Gripping and yet from an English (and possibly a World Rugby Community) perspective, gallingly predictable. New Zealand – the Black Ferns, on this occasion – win the World Cup. Meaning there is scope for conspiracy theory as well as joy.
England’s winger Lydia Thompson was removed from play in the 18th minute, for a ‘head-on-head’ challenge. The TMO, belatedly, reversed a line-out call, in New Zealand’s favour: he was correct but plenty folks were wondering if that level of scrutiny would have been applied, had the situation been reversed… and this not been a notably feisty Eden Park. Forward passes may have been missed.
Red Rose supporters may not be alone in resorting early to “what if”s or “yeh but this is what you get”. I barely know a Wales fan who doesn’t routinely suspect special privileges for the All Blacks. Acceptance of their utter brilliance is universal: disquiet around bias is medium-widespread. But hey; this kind of nonsense fuels the game, eh?
Few would dispute the veracity of the Thompson decision, in the contemporary game. The referee was calm and clear; pundits agreed. However there may be some merit in the argument that Simon’s tackle on England’s other winger, Dow – which drew a yellow – was marginally more dangerous. Neither were malicious or entirely wild but the Black Fern *may have gone in* with a smidge more concerning pace and something closer to carelessness. Whatever. This was a febrile blockbuster of a match.
England, unbeaten in thirty, had started as though they might destroy New Zealand. Two early tries and phenomenal execution by both flyers and undeniable earth-crunchers. The Red Roses have been squishing less physical teams, with organised forward play the like of which the women’s game has never seen. We saw some of that. But the England handling and running was also ominously good – incredibly good, given what was at stake.
For maybe ten minutes, the wall of sound and fury within one of the most intimidating stadia on the planet, was shredded. On Eden Park, the team in black were getting absolutely monstered… and in such a way that fear and capitulation from the locals seemed a live option.
But no. The Black Ferns responded with characteristic flair and no little ooomph. Tries were traded – there was an extraordinary sense that even with two outstanding defences on the pitch, both sides would score with every attack. It was a feast. The break saw relative parity, at 19-26.
Most informed neutrals might begrudgingly concede that the best side in the world – England – are the only side in world rugby who might possibly beat the second best side in the world – the Black Ferns – one woman-down. But do the math. Thompson gone in the 18th; meaning 62 minutes of that cruel chasing game, against one of the best and certainly the most fluent and creative side on the planet – New Zealand. *That moment* was everything.
The second half may have been as colossal as the first. It was an exhausting watch, with the defiant visitors floating through chunks of time, before selflessly, heroically heaving against the inevitable. Both sides naturally made changes and inroads. Both scored. But the universe had been shifted. The crowd knew it. England were overhauled, before striking back. Then overhauled. With three points in it, the battered visitors kicked for the corner rather than look for the three points that would bring extra-time.
In another game, with fifteen staff on the park, they may have chosen differently – or not. England’s line-out and driving maul had been literally irresistible, even here, even tonight. So one more?
Maybe that call spoke of their understanding that the fates were closing in: that more game-time would be a cruel, one-way torture. Best get it done. Kick for the corner, catch and drive. 34-31 the score; the clock about to go red.
The Black Ferns spoil the line-out. In a great, visceral, joyous, tragic roar, we are done. England, bounteous England, brimming with players and investment and Serious Intent, take a lot of credit for dragging women’s rugby into a spectacular, professional age. But it’s New Zealand, the side more inclined to endless adventure, who take the trophy.