(Reuters) – Favourites England and defending champions New Zealand have long been slated as most likely to face off in the women’s Rugby World Cup final but France and Canada have other ideas heading into Saturday’s semi-finals at Auckland’s Eden Park.
The French are the more likely spoilers having beaten New Zealand in their last four meetings, including back-to-back encounters during the Black Ferns tour of Europe last November.
Having helped dent the aura of the five-time world champions, France coach Thomas Darracq believes his team will not be over-awed when they bid to reach the World Cup final for the first time at the spiritual home of New Zealand rugby.
“The match in Eden Park will be unique, because it is a World Cup semi-final, because it is not an autumn tour,” he said on Thursday.
“It’s a really special moment. Having beaten them gives you that feeling that it’s playable. But even if we had lost, it would still be playable. But maybe this gives a little more strength to this group.”
New Zealand’s tour of Europe last year, when they also lost heavily to England twice, triggered significant changes within the Black Ferns set up early this season.
Former All Blacks assistant coach Wayne Smith was brought in to lead the team and he adopted a high tempo running game he hoped would counter the remorseless forward power of the top Europeans.
New Zealand have shown plenty of attacking flair throughout the tournament against lesser opponents but Smith knows the true test will come against the French on Saturday.
“We have decided as a group that we have to change the way we play,” he said. “It’s been quite a big job and I’ve got really good coaches working with me and we’re all pretty proud of what we’ve done, but now it’s crunch time.”
Twice champions England have been the best team in the world for a few years now and take on Canada knowing a 30th consecutive win will take them into a sixth straight World Cup final.
The Red Roses can run the ball but their game is more about field position and forward power, in particular a lineout drive that is all but impossible to stop legally.
Coach Simon Middleton is, however, expecting a tough test against a Canada team that also prides itself on its forward play.
“It’s going to be a very physical game up front,” he said.
“They have a fantastic team and it’s going to be a tough set-piece battle. We’ve looked at a few different variations on things now and we’ll see how it goes.”
Canada, who lost to the Red Roses in the 2014 final, have not beaten England in eight matches going back to 2016 but coach Kevin Rouet believes his side can trigger an upset if they are at their best.
“Scrum and lineouts are the basics, you just have to be efficient in them if you want to win the game,” he said.
“The kicking game also because we know England is very good at that, and after that if we open the game we have a lot of stuff to show ourselves.”
(Reporting by Michael Church in Hong Kong, Editing by Nick Mulvenney and Shri Navaratnam)