England favored as top-4 teams clash at Women's World Cup

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — If evidence was needed that stakes have risen ahead of the semifinals of the Women’s Rugby World Cup, it might be England’s expressed concern that sharing a hotel with its semifinal opponent could lead to unwanted exposure of tactics.

Top-ranked England will play Canada and defending champion New Zealand will play France on Saturday at Auckland’s Eden Park stadium.

Anyone who has watched England in its four matches and four victories at the tournament so far might regard as laughable any suggestion that its tactics are in any way secret or indiscernible.

England has won 29 matches in a row — a world record for women and men — by the brute strength of its forward play. Its principal weapon is the rolling maul and the overwhelming majority of its tries so far have been scored by forwards.

Canada isn’t likely to have to resort to any form of prying to divine how England will approach Saturday’s match. Its only task is to hatch a plan of its own to arrest what seems to be England’s unstoppable progress to the world championship.

The idea that Canada might use the proximity afforded by sharing a hotel in downtown Auckland to obtain intelligence about England’s plans was raised by England assistant coach Louis Deacon in an interview with a British newspaper.

“I just don’t think it’s particularly right that you’re playing a team in a knockout stage and you’re sharing a hotel with them,” Deacon told the Daily Telegraph. “There’s a lot of stuff that goes in, planning-wise, behind the scenes.

“That stuff can sort of affect the way you play the game. If they get hold of some information that’s key to a game and we end up losing the game because... I don’t think it’s really appropriate to share a hotel at this level of competition.”

It may be that Deacon and England simply are feeling some nerves as all teams are ahead of the semifinals. The group rounds and last weekend’s quarterfinals have produced a feast of outstanding rugby while serving only to bring together the world’s four top-ranked teams in the semifinals.

England, New Zealand and Canada all are unbeaten at this stage while France’s only loss was to England, 13-7, early in the tournament.

England’s results probably have been most emphatic. It beat Fiji 84-19, France narrowly, then South Africa 75-0 in its group matches. Its 41-5 quarterfinal win over Australia was achieved on a rain-soaked pitch which should have ruled out a high-scoring contest.

England finished the group stage with a points differential of 146, ahead of New Zealand with 125, France with 73 and Canada with 61.

Deacon likened the England team in interviews this week with the dominant England men’s teams of the early 2000s under Martin Johnson.

“Their mindset is just like a men’s team,” he said in the Guardian newspaper. “They love those physical, confrontational parts of the game just like men do. There’s no difference. It’s rugby, just played by women.”

Canada’s veteran scrumhalf Elissa Alarie played in the 2014 World Cup final against England and hopes to experience another final before she retires at the end of this tournament.

“I think that 2014 was its own story and maybe we were a bit too happy to just make it to the final,” she said. “What’s really different this year is that our goal has been to win it and we’re not just happy to be in semifinals.

“It’s been part of our goal, so we’re going out there determined and ready to fight and we can’t wait for game day at this point.”

New Zealand also has been impressive, playing a style that stands in stark contrast to England. The team's strength is the 15-player game and the quality of its backplay. New Zealand’s backline includes many sevens superstars who know how to exploit the width of the field.

But it will face its toughest challenge of the tournament in France who have an outstanding defensive record, conceding only 21 points in four games so far. New Zealand also has lost its last four tests against France.

“It’s going to take our best game of the season to win,” New Zealand head coach Wayne Smith said. “We’ve had a lot of catching up to do this year so to win on Saturday, our players will have to manage the pressure and play the game with courage.”


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