43-12 victory, while Wales won their own final, beating hosts Ireland 27-17 to finish seventh and the final direct qualification place for WRWC 2021.
The final day also saw wins for Japan over Hong Kong in the 11th place play-off and Italy, who needed an extra-time try from captain Sara Barattin to beat Spain 20-15 for ninth place.
FINAL: ENGLAND 32-41 NEW ZEALAND
A dominant second-half performance saw New Zealand come storming back to end England's reign as champions and claim the title for the fifth time in a final that was played out in a cauldron of noise from start to finish.
The three previous World Cup finals between the nations had each been a classic in its own way and the excitement crackling around the Kingspan Stadium during the anthems and Black Ferns' haka signified that the crowd expected more of the same from the top two nations in the world.
Defending champions England had started the better with a probing kick by Katy Mclean helping to keep New Zealand deep in their own half in the opening minutes, but they were unable to turn that early pressure into points and instead a cross-field kick from her opposite number Victoria Subritzy-Nafatali created the opening try. It was meant for Portia Woodman, but dropped in front of her and the ball fortuitously bounced up into the arms of Selica Winiata, the full-back leaving her opposite number Emily Scarratt in her wake to run in the opening try after eight minutes.
Scarratt required lengthy treatment and went to the sidelines briefly to have her left ankle taped, but returned and put England on the board wtih a 15th minute penalty to the delight of the England fans in the crowd. England received another boost when referee Joy Neville ruled that New Zealand flanker Sarah Goss had lifted Mclean above the horizontal, earning the Olympic silver medallist a trip to the sin-bin for 10 minutes.
In her absence, England thought they had scored when second-row Tamara Taylor went over the line, but Kelly Brazier managed to get her arms under the ball to prevent it being grounded. However, from the resulting scrum England got the drive on and referee Neville ended up under the posts signalling for a penalty try.
Goss had just returned when England crossed for their second try of the final, centre Rachael Burford bursting through the defence before combining with winger Kay Wilson. The ball was quickly recycled and a long pass from Mclean found Lydia Thompson out wide, the winger stepping inside and diving over to make it 17-5 after Scarratt's conversion.
New Zealand were having to live on scraps of possession, but on the verge of half-time the four-time champions got a crucial score to bring them back into the match, prop Toka Natua being stopped just short before showing incredible awareness to reach out and turn her arm to ground the ball, all while being unsighted. Kendra Cocksedge missed the conversion, but the Black Ferns would be relieved to be only seven points down at the end of a half England had dominated.
Whatever coach Glenn Moore said at half-time clearly had an affect on the Black Ferns as they came out and dominated the early exchanges and were level within five minutes after Subritzy-Nafatali stepped and powered her way through before popping a pass off the floor to prop Takua for her second.
Scarratt saw her penalty go over off the posts in the 51st minute to edge England ahead once more, but New Zealand were getting up a head of steam and went through multiple phases before second-row Charmaine Smith grounded the ball against the base of the post to put the Black Ferns ahead again at 24-20.
The lead lasted barely two minutes, though, as a Subritzy-Nafatali cross-kick fell straight into the arms of Thompson and the winger ran around Woodman to race 50 metres for her second of the match. A third try in five frenetic minutes swung the game back in New Zealand's favour with Natua, a number eight who recently converted to the front row, completing her hat-trick to make it 31-25 in her side's favour.
With New Zealand's pack firmly on top and securing plenty of ball for their team, it was no surprise when scrum-half Cocksedge grabbed their fourth try of the second half just past the hour mark. She couldn't add the conversion but it mattered little as a fifth try came with 10 minutes to go.
Subritzy-Nafatali noticed that Wilson left her wing and put up a perfectly-weighted cross-kick that fell into the arms of Carla Hohepa, the replacement selflessy feeding Winiata on the wrap around for the try that all but sealed victory by taking the score out to 41-25. England, to their credit, battled to the finish and were rewarded when replacement Izzy Noel-Smith finished off a drive.
New Zealand captain Fiao'o Faamausili: “It means everything. You couldn’t have asked for a better final than this, there was some amazing talent displayed out there. Credit to England, they are an amazing team with amazing forwards and amazing backs and they just really gave it to us tonight and we had to dig deep and believe in or game. I was really proud of the girls. There was never a moment in that first half that I doubted our performance, it was about being patient and believing in what we could do and then coming out in the second half and doing it, which is what we did. Second half, territory was the key for us.”
New Zealand coach Glenn Moore: “I am very proud of the team and it hasn’t probably sunk in yet. It is very satisfying for the team and the management staff. Over the last three years we had a plan in place and I think we peaked at the right time. We expected them to come out like they did and we stayed very calm at half-time. Our messaging was clear. England were enjoying something like 71/72 per cent territory and 65 per cent possession so that was putting us under a lot of pressure and we were having to put in a lot of tackles at the wrong end of the park. It is always challenging when you are in that mode because you are at risk of giving away penalties so our messaging was around field position and holding onto possession. We could also see that they weren’t committing to the tackle and were keeping everyone on their feet so we wanted to try and take them on through the middle with the forwards. The try before half-time was critical. It was probably the first time in a long time that we had been down that end of the park. I am just so proud of the amount of fight they had. It was a calm camp at half-time and they knew what had to be done and they went out there and executed it under pressure really well.”
New Zealand hat-trick score Toka Natua: “It is an amazing feeling, knowing that this is not only for me but for my town Tokoroa and the rest of New Zealand. I’d like to thank the heavenly father and the girls out there beside me. They are not my tries alone, they are down to all of us, and if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t have got over the line. We had no worries at all at 17-5 down. If you let worry creep in, it is just going to take over so we just kept calm and kept that fire in our belly and kept going forward. Our coach (at half-time) just said, it’s now or never and imagine that our family was behind us on defence and that we needed to protect them and not allow anyone to get through.”
England coach Simon Middleton: “Massive credit to New Zealand, they were outstanding and found a way to win. We’re disappointed, obviously, but we just couldn’t get the ball in the second half. Fitness never really came into the equation, we had loads of energy. Full marks to New Zealand, they found a way to keep hold of the ball really well, they were very clinical and played in the right areas of the field and Cocksedge was outstanding at nine. The girls have been great, an absolute credit, and it has been a huge privilege coaching them in this tournament. There has been some great talent on show for us with some massive positives coming out of this World Cup in terms of players going forward, and lots of stuff to be going on with, but a little bit of a rest might be in order first.”
England captain Sarah Hunter: “We gave it everything but all credit to New Zealand, we lost the momentum and they got on top and we couldn't seem to get our hands back on the ball. I’m so proud of the girls and one loss doesn’t make us a bad team. We can stand tall tonight, but we’re sorry we couldn’t get the win for the fans.”
England fly-half Katy Mclean: “For us, the only thing we have now is massive disappointment. Credit to New Zealand they really took us to it in the second half and we probably didn’t up our game enough to win that. We came here to win, we set that goal from the start and the disappointment from the England team is massive because we feel like we have let people down. But the support we have had here and at home and on social media, it has been absolutely immense and we’re really grateful. If another girl takes us up our brilliant sport on the back of today, that’s one positive we can take from it.”
BRONZE FINAL: FRANCE 31-23 USA
France and the USA served up the perfect hors d'oeuvre to the main course of the Women’s Rugby World Cup final with a thrilling game of seven tries to decide third place.
For the sixth time in the tournament’s history the bronze medal went to the French, but the Women’s Eagles displayed the never-say-die spirit that has served them so well over the last 18 days to outscore their higher-ranked opponents 13-12 in the second half and push them all the way.
Striving to give departing coach Pete Steinberg the perfect send-off, the USA flew out of the blocks but had nothing to show for the wealth of possession they enjoyed in France’s half until Alev Kelter slotted a 15th minute penalty after France strayed offside.
With the back three of Kris Thomas, Cheta Emba and Naya Tapper well-marshalled by the tight Les Bleues defence, it was strong-running, loose-head prop Hope Rogers who caused them most problems.
After weathering the storm, France seized control with their high-octane brand of rugby bringing them three tries between the 22nd and 35th minutes, Montserrat Amedee converting twice for a 19-3 lead. Lenaig Corson was first to cross the line, the rangy second-row holding off the desperate tackles of Camille Grassineau and Carla Neisen after ever-alert scrum-half Jade Le Pesq had switched the point of attack from left to right.
Amedee missed the conversion and then a penalty but France did not have to wait long to increase their lead, flanker Marjorie Mayans crashing over after a strong run from Neisen had given Les Bleues a foothold in the USA 22.
Captain Gaelle Mignot then celebrated her 70th cap with France’s third try, taking the ball off Le Pesq and sprinting home from the 22 and they seemed set to take a commanding 19-3 lead into the break.
But the USA had other ideas, Rogers going close before they finally got their reward for a sustained period of pressure inside France’s 22 with a try for blindside flanker Abby Gustaitis, who used every centimetre of her 1.80m frame to reach for the line.
USA, at times playing Harlem Globetrotter-style rugby, started the second half well and a 45th-minute penalty from Kelter brought them to within six points. A brilliant finish from Le Pesq, the scrum-half somehow keeping her feet in play to squeeze home in the left corner, took the score to 24-13 and it looked as though the game was up for the Women’s Eagles when openside Julie Annery capped a fine display with a try that replacement kicker Caroline Drouin improved with a brilliant touchline conversion.
But Kelter triggered a comeback when she followed a 56th-minute penalty with a lung-bursting 60-metre run after a clearance kick from Emba fortuitously ricocheted into her hands. The former ice hockey player could have flopped over the line herself but selflessly passed to Emba, who dotted down inside the in-goal area. Having just about got her breath back, Kelter nailed her fifth kick from five to make it an eight-point game with as many minutes remaining.
The Women’s Eagles threw everything at the French in the dying throes of the match but France’s superior rugby nous enabled them to close the game out.
France captain Gaelle Mignot: “It is frustrating that we didn’t make the final but we’re happy that we’ve come back with something, with the bronze medal. This group is very strong and we don’t give up.”
USA captain Tiffany Faaee: “The French have had a great tournament so kudos to them, we knew they were going to be relentless and really strong from the backs to the forwards. We just wanted to come out and go a step further than the last game and look after the ball which I thought we did. Our girls fought until the last minute as always. This is only a glimpse of what these girls can do, we know we have so much more to give. It was such an amazing tournament overall and I’d like to say thanks to all the supporters. With all the messages and support, it has been overwhelming. We watch the sevens and look to that as something we want to work towards in 15s and I think that after this tournament, we are definitely heading that way.”
FIFTH PLACE PLAY-OFF: AUSTRALIA 12-43 CANADA
Canada produced an impressive display of running rugby to penalise an Australia side that had three players sin-binned at Queen's University.
Australia had started the brighter, enjoying 97 per cent of possession in an opening nine-minute spell that saw them open the scoring after Ashleigh Hewson popped a pass inside to Sarah Riordan to send the centre crashing over the line. The Wallaroos, beaten 45-5 by Canada in the International Women's Rugby Series in June, continued to push forward but second-row Cindy Nelles turned the ball over for Canada and they spun the ball quickly wide for Julianne Zussman to tie the scores.
That didn't deter Australia, though, and prop Liz Patu dived over from close range in the 20th minute to give the lead once again. Australia suffered a blow minutes later when lively centre Riordan was forced off after a heavy tackle and Canada piled on the pressure when quick ball enabled Alex Tessier to loop a pass out to the onrushing Amanda Thornborough to tie the scores at 12-12.
A turning point came on the half hour when second-row Rebecca Clough was sin-binned for a high tackle and within 60 seconds Canada had hit the front for the first time, a strong run from Karen Paquin resulting in a try for Elissa Alarie.
Zussman was hauled down just short after another break down the right-wing, but Australia failed to clear their lines with Hewson’s kick charged down and Paquin crossed herself. The Wallaroos would end the half with 13 after Liz Patu also saw yellow and trailing 24-12. It would have been worse, but Paquin saw a try ruled out for a knock-on earlier by Miller.
There was no let up from Canada after the break, some great handling and quick passing putting Zussman into space for her second in the 50th minute. Australia lost hooker Cheyenne Campbell to the sin-bin for not rolling away and it was swiftly followed by another Canada try, captain Kelly Russell walking the ball over the line from a powerful scrum.
Alarie then popped up to have the final say and secure fifth place for Canada.
Canada captain Kelly Russell: “That was a fun one to play, that is what we want to play, with high tempo and use the width of the field and use our speed. Everyone is going to bring it, it's the final game of a World Cup. They played really well and gave us a hard time at the breakdown, but I'm so proud of the girls and the heart was amazing, today and all through the tournament. He (Ratier) has been amazing for women's rugby in Canada, building it to where it is now. We owe a big thank you to him and I am very proud to play with every one of these girls.”
Australia captain Sharni Williams: “It (discipline) was a little bit of an issue. We have not played a lot of footy and playing at a very fast game got us on the backward step and scrambling, that was where our discipline really needed to step up. We have built up with every game we have played. We've been together for six weeks and just about giving the girls that professionalism, really teaching them what it is like to be a professional and step it up. They have really enjoyed themselves. Stepping out with the girls, playing 15s again, getting out in the backline and really working for all the team has been amazing.”
SEVENTH PLACE PLAY-OFF: IRELAND 17-27 WALES
Wales claimed the final direct qualification for Women's Rugby World Cup 2021 with a passionate performance against hosts Ireland, ending a six-match losing streak against their Celtic rivals.
The tears streaming down the faces of many Irish players during the anthems showed the emotions of a difficult campaign and their desire to finish on a high with victory that would secure their place at WRWC 2021. They started in the right manner, keeping Wales pinned inside their own 22 for the opening 12 minutes with winger Alison Miller single-handedly trying to kickstart her team with some powerful runs. The pressure eventually told when stand-in captain Paula Fitzpatrick was driven over.
However, Ireland failed to kick on from that try and instead Wales created a couple of opportunities of their own from driving mauls, being held up twice much to the relief of the Irish contingent in the Kingspan Stadium crowd. Fly-half Robyn Wilkins got Wales on the board with a penalty before they hit the front on the half-hour mark when they drove well and, after Ireland twice pulled them down, prop Caryl Thomas dived and then stretched out to the delight of her team-mates.
Wales began the second half in the same fashion and prop Amy Evans and flanker Alisha Butchers were both held up. However, the relentless pressure from Wales finally told when Sioned Harries tapped the latest penalty, catching the Ireland defence cold and despite five players trying to stop her, the number eight powered through and stretched out for the line.
That try was nothing more than Wales deserved after enjoying 90 per cent of possession in the first 10 minutes of the second half and Ireland's cause wasn't helped with captain Fitzpatrick sin-binned. Wales used their driving maul to perfection again in Fitzpatrick's absence, captain Carys Phillips controlling the ball at the back before peeling off to dive over the line to make it 22-7.
Ireland were being undone by the same tactics Australia had used in their fifth place semi-final earlier in the week and, while the introduction of scrum-half Larissa Muldoon off the bench gave them fresh impetus, it took a yellow card for prop Evans just past the hour for Ireland to score a second try, prop Lindsay Peat crashing over from the back of a powerful drive.
The crowd hoped that was the catalyst for an Ireland fight-back, but Wales had other ideas with replacement back-row Shona Powell-Hughes picking up from the breakdown to dive over to give Wales a 15-point lead with just over 10 minutes to play.
Ireland did pull one try back when Katie Fitzhenry went over in the corner following some quick hands and then saw Eimear Considine touch down on the opposite flank in the last minute, but the try was ruled out as Hannah Tyrrell's pass to the winger was clearly forward.
Wales captain Carys Phillips: “It (qualification) means absolutely everything. It has been a tough competition for us, but the girls have been fantastic and with the hard work we put in we definitely deserved that win at the end. It was really tough out there but our prep was spot on for this game and credit to the girls, the hard work over the last 12 months come out in this performance.”
Ireland captain Paula Fitzpatrick: “I think it was just too little too late for us really. We actually started to play some rugby today which we haven't done so far this tournament, we let loose a little more which was really good to see. We are a proud bunch of people, it has been a tough tournament for us and all credit to Wales, they put it up to us with the same game plan as Australia did and it worked again. We showed what the girls can do but it was just not enough.”
NINTH PLACE PLAY-OFF: ITALY 20-15 SPAIN (after extra time)
Captain Sara Barattin scored a sudden-death try in extra-time as Italy came from behind to beat Spain and avenge their Pool B loss to Las Leonas.
Spain totally dominated the first half at Queen’s University in Belfast, but only had eight unanswered points to show for their efforts, Patricia Garcia kicking them into a 15th minute lead before number eight Angela Del Pan charged on to a flat pass from scrum-half Anne Fernandez de Corres to dot down.
Italy were down to 14 players at that stage having lost fly-half Beatrice Rigoni to the sin-bin for a deliberate knock on, and it will have come as a relief to them that they were still within reach of their higher-ranked opponents at the interval.
Whatever coach Andrea Di Giandomenico said to his side at half-time clearly worked as the Azzurre were a totally different proposition in the second half, influential winger Michela Sillari starting the fight-back in the 43rd minute when she spun out of a tackle to touch down wide out on the right.
Sillari kicked a penalty to level the scores in the 50th minute before Sofia Stefan touched down on the other flank after Rigoni’s long mis-pass created an overlap to put the Azzurre in front.
Italy defended well thereafter, forcing crucial turnovers whenever Spain threatened to get back into this ninth place play-off, and looked certain to close the game out until livewire winger Iera Echebarria scored a brilliant chip-and-chase try right at the death, which Garcia crucially converted from in front of the posts to tie the scores and necessitate extra time for the first time at WRWC 2017.
Spain were the first to press for the winning score in extra-time and the forwards worked a good position for Garcia, by then having moved from inside centre to scrum-half, but her close-range drop goal attempt sailed wide.
Italy came back and kept Las Leonas pinned in their own 22, replacement Isabelli Locatelli ripping the ball in the tackle to steal possession as Spain tried unsuccessfully to run the ball from deep. After a series of forward drives, the Azzurre worked the ball to the left and Rigoni’s pinpoint pass found Barattin, who squeezed over for the match-winning score in the ninth minute of extra-time.
Spain prop Isabel Rico: “It was a very competitive game and either team could have won. I am really proud of the team for the effort they put in. I think compared to the last World Cup, the level of rugby has improved a lot.”
11TH PLACE PLAY-OFF: JAPAN 44-5 HONG KONG
Japan finished Ireland 2017 on a high with victory over Asian rivals Hong Kong to claim only their second win in Women's Rugby World Cup history.
The Sakura 15 had emphatically beaten Hong Kong twice to win the Asia Rugby Women's Championship crown again in July, but this was a much closer affair than those two matches which yielded 20 tries for Japan.
There were only 82 seconds on the clock when Mayu Shimizu opened the scoring for Japan following a turnover, the full-back throwing a dummy and darting through the gaping hole in the defence in front of her. She wasn't able to add the conversion from out wide, but Japan doubled their advantage when winger Honoka Tsutsumi showed sensational pace to round the defender in the 12th minute for a 10-0 lead.
That cushion had grown to 15 points by the half-time whistle after another turnover and good break from Tsutsumi saw the ball worked along the line for winger Akari Kato to touch down. The second half had barely got going when Shimizu threw another dummy and coasted through for Japan's fourth try of the match.
Hong Kong, though, kept plugging away and were rewarded when they won an attacking lineout six metres out and after teenage centre Kelsie Bouttle was held up, hooker Karen So jumped over the top to spark great celebrations at the try being awarded to make it 20-5.
That would be as close as Hong Kong would get, though, as Japan scored four more tries in the last quarter to put the gloss on their first tournament win since they beat the Netherlands in 2002.
The vision of Minori Yamamoto created the fifth try, a lovely kick through resulting in a try for second-row Ayano Sakurai before a great line from centre Makiko Tomita, back involved after serving a three-match suspension for her red card on day one, saw her touch down.
Japan then finished with a flourish for their fans, Sakurai driving over from close range before flanker flanker Suzuki, showing the vision and pace of a winger, broke free and raced away from halfway to score her side's eighth try.
Japan captain Seina Saito: “We can be very happy to have got the win. We have been talking with other players and we will be back for the next World Cup. To have two Asian teams in the World Cup is a great step forward for Asian rugby.”
Hong Kong captain Chow Mei Nam: “It is the first time we are in a World Cup and we wanted to create a legacy for Hong Kong. We created it and it was tough but we never gave up until the end. I think we can improve our rugby intensity and get more girls to come and enjoy the rugby and we will come back. We are very happy to be here for Hong Kong and to represent Hong Kong. Everyone is supporting us in Hong Kong and we will play better.”