New Zealand win Women’s Rugby World Cup as England suffer final heartbreak

This was the biggest game of women’s rugby ever played and, somehow, it exceeded even that lofty billing. New Zealand are the Rugby World Cup champions but only after a quite stunning contest that demonstrated why the tournament has captured the imaginations of so many. England will feel bereft but they played a full part in perhaps the best World Cup final in history.

It was also the Red Roses’ worst nightmare. This was a second chastening defeat to the Black Ferns in consecutive World Cup finals and their first defeat to anyone in 31 Tests. They were 14-0 up and cruising in the first quarter, only to be reduced to 14 players after a red card was shown to the winger Lydia Thompson for a high challenge on the outstanding Portia Woodman. In that misjudged split second, everything changed.

Even deep into the final moments, however, one final shot at redemption remained. England, having been awarded a penalty, opted for one last lineout five metres out. For weeks their driving maul has been all but unstoppable and the stage was set. When it mattered most, though, the ball ended up in grateful Kiwi hands and the defending champions were safe.

Given England have had the benefit of full-time contracts for longer than any of their rivals, it must also rank as one of the great coaching heists. When Wayne Smith took over earlier this year, the Black Ferns were in disarray after a coruscating review into the treatment of the players by the previous regime. Smith simply told his players to go out and play with freedom and joy. The rest is history.

A world-record crowd of 42,579 for a women’s fixture added further resonance to an occasion which had everything. Neither side really deserved to lose but New Zealand’s sixth try of the night with eight minutes left, scored by the replacement wing Ayesha Leti-I’iga after a world-class offload from the centre Stacey Fluhler, was something special.

It boiled down to a classic clash of styles, particularly after Thompson’s departure. For the most part England’s set piece and driving maul were outstanding, with the hooker Amy Cokayne collecting a close-range hat-trick, but the Black Ferns backs were also an ever-present threat. On a clear, dry day, it made for glorious entertainment and maintained the feelgood theme of the past few weeks. Clearly it helped to have the host nation in the final but people have also genuinely enjoyed what they have been watching.

How England will wish they could have rewound the tape and given New Zealand fewer chances to run at them. Even before kick-off there were tricky issues to address, with their starting scrum-half Leanne Infante ruled out on the eve of the game with knee and ankle issues. In came the relatively inexperienced Lucy Packer, capped on just eight previous occasions, for the biggest game of her young life.

The Red Roses, however, enjoyed the perfect start, having also come up with a smart response to the haka, spreading right the way along the 10-metre line in a wall of white. Barely three minutes had elapsed when, courtesy of an effective counter-ruck, they engineered space out wide and the full-back Ellie Kildunne finished coolly in the corner. Even more ominously England’s renowned maul was starting to rumble, with Cokayne completing a perfectly executed driven score to make it 14-0 in as many minutes.

There could be no argument, though, about Thompson’s dismissal after she caught the unfortunate Woodman full in the face as New Zealand attacked down the left. It was a particularly sad exit for Woodman, one of the free-running stars of the women’s game, but it also offered New Zealand a chance to change the mood music.

Sure enough they had their first try on the board almost immediately through Georgia Ponsonby before Woodman’s replacement, Leti-I’iga, closed the gap further. Under the tutelage of Smith and his fellow former All Black gurus Sir Graham Henry and Mike Cron, the Black Ferns were being true to their word and giving it a crack.

Even then, though, England held the advantage through Marlie Packer and the relentless Cokayne but the early loss of Zoe Aldcroft remained a slight concern. Could New Zealand respond again? The answer was yes, with another close-quarters score for the prop Amy Rule narrowing the half-time gap to a single score once more.

Within 30 seconds of the restart a thrilling breakout ended with Fluhler running a perfect support line to complete a try to grace any final. Then, within four minutes of coming on, the replacement front-rower Krystal Murray crashed over in the left corner to put her side ahead for the first time. Their advantage did not last long, with yet another maul giving Cokayne the chance to complete her hat-trick, but the best was yet to come.

The referee, Hollie Davidson, also deserved significant praise. Regardless of the outcome this tournament has felt like a coming of age for the women’s game in multiple respects, both in Aotearoa and farther afield. Once again, though, it is New Zealand who reign supreme.