It has taken me until now to get my breath back after the World Cup final. For once in sport, the superlatives were justified. And so were the clichés. It really was a classic: a brilliant display of exciting rugby from two teams at the top of their game. It was end-to-end stuff.
It was also, dramatically and extremely, that oldest of old clichés, a game of two halves: 80 per cent possession for England in the first half, 80 per cent possession for New Zealand in the second. It was as if a rugby vortex at the Family Stand end of the Kingspan stadium in Belfast was drawing all of the play towards it. The difference between the teams, in a nod to another of sport’s finest clichés, was that the Black Ferns made their possession count.
If fortunes changed dramatically at half-time, it was almost as if the teams had swapped shirts before the game: England dominated their semi-final with France by playing tight, controlled, forward dominated rugby and kicking for territory in the corners; New Zealand wowed us throughout the tournament with the most breath-taking demonstrations of running rugby, feeding the try-scoring beast that is Portia Woodman on the wing.
Yet this final was all about England playing expansive rugby (at least in the first half, when they actually had the ball), orchestrated by the quite brilliant Katy Mclean: flinging the ball deep behind decoy runners – a Kiwi tactic if ever there was one – into the outside channels.
Far more surprisingly, though, it was all about the Black Ferns playing tight, nine-woman rugby around the fringes. We all knew that this New Zealand team had one player good enough to score a World Cup final hat-trick. We just thought that player was Portia Woodman, not Toka Natua, the New Zealand loosehead prop. The three tries she scored in the final could not have been more different to a typical Portia Woodman finish, yet in their strength, technique, timing and intelligence, they were every bit as beautiful to the rugby purist.
As a former England player (and two-time silver medal owner), it’s hard to write these words, but you have to take your hat off to the intelligence of this New Zealand team. Their video analysis told them that their wide game wouldn’t work against this England defence; they chose instead to kick into the gaps behind the England wingers. It worked once early on: Selica Winiata scored after gathering a cross-field kick with pretty much the first bit of attacking possession her team had. But once that stopped working New Zealand didn’t panic.
When they could barely get a moment’s possession in the first half, they still didn’t panic. They regrouped at half time and came out with a ‘kick to the corners and pick and go’ game-plan and played it brilliantly. It’s one thing to totally transform your game-plan at half-time, it’s quite another to execute it to perfection against full-time contracted, incredibly well-organised and talented defending champions. It was a phenomenal display of intelligent rugby and makes New Zealand undeniably worthy world champions.
For those of us shouting, cheering (and crying) on the sidelines, it was a truly absorbing rugby match and yet it was even more than that. I earned those two World Cup silver medals in 2002 and 2006; at that time, no one in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, United States, and perhaps even France, could watch us on the TV. This time it was watched on prime-time TV by 2.6 million people in this country, and more than three million in France. It was on Sky Sports in New Zealand and NBC in America. When the victorious New Zealand teams of 2002 and 2006 landed back home, people barely noticed. This time there was a heroines’ welcome at the airport and, judging by my Twitter feed, seemingly non-stop television appearances for the now legendary captain Faio’o Fa’amuasili. And after winning three world cups, eleven years apart, legendary is no hyperbole.
This time the world noticed. When TV notices, suddenly the corporate sponsors notice; when the corporate sponsors notice, they pour money into the game; when more money comes into the game, the standard improves further still, and TV gets yet more interested. And so it goes on. This is why it’s so important that we make the most of this moment in the limelight, and push for more coverage and attention; the growth and success of the sport depends on it.
That is why, even though they have silver medals around their necks and not gold, Katy Mclean, Emily Scarratt and Sarah Hunter are still my World Cup heroines. All three of them are world-class rugby players; all three of them had phenomenal World Cups – how Katy didn’t join the other two in the tournament ‘Dream Team’ remains a mystery to me. But what stood out for me most was that in those new and unprecedented media spotlight moments that followed that game, each one of them chose to use that amplified platform to send a message – to the ‘suits’ that run rugby, to the media and to the corporate world.
In their different ways, they told us (and I paraphrase): we have to use the momentum from this amazing tournament to really move women’s rugby forward. We have to expect more coverage; we have to remind the corporate sponsors what impact the game can have and therefore that they really should part with their pounds; and we have to demand the rugby unions from around the world invest more in the women’s game. It is nothing short of an outrage that the Australian team, for example, turned up at this World Cup having barely played a game between the last World Cup and this. Imagine how good that team could be. This tournament was outstanding; imagine how truly great it could be with better and fairer levels of investment.
I know what it feels like to lose a World Cup final – two, actually. It feels empty, it feels devastating; it feels like you’ve let everyone down including, but least of all, yourself. You remember you have to wait another four years to try to put it right. But really, right now, you just want to curl up in a ball and wait for the memory to go away. Except that it stays with you, forever.
Yet in that moment all three put aside their personal feelings of devastation to make a plea to the sporting world, knowing that this might be their only opportunity to speak to such a wide audience. In the moment that those three world-class players rose above their own overwhelming sadness to fight, in front of millions, for the future of the game they love, they became my heroines.
I intend to do my best to follow their lead. I challenge you to do the same.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sue Day is former England and Wasps rugby captain and begrudging owner of two World Cup silver medals. In rugby retirement she is now a Partner at KPMG Advisory as well as being President of Wasps FC, an occasional rugby commentator and a very proud and active trustee of the Women’s Sport Trust. Sue has not long returned from Belfast where she was commentating on the World Cup for World Rugby. Sue’s latest articles