England head into their final pool game of the Women’s World Cup determined to focus on their toughest challenge so far despite Ireland’s surprise defeat of favourites New Zealand which sent shockwaves through the tournament earlier this week.
New Zealand’s 14-17 defeat on Tuesday, their first World Cup reverse for 23 years, gave hope to the other nations that the Black Ferns’ recent dominance – they have won the last four finals – might finally be coming to an end.
However, while acknowledging the importance of that result, the England captain, Sarah Hunter, said her side must only have their minds on dangerous Pool A opponents Canada in Marcoussis, just south of Paris, today.
“We are very much focused on ourselves and not trying to get drawn too much into other teams, but I think everyone will look at that result and think that the tournament is wide open now,” said Hunter who will revert to No 8 today after playing at flanker in Tuesday’s 45-5 win over Spain.
“I think Ireland beating New Zealand has given all the teams confidence that they are not as unbeatable as they once were. It shows how the women’s game has progressed over the last four years and everyone thought there were a few teams coming into the tournament who could win it. The top seven teams in the world are so close now, which is good for the sport.”
And one of those top-seven teams, Canada, will present a stern test today after beating England twice on their way to winning the Nations Cup tournament in 2013, although Hunter’s side got their revenge in the autumn internationals later that year.
“They have some very strong-running forwards and their captain and No 8, Kelly Russell, is a very dynamic player,” said Hunter. “One of their biggest threats is probably the wing Magali Harvey, who has scored in both games so far. She’ll cause us problems if we don’t handle her well.”
England have had their own wing problems this week with Lydia Thompson being forced to fly home after suffering a groin injury during training in the build-up to the Canada game. She has been replaced in the squad by Richmond’s Natasha Brennan.
England’s head coach, Gary Street, has once again rotated his side, with Katherine Merchant returning on the wing after being rested against Spain and Natasha Hunt back at scrum-half. Both players scored two tries in England’s opening 65-3 demolition of Samoa.
Katy Mclean, who captained the side against Samoa but sat out the next game, is again on the bench, with Ceri Large keeping the fly-half position after an impressive showing against Spain.
Street, whose side top Pool A, said: “Playing Canada is another step up – the games are getting harder. Canada are hugely physical, quick, strong and powerful, but we have got that too. This is a challenge we are relishing.”
Elsewhere, in Pool B New Zealand will be looking to get their campaign back on track against the United States while Ireland should notch up another win, over Kazakhstan. In Pool C, Wales, already beaten by France and Australia, are likely again to find the going tough against South Africa.