Source: Fiona Goodall - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images

England Triumph

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England v New Zealand

England were the overwhelming victors of the final game in the WXV series.

Ellie Kildunne of England during the WXV1 match between New Zealand Black Ferns and England (Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

At last the Red Roses were able to answer all the lingering doubts about their pre-eminent place in world rugby. They beat the Black Ferns on their own patch by five tries to two.

They took control from the start. Alex Matthews was on the end of a dominant scrum, driving over after only four minutes. Holly Aitchison converted. 7-0. That allowed them to cast aside any early nerves.

On eight minutes the Black Ferns messed up a line-out; Mo Hunt put up a box-kick which was knocked on to keep up the pressure. Matthews was just held but gained a penalty. From there it was the repeating groove again: an accurate Aitchison kick to the corner, a perfectly executed line-out, and Lark Atkin-Davies added one more to her large collection of tries on the back of an unstoppable maul.

The pace of the game was relentless. One effect was to raise the number of penalties the Black Ferns incurrred. They, plus tiny handling errors and faulty kick-placements, added to their problems in gaining a foothold in the game.

Sarah Bern was a leading figure throughout the match; appropriately it was she who added a third try. (19-0)

Just before the break the Black Ferns showed why they are the world champions, when Kennedy Simon completed a lovely move that finally overcame a tight defence.

Half-time: England 19 New Zealand 7

The only time when England’s tactics looked wrong came just after the restart. Now they resorted to two caterpillar rucks, built at caterpillar pace. We knew what was coming: a box-kick from Mo Hunt. So did the Ferns’ defence. They had the drawbridge lifted, and every arrow in the castle pointing down at the invader.

After an ocean of time up went the kick. On both occasions precious possession was gifted to the opposition; both times territory was lost, and more vitally, a second try.. Nine minutes after the restart Katelyn Vahaakolo skated over the line, and the margin was reduced to a single score. (19-12).

If this was part of England’s strategy, then we have to ask why. If not, why this elaborate and fruitless ploy?

For the rest, power and skill up front and speed, courage and guile out behind let their opponents’ faces tell their own story.

A couple of errors by the England skipper were untypical, but Louis Deacon sent Hannah Botterman on in the 46th minute, and that helped solve any lingering concerns about scrum supremacy.

Meg Jones made her mark the moment she arrived to replace Tatyana Heard, off for an HIA. She jinked through midfield to upset the Ferns’ defensive patterns. The pack took over, and Morwenna Talling powered over for a try she may well set above all the others she will score in her future career. 26-12

The next moment Abby Dow was ripping the ball from Ferns’ hands, to show the relentless pressure the hosts were under. Sudden possession liike this enabled Aitchison’s boot to gain more valuable ground.

Heard returned from her HIA.

Such was that pressure that Ruahei Demant missed touch out of defence. Another English raid beckoned.

To their credit the Ferns now put their house in order and mounted a series of attacks. It’s in this sort of game-situation that England’s long training sessions must be of the greatest benefit. Thrust followed thrust, but each time the defensive line was re-established; every player knew what her next task was. Gaps didn’t appear.

As we reached the three-quarter mark, the Red Roses had made only two unforced changes. When the cavalry did arrive, they put together a 10-phase attack. On the end of it Zoe Aldcroft went over for England’s fifth and final try.

Result: England 33 New Zealand 12 Player of the Match: Sarah Bern

Teams:
England: 15 Ellie Kildunne, 14 Abby Dow, 13 Helena Rowland, 12 Tatyana Heard, 11 Claudia MacDonald, 10 Holly Aitchison, 9 Mo Hunt, 1 Mackenzie Carson, 2 Lark Atkin-Davies, 3 Sarah Bern, 4 Zoe Aldcroft, 5 Rosie Galligan, 6 Morwenna Talling, 7 Marlie Packer (captain), 8 Alex Matthews
Bench: 16 Connie Powell, 17. Hannah Botterman, 18. Maud Muir, 19. Sarah Beckett, 20. Maisy Allen, 21. Ella Wyrwas, 22. Megan Jones, 23. Jess Breach

New Zealand: 15 Renee Holmes, 14 Ruby Tui, 12 Sylvia Brunt, 13 Amy du Plessis, 11 Mererangi Paul, 10 Ruahei Demant (co-captain), 9 Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu, 1 Kate Henwood, 2 Georgia Ponsonby, 3 Amy Rule, 4 Maiakawanakaulani Roos, 5 Chelsea Bremner, 6 Alana Bremner, 7 Kennedy Simon (co-captain), 8 Liana Mikaele-Tu’u

Bench: 16 Luka Connor, 17 Krystal Murray, 18 Sophie Fisher, 19 Layla Sae, 20 Lucy Jenkins, 21 Iritana Hohaia, 22 Patricia Maliepo, 23 Katelyn Vahaakolo

Note: Amy Cokayne was a late withdrawal after failing a fitness test. Connie Powell took her place.

Officials:
Referee: Aimee Barrett-Theron (SARU)
ARs: Hollie Davidson (SRU) and Amber McLachlan (RA) TMO: Andrew McMenemy (SRU)

If you guessed the finishing order in the table below, well done!

WXV1 table                         W      L     Pts

England                                3        0       15

Canada                                 2         1       10

Australia                              2         1       10

New Zealand                      1          2        6    

France                                  1          2        4   

Wales                                   0          3         1

Afterthoughts

Marlie Packer of England poses with the player of the match award after the WXV1 match between New Zealand Black Ferns and England (Photo by Fiona Goodall – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

For the Black Ferns this was the heaviest home defeat in their distinguished history. Hard to credit that they finished fourth out of six.

For the Red Roses it was a long wished-for victory, even more meritorious than their last one on New Zealand soil six years earlier. They completed an unbeaten 2023.

No wonder you might have sensed a tear in the eye of Sarah Hunter, now in the coaches’ box.

From the last RWC final eleven Black Ferns were present here and twelve Red Roses. That’s quite a turnover inside a year, and very few of them retired post-final.

The game was blissfully free from cards of any colour. Much of the credit for that is due to Aimee Barrett-Theron’s admirable control of events. There were moments went the saucepan threatened to boil over.

At last Kiwis turned out in decent numbers to watch a game of footy. Many nations offered colourful support on the ground.

There were post-match awards to be made, some properly belonging to the WR’s annual gathering in Paris the previous month.

The most promising Breakthrough Player of the Year was Katelyn Vahaakolo, who appropriately had scored a glamorous try today.

The Player of the Year award went to the England captain, Marlie Packer, who might possibly be granted the first ever solo Open-top Bus Parade through the streets of Yeovil.