England are into next Saturday’s World Cup final against New Zealand but it required two tries from the pacy Abby Dow to rescue them from the abyss in Auckland. The Red Roses had to cling on at times against a fired-up, physical Canada but battled through to register their 30th successive Test victory and keep alive their hopes of a first world title since 2014.
It said everything about the commitment of Canada’s amateurs, though, that the upset of the tournament was still a real possibility well into the final quarter. The margin was a slender 23-19 courtesy of a 68th-minute try by the replacement Tyson Beukeboom and it needed a 71st-minute penalty from Emily Scarratt to settle fluttering English nerves.
In the final analysis the Red Roses had particular reason to thank Dow for her match-turning intervention in the 50th minute of a compelling game which was delicately poised at 18-12 in their favour with Canada camped on their opponents’ line. After a breakdown turnover in England’s 22, a jinking Claudia MacDonald made good initial ground before inviting Dow to burn off the cover from 65 metres out.
The Wasps winger, who broke a leg in March and only just barely recovered in time for this tournament, needed no second invitation and England were suddenly 23-12 ahead and able to breath again. While the consistently influential Zoe Aldcroft was named player of the match, it was Dow’s dash that proved to be the decisive moment on a bright, sunny afternoon.
One or two beaten captains might have been tempted to query the legality of England’s all-important turnover but Sophie de Goede, the outstanding Canadian skipper, graciously declined to do so. It was another decent reason to admire her and her defiant team, many of whom have had to make extraordinary personal and financial sacrifices simply to be here.
At no stage, however, did Canada make life easy for the professionals opposite them. They were feisty and determined from the outset and, with a strong breeze behind them, England were grateful for the cushion of an early 12-0 lead. First a scrum penalty set up an opportunity for a signature driven lineout, expertly finished by Marlie Packer, before a teasing diagonal run by Helena Rowland helped to put the alert Dow over for her first score of the day in the right corner.
Canada, though, responded almost immediately with a kick-and-chase try finished by their long-striding flanker Karen Paquin and they also displayed plenty of defensive enthusiasm. The England lock Abbie Ward was held up over the line when a try looked almost certain but it was the underdogs who, remarkably, enjoyed more territorial advantage in the opening 40 minutes.
It was no less than they deserved when a rumbling driven maul of their own put England under concerted pressure in their 22 to create space on the left for the centre Alysha Corrigan to score. The outstanding De Goede, who probably drove the team bus to the ground as well, converted to level the scores at 12-12 and leave England with some more problem-solving to do.
A Scarratt penalty from in front of the posts just before the half-time siren did earn her side a slender lead at the interval but their usual control and physical dominance was only sporadically apparent. They have not spent much time on the back foot in recent years or at this tournament, and it was not proving a comfortable experience.
The unfortunate loss of Rowland with an ankle injury four minutes after the restart also robbed them of their most creative running back. With Hannah Botterman and Lucy Packer having also pulled out on the eve of the game and Vickii Cornborough sent to the sin-bin in the third quarter, England seldom looked completely comfortable and Beukeboom’s try threatened to yield a major surprise.
Scarratt’s third penalty, however, slowed Canada’s momentum and the Red Roses coolly saw out the closing minutes. They will be aware, even so, that they have yet to find their best form out here and even some of their senior players seem to be feeling the weight of expectation that now follows them everywhere.
The final will be no pushover, either, with New Zealand having edged to a 25-24 victory in a thrilling second semi-final against France. The Black Ferns had trailed 17-10 at half-time only for tries by Ruby Tui and Theresa Fitzpatrick to give the defending champions fresh hope. A second try for the excellent Romane Ménager dragged France back into the contest, however, and the game hinged on a last-minute penalty miss from Caroline Drouin which let the Black Ferns off the hook.
It capped an excellent day’s rugby watched, over the course of the two games, by about 23,000 spectators.
Much of New Zealand appeared to be waiting to see who made the final before fully committing to the tournament but the organisers now have their dream showdown. England have their long unbeaten record and winning mentality, while the Black Ferns will have an entire host nation roaring them on. In terms of box-office marketability it could be the game that elevates women’s rugby to another level.