The Women’s Rugby World Cup gets serious on Wednesday night as the semi-finals kick off and the tournament moves from France’s national academy pitches in the Paris suburbs to the 20,000-seat Stade Jean Bouin.
Standing between England and the final are an Ireland team they will have to take very seriously indeed.
In a tournament of widespread squad rotation for every match, Ireland return to the same starting line-up that shocked everyone by beating four-time world champions New Zealand, resulting in the Kiwis failing to qualify from their group and installing England as favourites after losses to the All Blacks in the previous three finals.
“Oh, it’ll be a tough match,” said Kat Merchant, the England winger who scored two tries in the opening game against Samoa. “Our encounters with Ireland are always tough. England have made six changes to the team that drew 13-13 against Canada in their final pool match on Saturday. By drawing, England won the group on points difference, and it also meant Canada claimed the other semi-final spot as the highest scoring second-place team, ahead of New Zealand.
The exciting 21-year-old Alex Matthews returns to the England back row for only her 12th cap, making her by some margin the most inexperienced player in a starting XV that has 855 caps between them. “Of course, we have to believe that we can win the tournament,” Merchant, a rugby coach and personal trainer with Chesham RFC, said. “But the worst thing you can do is think too far ahead, to think of the final. We’re not looking beyond this match and to the final. Not at all. All our focus is on this match.
“After beating New Zealand, Ireland will have bundles of confidence. They might be tired, it was a tough match, but we’re not expecting that to affect them. If you can’t get up for this, then what can you?”
Merchant isn’t as shocked as others by New Zealand’s exit and doesn’t feel it makes the tournament England’s to lose. “It shows anything can happen,” she said. “Coming into this World Cup I don’t think you could have picked a winner. We’ve never said, ‘oh, when we meet New Zealand in the final.’ Women’s rugby has progressed. The top teams are at an even level.”
The match with Canada on Sunday ended in unusual scenes, with neither side seeming fully to understand the extraordinarily complex permutations of points difference, and bonus points that meant that New Zealand were definitely eliminated and Canada almost certainly through.
“We didn’t want to go out there and draw [and eliminate New Zealand]. We wanted to record a big win, and make a big statement, but we didn’t play to our full ability.
“We have a professional mindset, and we know it’s not good enough not to be clinical, not to take our chances. We’ll have that professional mindset – where it’s not good enough not to be clinical. On Wednesday, we will need to be at our very best.”
Hosts France meet Canada in the other semi-final tonight.