It’s a fool’s game to predict events months ahead. So here goes.
I’m not the only person on the planet to suggest that France and England will compete for the big prize in the final of the RWC on 12 November.
Needless to say such careless talk is taken to task, especially by Kiwis. Mr Carl Henry hasn’t lost faith in the Black Ferns since the two matches in England. He was sure they would put matters to rights. I wondered how his mind might have changed since. It hasn’t.
This is what is going for the Ferns: they have won the pot five times already, are the current holders and have a playing record second to none. For the first time they will be playing at home. Though no nation has a favoured path to the final, three pools mean that two of the top four seeds were bound to meet in the opening stages. They are England and France. That may yet be an advantage, as England discovered in 2014. They drew with Canada 13-13 in the pools, then outplayed them when they became unfancied finalists.
In the 2022 version Pool A offers the Black Ferns the least daunting opposition of the main contenders: Wales have been in turmoil for the past two years; the Wallaroos have only recently come together for a first training session in two years. Their national union, Rugby Australia, prioritised their 7s squad. The fourth team is as yet unknown, but will likely be Scotland, who have yet to gain a victory over NZ after three attempts.
The only disadvantage of an easy run through the pool stages is that it’s poor preparation for tough games ahead.
How much can change in nine months?
Plenty. That’s a given. It’s not only politics that can turn on its head over that period of time.
Of the elements found wanting in the touring Ferns one, fitness, can certainly be corrected. The question is whether it can reach parity with the one professional squad, England, who have been preparing physically for years. Improved contracts will help correct that inequality; but time presses.
The only evidence we have to go by is the fate of France, whose contracts are most similar to the Ferns’. They have taken the Red Roses to the brink time after time in the past two seasons. Eight times in a row they have suffered a loss, even when the decisive moment depended on a referee’s reading. I think of Emily Scarratt’s penalty in the 81st minute at Twickenham, after Agathe Sochat was penalised for not rolling away. Referees tend to read that situation one way only; it is never the fault of the opponent preventing the tackler from rolling away. Amy Cokayne had her opponent firmly pinned down.
That was the game when Simon Middleton felt obliged to send on all eight replacements in one fell swoop, a dramatic moment.
It’s a truism of rugby that the side that lasts the pace better wins. Will Kiwi fitness have improved so much that they can prevail in the final stages? They certainly did in the last World Cup final, but time has moved on.
The vexed question of Sevens is bound to raise its head again. The Black Ferns paraded three of their 7s stars in Europe, Kelly Brazier, Portia Woodman and Stacey Fluhler. Only Fluhler could claim to have had an outstanding series. Another 7s great, Tyla Nathan Wong, is also pencilled in to take part, but the Sevens World Cup in Cape Town takes place only a month earlier. Precious little time to adapt.
Finally the one constant concern – injury. This is the hardest burden to bear, but RWCs have a nasty habit of inflicting damage on players just before the curtain rises. This is where squad depth is vital. Both France and England have a huge advantage there. If the Black Ferns were unlucky to lose the odd valued player from the recent tour, it was still a shock to find thirteen debutants taking part.
Next time: Wales’ Contracts