England set to confirm their status as the world’s best women’s side

New Zealand and France are always worthy of respect but there’s good reason why the Red Roses are odds-on to lift the World Cup

While a new era has begun to dawn for women’s rugby in this country, the acute disappointment of missing out on the World Cup is likely to be revisited by all those associated with the Irish team when the competition, put back a year, takes place in New Zealand over the next five weekends.

That heartbreaking 20-18 defeat by Scotland in the final play of the last qualifying game in Parma in September of last year ensured Ireland missed out on the showpiece event.

The Scots instead advanced via the repechage, as the Irish team would surely have done, although to what degree this World Cup would have been a showpiece in this country, or will be in the northern hemisphere particularly, is a moot point.

Whereas Ireland’s three Tests in New Zealand kicked off at a relatively civilised 8.05am on three consecutive Saturdays, only one game – the pivotal pool meeting between England and France – next Saturday kicks off as late as 8am.

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There are 12 nations split into three pools of four, and of the 26 matches, 22 will kick-off between 2.15am and 5.45am, and while the games are on terrestrial television not everyone can record on ITV. For example, how many supporters in Wales and Scotland will tune in for the pool meeting between the two countries at 5.45am tomorrow morning? Even the final at Eden Park on November 12th kicks off at 6.30am Irish time.

The strong likelihood is that the decider will be between two-time champions England and four-time champions New Zealand, who have carved up the last six World Cups, with England heavily favoured to be crowned champions, and only France seemingly equipped to perhaps upset this narrative.

The bookies’ odds reflect this, with England 1-2 favourites to win outright, the hosts at 2-1, France at 12-1, Canada 20-1 and the rest, headed by the inaugural 1991 winners, the USA, 50-1 or more.

England come into the tournament on the back of a record 25-game winning streak. Three years of professionalism has put them well ahead of the competition, some of whom are part-time professional, with others entirely amateur.

Earlier this year, England romped to their fourth Six Nations title in a row and their 16th Grand Slam in 27 years by subduing an optimistic France in the final round shoot-out by 24-12 in Bayonne, having scored 42 tries and averaged 64 points in their previous four matches.

Their strength and conditioning, and fitness, is on a different level. They are a very complete package and when needed, their maul can steamroller opposition packs, while they generally outlast teams.

Flanker Marlie Packer, brilliant centre Emily Scarratt and tighthead Sarah Bern are the best in the world in their positions.

Admittedly the Black Ferns have beaten the Red Roses in four previous finals, with England’s victory in 2014 coming against Canada. But New Zealand are scarred by their end-of-year tour last year, when they were beaten 43-12 and 56-15 by England.

In a statement of intent, Wayne Smith has since come on board as director of rugby for the Black Ferns, supported by Graham Henry, which means they should be better coached and prepared than they were then.

There’s also the advantage of playing at home, and they have match-winners out wide in prolific winger Ayesha Leti-I’iga and Ruby Tui, an Olympic Sevens gold medallist two years ago.

While this is a somewhat changed if less experienced New Zealand side than the one which toured England and France last year, those scars from last year still linger, and the same is true of France.

They have a good front five, a strong scrum, the exceptional Laure Sansus at scrumhalf and some classy backs with real pace, as well as arguably the best kicking game. But that anticlimactic defeat in Bayonne last April means they have lost 14 out of their last 15 Tests against England, including the last 10 in succession.

French sides tend not to cope well with baggage, especially against English teams. By contrast, France won’t be especially fearful of the hosts, having beaten the Black Ferns on the last four occasions the sides have met, including twice last year.

But while New Zealand will be inspired by home advantage and France by being, well, France, aside from being the best team on all available evidence, England have many other things to motivate them.

They are seeking to regain their crown and so give further substance to the claim that they are the best women’s team of all time, while also emulating and picking up the baton from the Lionesses who won the European football championships this year.

Furthermore, they want to be reigning champions when England host the 2025 tournament, with the IRFU’s stated aim of selling out Twickenham for the final.

Women’s sport has made rapid advances in recent times, and nowhere more so than in England. But big surprises are less commonplace in rugby than most other team sports, and seemingly less so again in women’s rugby.

Parking the bus is less of an option, and against this England team it would probably be blown aside anyway. Their time seems now too.

This weekend’s Rugby World Cup games (all times Irish)

Saturday (all games at Eden Park)

Pool C: South Africa v France, 2.15am; Fiji v England, 4.45am.

Pool A: Australia v New Zealand, 7.15am

Sunday (all games at Northlands Events Centre, Whangarei)

Pool B: USA v Italy, 12.45am; Japan v Canada, 3.15am.

Pool A: Wales v Scotland, 5.45am.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times