The Red Roses are two from two in the International Women’s Rugby Series but can they make it a hat-trick on Saturday when they face New Zealand at Rotorua International Stadium KO 5.15am BST? In my third and final blog of the Series, I cast my eyes over the England team and what you should expect to see on Saturday.
Tomorrow will be England’s last chance to perform, individually and as a team, before they kick off their World Cup campaign on August 9th against Spain. So regardless of the result, the pressure is on!
England have only made a few changes from the side that claimed the win against Canada on Tuesday. England Head Coach Simon Middleton has made one change to his back three, with the try-scoring machine Kay Wilson making a return to the left wing to team up with Danielle Waterman and Lydia Thompson.
Thompson, who is in blistering form, picked up a brace of tries on Tuesday. Her elusive running and power through the contact will make her a tough one to stop, as she showed against Canada brushing off several defenders to claim England’s third try.
Middleton has gone for experience in the centres with the trusted centre partnership of Rachael Burford and Emily Scarratt. Burford has developed a kicking game to add to her repertoire of skills. We saw it in action against Australia when she produced a pin-point cross-field kick to set Sarah McKenna up for her third try.
The kicking game may be required against an aggressive New Zealand defence, who will be looking to get out of the blocks early to stop England’s flyers Scarratt and Thompson. An effective kicking game will keep the defenders honest and will vary up England’s attack.
The changes in the half-backs indicate how Middleton wants to play. Natasha Hunt at 9 will set the tempo and Katy Mclean at 10 likes to play flat to engage the opposition defence. Doing that invites her strike runners into the game but makes her susceptible to being tackled. We see it time and time again with Ireland’s fly-half Johnny Sexton, where he takes the ball to the line with great effect and theoretically ‘takes one for the team’ so to get his big men over the advantage line.
What England can’t do is play too deep and attack with no conviction. Against Canada they were caught napping and were punished for a poor pass and a lack of connectivity following an interception. The Black Ferns are full of interceptors who can pluck a ball from the sky. If they see an opportunity they won’t require a second invitation. England will need to be accurate with their passes.
In the forwards, Middleton has beefed up his pack with the return of Sarah Bern, Tamara Taylor and Alex Matthews to the starting line-up. An area the forwards will want to improve on would be the scrum. Canada’s size and power showed in the second test and it will be an area New Zealand will want to attack.
Also, the defence around the ruck will need to be tightened up. The Black Ferns possess a lethal weapon in their number 9, Kendra Cocksedge. She loves to snipe and will have a crack at the try line if she spots a gap.
England can win this game, if…..and that’s a BIG if, if they keep the ball alive. Slow ball will only play into New Zealand’s hands. Recycle the ball quickly from the breakdown and catch the defence on the backfoot. They need to also take the spark out of New Zealand’s defence and play behind them with tactical kicking and an effective chase to force the errors. England also need to win the collisions. They need to dominate every set piece and every breakdown and not take a backwards step.
New Zealand is a team that needs little introduction. Ranked number one in the world, they won the Rugby World Cup in 2002, 2006 and 2010. They were also Sevens World Cup winners in 2013 and Olympic Silver medallists in Rio.
New Zealand have played England 12 times over the last seven years, with the Black Ferns winning six of those games and one draw. They last met in the 2016 Old Mutual Wealth Autumn series and New Zealand edged out a late victory, but the Black Ferns are still reeling from their 2014 RWC flop so they lack no motivation.
New Zealand are boosted by Sevens stars Sarah Goss, Kelly Brazier and the fastest lady in the world right now (well, in the Sevens world) Portia Woodman. In front of a packed out home crowd the support will be on the Kiwi’s side. The question is can they rise to the challenge or crumble under the pressure.
Verdict: New Zealand to take a narrow win.