For the fourth time in Women's Rugby World Cup history, England and New Zealand will go head to head for the biggest prize in women's rugby.
New Zealand were victorious in the three previous meetings, amid a run of four successive titles from 1998-2010, and were the first to book their place in Saturday's decider with a 45-12 defeat of USA in the first semi-final.
Portia Woodman scored four of New Zealand's eight tries in a physical encounter against a Women's Eagles' outfit playing in their first semi-final for 19 years.
The rain began to fall in Belfast before the second semi-final but that didn't stop England and France from laying everything on the line, the defending champions weathering a first-half onslaught to reach a seventh final and deny Les Bleues their first with a 20-3 victory.
Australia and Canada also had cause to celebrate after victories over hosts Ireland (36-24) and Wales (52-0) guaranteed them a top six finish and, as a result, their place at Women's Rugby World Cup 2017.
The penultimate day of Ireland 2017 also saw victories for Italy and Spain.
The final day of action gets underway at 12:00 local time (GMT+1) with the 11th place play-off between Japan and Hong Kong at Queen's University, followed by the ninth place play-off between Spain and Italy and the battle for fifth between Australia and Canada. Hosts Ireland will take on Wales in the seventh place play-off place in the first match at Kingspan Stadium with the winner securing their place at WRWC 2021.
The attention will then turn to the bronze final between France and USA before England and New Zealand once again meet in a World Cup final.
SEMI-FINAL: NEW ZEALAND 45-12 USA
Four tries from Portia Woodman and another masterclass of attacking rugby from New Zealand saw the Black Ferns reach their fifth World Cup final after a pulsating semi-final against USA at Kingspan Stadium.
The semi-final was barely three minutes old when New Zealand opened the scoring after going through a number of phases, captain Fiao'o Faamausili hitting the line at pace and providing scrum-half Kendra Cocksedge with quick ball to put fly-half Victoria Subritzky-Nafatali over in the corner. However, that was a signal for the floodgates to open as the Women's Eagles had already shown when they advanced to the 10-metre line during the cultural challenge.
The physicality on show by both teams resulted in a cacophony of noise inside Kingspan Stadium, neither willing to give an metre and the chants of 'USA, USA' were rewarded when full-back Cheta Emba made the break and looped a pass out to Kris Thomas on her outside, the winger making no mistake from close range. Alev Kelter's conversion gave USA the lead, although it would only be shortlived as Cocksedge kicked a penalty to edge the Black Ferns back into an 8-7 lead.
New Zealand continued to probe and punch at the Women's Eagles defence, not able to break through completely until a moment of magic from Woodman. The winger came off the shoulder of Cocksedge from a scrum on halfway and danced her way through the defence, changing direction and then swapping the ball from one hand to the other to fend off defenders and leaving five in her wake before coasting under the posts.
Cocksedge added the conversion to put the Black Ferns 15-7 up after 25 minutes and it took a try-saving tackle from Selica Winiata, the last line of Black Ferns' defence, to deny Emba a quick riposte for the USA, who had beaten New Zealand in the inaugural Women's Rugby World Cup semi-final back in 1991. The see-saw nature of the game continued, with attacking thrust met by counter thrust, but the scoreboard remained unchanged to half-time.
The second half began with New Zealand in the ascendancy and the Women's Eagles barely able to get out of their own 22, let alone their half with the Black Ferns content to keep making ground with their forwards as their backs kept kicking the ball behind their opponents. A kick through from Kelly Brazier created the third try, Winiata gathering and popping the ball out of the tackle to Woodman for the winger to dive over for her second of the match.
Cocksedge added a penalty in the 55th minute to push New Zealand out beyond two converted tries, although the 23-7 scoreline was shortlived as Kelter had the crowd on their feet when she burst through a gap and ran towards the right corner, evading the clutches of Winiata and Woodman. The USA fans hoped it was the start of a fight-back, but Woodman had other ideas, a long pass from Cocksedge found Brazier and she spun the ball to Woodman to step inside the defence to complete her hat-trick.
New Zealand lost replacement Linda Itunu to the sin-bin for a high tackle in the 65th minute, but in her absence Woodman scored her 13th try of the tournament, this time the winger juggling a long pass before fending off Emba with ease for her fourth of the semi-final. A calamitous moment from Emba and Tapper nearly spawned another try, the former knocking on and as the two stood still watching, Stacey Waaka ran through and hacked on twice, just failing to touch the ball down.
After that blunder the floodgates open for the four-time champions as first replacement hooker Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate showed it isn't only the New Zealand backs who have a step in their repetoire when she first caught Subritzy-Nafatali's cross-kick, held the defender and then stepped inside to score. The smile on her face showing it all and then Aon Player of the Match Kelly Brazier changed the line of attack and danced her way through for the final try.
New Zealand captain Fiao'o Faamausili: “It took a lot of hard work by the girls, it's so exciting to be in the final. Full credit to our supporters and to the USA who battled all the way through to 80 minutes and they really gave it to us. We're very happy, the girls had to tough it out. We've been training hard throughout the week and I couldn't be any happier. We knew we had to step it up another notch and we did.”
Aon Player of the Match Kelly Brazier: “It is pretty special, obviously I was there in 2014 when we missed out (on the semi-finals) and that feeling sort of never goes. To be in the final now that was our aim and I am just excited to be there and I can't wait to take the field with a new group of girls and hopefully lift that cup again.”
USA captain Tiffany Faaee: “Credit to the New Zealand girls, we knew they were going to be a tough opponent. It was very physical and after the first half we knew that it has been a pattern of ours to come out strong in the second half, but I think a few clinical errors on our part, just not looking after the ball, and New Zealand with their flat defence were able to capitalise and put some more points on the board. We wanted to start strong and finish strong and we did that in the first half. Some games you are going to win and some you lose but we go away a better team than we came in. Going through the tournament we've learnt a lot of lessons, including in this game, and we look forward to doing better in our next game.”
SEMI-FINAL: ENGLAND 20-3 FRANCE
England’s title defence remains on track after a hard-fought victory over perennial semi-final losers France.
For the seventh time in eight World Cup tournaments, Les Bleues failed to make it to the final after England weathered their first-half onslaught before wrestling control in the second.
Tight-head Sarah Bern capped a fine display, where she made 13 carries and 16 tackles and was named Aon Player of the Match, with the first try just past the hour-mark before replacement Megan Jones added another at the death, while makeshift full-back Emily Scarratt converted both tries and kicked two penalties.
France brought their attacking game with them to the Kingspan Stadium, particularly in the first half, but they couldn’t find a way through England’s brick wall defence and a 36th-minute penalty from winger Shannon Izar was all they had to show for their efforts.
With two old rivals going head to head for a place in the Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 final, no quarter was ever going to be asked or given and so it proved. A low-scoring but enthralling first half saw the sides trade penalties for a 3-3 scoreline, but France will have wondered how they had not managed to get in front such was their dominance.
With Marlie Packer leading the way on the occasion of her 50th cap, England repelled wave after wave of attack from Les Bleues and took the lead against the run of play when Scarratt kicked a 15th-minute penalty. Shortly afterwards, Scarratt was forced to play as a makeshift full-back with Danielle Waterman off the field with a head knock and Jones coming off the bench at centre. The positional change did not affect her, and she showed a great sense of timing to burst onto a Katy Mclean pass to trigger England’s only sustained period of attack in the opposition 22.
France’s tenacious work at the breakdown saw the Red Roses penalised three times for holding on, though, and the only other points of the first half came when Izar kicked a penalty from all of 38 metres after Packer blotted her otherwise flawless performance with a high tackle on scrum-half Yanna Rivoalen.
Overall, the second half belonged to England with only a despairing last-ditch tackle from second-row Audrey Forlani denying Kay Wilson a try in the corner. With England piling on the pressure, France conceded a penalty for offside and Scarratt made no mistake to make it 6-3 to the defending champions with 52 minutes gone.
Lenaig Corson launched a rare French attack down the left approaching the hour-mark but Scarratt stood firm as the last line of defence, stopping the dangerous second-row dead in her tracks with a rock-solid tackle. England quickly seized back control and turned the pressure into points when Bern was driven over, with help from fellow prop Vickii Cornborough, for a try which Scarratt turned into a seven-pointer.
Julie Annery, deputising at openside for the standout Romane Menager, thought she had scored in the 68th minute but Jones had just about done enough to drag one of her yellow boots into touch before she could ground the ball. Jones then rubbed salt in France's wounds, charging onto a loose ball as they tried to run it out from their own line to give the Red Roses the final say.
England captain Sarah Hunter: “I think it's fantastic that we have come through and done the job we wanted to do. From one to 23 our defence won that game. There was never any doubt that France were not going to get across our line. They were fantastic and have given us the greatest test we have had at the World Cup. We knew we had the right mindset and we fought for every inch. Both sides were going for it and wanted to play attacking style and both defences stood up to it. I think we had a white wall and no way anything was getting through. All through the game people were putting thier bodies on the line and that is what got us through.”
France captain Gaelle Mignot: “We are really disappointed. Tonight England were very strong, but we didn't give up. For sure we came to win the World Cup and we are really disappointed, but we have to go on and one day win the World Cup.”
FIFTH PLACE SEMI-FINAL: IRELAND 24-36 AUSTRALIA
Australia reached the fifth place play-off with an utterly dominant performance against an Ireland side that struggled to deal with the physicality of their opponents.
Fit-again Ashleigh Hewson using her full array of skills in the play-making position to bring Australia’s power runners into the game and captain Sharni Williams was in outstanding form, the centre scoring one try and creating two others, ensuring the Wallaroos had the guile in midfield to match the strong running of their forwards.
With props Liz Patu and Hilisha Samoa leading the way – they made 27 carries alone in the first half – the Wallaroos crossed the gain-line at will and, other than for two briefs spells when Ireland scored 12 points on each occasion, they monopolised the Kingspan Stadium scoreboard as well as territory and possession.
Williams set the tone in the eighth minute when she made sure the good ground made by the forwards resulted in the opening try. Receiving the ball 20 metres out, the Olympic gold medallist dummied and then used her pace to round opposite number Sene Naoupu and go on an arcing run to the line.
By this stage, Ireland had lost captain Claire Molloy to a head knock, but they got back in the game using the route one approach, prop Ailis Egan dotting down on 14 minutes from the back of a rolling maul after two earlier attempts had been illegally thwarted.
If Ireland’s first try was all about brute strength, the second five minutes later was a thing of beauty. Jenny Murphy put a crossfield kick in behind the Wallaroos’ line and the ball bounced perfectly for winger Alison Miller who gathered it in at pace, rounded full-back Samantha Treherne and then fended off Katrina Barker to score a marvellous try on the occasion of her 40th cap.
At 12-12, it appeared that we were in for a game every bit as close as the Pool C clash between the two, which Ireland edged 19-17. But Miller’s try was as good as it got for the host nation until replacement Sophie Spence and stand-in captain Paula Fitzpatrick grabbed late consolation efforts.
Not may tight-heads win the player-of-the-match award but Samoa deserved the accolade for her tireless work in the tight and loose, capped by a 34th-minute try which ensured Australia went into the break 19-12 up.
The gold rush continued unabated in the second half, second-row Millie Boyle withstanding a big tackle by Lindsay Peat to just about ground the ball over the line with 50 minutes gone. Hewson then struck her third conversion from four attempts before adding a 58th-minute penalty after Ireland were penalised for a high tackle. A Williams half break and offload to Mahalia Murphy resulted in Australia’s fifth try, and once again Hewson added the two points.
Ireland unloaded their bench and, with 68 minutes gone, they made their first visit of the second half into the Australian 22. While Australia kept them at bay on that occasion, there was no stopping Spence from crashing over after 74 minutes and further late pressure, right at the death, resulted in Fitzpatrick joining her on the scoresheet right after Boyle had been yellow-carded moments earlier.
Australia captain Sharni Williams: “It’s a massive effort by the girls. Our preparation has probably been the best it has been going into a World Cup and qualifying for the (next) World Cup just shows that rugby in Australia is on the up. It’s amazing to see all the girls play, not only playing sevens but 15s now and we are role models for them. I am absolutely stoked for the girls, they brought that Aussie mongrel that I said we needed to bring. It is obviously tough playing someone on their home soil and the crowd really got behind Ireland in the last couple of minutes and, as you saw, it helped them score a couple of tries. We’re not professionals but I’m absolutely ecstatic for the girls for coming out with such a professional attitude.
Ireland number eight Paula Fitzpatrick: “All credit to Australia, they deserved the win today and we just weren’t good enough. We made too many basic errors, particularly the tackle height, and we didn’t do what we spoke about doing and the scoreline shows that. They were very, very physical and that’s what really got them over the gain-line time after time. Our tackles were too high and they were slipping out of them. They really played the game well and attacked us up front. We’ll be throwing everything into our final game as we always do. It is our last game of the tournament and, for a lot of the girls, it will be their last game in a green jersey as well.”
FIFTH PLACE SEMI-FINAL: CANADA 52-0 WALES
Victory over Wales for the second time in 10 days preserved Canada’s record of never finishing outside the top six at a Women's Rugby World Cup and also confirmed their qualification for the 2021 edition.
The Canadians easily improved on their 15-0 win over the same opponents on 13 August, displaying the sort of form that saw them enter the tournament ranked third in the world.
Canada scored four first-half tries to lead 26-0, having made an incredible 400 metres to Wales’ 47, before adding four more after the break as the Welsh never came close to breaking their duck and the scoreline could have been a lot worse had three Canadian ‘tries’ not been chalked off.
Winger Elissa Alarie, who was at the heart of the action throughout, got the scoring underway in the eighth minute after her chip and chase had put Canada in an attacking position. Opposite number Elen Evans was forced to take the ball over the line and from the attacking five-metre scrum, number eight and captain Kelly Russell and livewire scrum-half Brianna Miller combined to put Alarie away in the right-hand corner.
Miller, who stepped in to replace the injured Lori Josephson earlier in the day, slotted the first of her five conversions on the day in an excellent display of goal-kicking that saw her only miss one of her six attempts, and then converted her own try in the 28th minute when she pounced on a loose ball inside the in-goal area after Wales’ scrum had been shunted backwards by the Canadian eight.
Cindy Nelles then crashed over from close range and there was still time for Canada to cross for another before the half ended, the superb Latoya Blackwood blasting through three tackles to set up an attack that ended in full-back Julianne Zussman putting Alarie away for her second.
Wales had barely made an attack of note in the first half and the same was true in a second 40 totally dominated by Canada. The Canadians were handed a gift three minutes after the restart when Jacey Grusnick charged down Elinor Snowsill’s attempted clearance and dropped on the loose ball.
Fellow back-row Karen Paquin showed a real turn of pace for Canada’s next try, taking a pass from Andrea Burk and then slaloming her way past two would-be defenders on a 30-metre run to the line.
Replacement DaLeaka Menin became the second Canadian tight-head to be denied a try after her effort was referred to the television match official, following a knock-on in the act of grounding the ball, Olivia DeMerchant having had an earlier effort disallowed. But Wales were powerless to stop Canada from the resulting scrum, going to ground in the wake of intense pressure, to concede a penalty try.
Another replacement Barbara Mervin had a try disallowed on the hour mark after she too lost control of the ball in the act of grounding, but the veteran forward made no mistake with her second opportunity, crossing wide out on the right after a brilliant run from deep by Zussman in the build-up, to ensure Canada brought up the half-century.
Canada captain Kelly Russell: “We came out strong and were ready for the challenge. We had done a lot of work on the breakdown and I am really proud of the way the girls rallied together after the disappointment earlier in the week. They’re strong group of women and I am lucky to be surrounded by them. The girls executed great and the handling was much better in this game. It felt like a home game, the crowd was amazing.”
Aon Player of the Match Latoya Blackwood: “We played for each other, we played for our fans and we played for our country. We’ve been playing together for the last three years and we know each other and trust each other and that’s how we play rugby.”
Wales captain Carys Phillips: “Obviously, that was massively disappointing from the first time we played them, we couldn’t get much momentum and we have plenty to work on going into the next game against Ireland.”
NINTH PLACE SEMI-FINAL: ITALY 22-0 JAPAN
A strong second-half display and three tries saw Italy book their place in the ninth place play-off on Saturday as Japan paid the price for failing to turn first-half pressure into points at Queen's University.
Just as it seemed we were set for the first half-time score of 0-0 at Ireland 2017, the Azzurre found a way through the Japanese defence. Prop Elisa Cucchiella was stopped just short, but from the resulting ruck hooker Melissa Bettoni picked up and used her strength to drive her way over the line. Michela Sillari couldn't add the conversion after her kick came back off the post.
Japan, searching for only their second World Cup victory, had started the brighter of the two teams and spent much of the opening 10 minutes in the Italian 22, stringing together some phases but unable to find a way through the Azzurre defence. It took Italy more than 10 minutes to mount a first real attack, but Beatrice Rigoni's kick through came to nothing.
The play continued that way for much of the half with Japan enjoying 61 per cent of possession at Queen's University and the Sakura 15 will wonder how they trailed at half-time, although full-back Mayu Shimizu did pull a straightforward penalty attempt well wide of the posts just past the half hour mark.
Whatever Italy coach Andrea Di Giandomenico said to his players at half-time clearly had the desired effect as, after a lengthy injury delay for Alice Trevisan, the Azzurre clicked into gear with a couple of missed passes moving the ball quickly on the backline to Sillari and the winger used her quick feet and pace to unlock the Japan defence to score their second try.
Two minutes later Minori Yamamoto intercepted but the Japan fly-half didn't have the pace to race away to get side back into the match, the attack ultimately coming to nothing and instead it was Italy who got the next score, centre Maria Grazia Cioffi - on the occasion of her 50th test - making a break only to be hauled down just short, but she managed to pop it up for Sillari to score her second of the game to make it 15-0.
A flowing move down the right touchline involving Sillari, Manuela Furlan and Paola Zangirolami would have been worthy of a try, but the Italians did finish the match in style with their fourth try after some sublime handling from Bettoni found Sofia Stefan and the winger shrugged off one tackle to race 60 metres and score to the delight of her team-mates.
Italy replacement Valentina Ruzza: “It's beautiful to win and we are very happy, we have what we were looking for but we have to keep working. At half-time our coach said just to keep doing what were doing and we did. Japan were really hard and tough, but we were better.”
Japan captain Seina Saito: “I think the Italy team was more physical and that is why we lost. We got near the try-line but we couldn't cross it and that was the difficulty for us. We want to overcome that for the next game.”
NINTH PLACE SEMI-FINAL: SPAIN 31-7 HONG KONG
Spain set up a second meeting with Italy in the ninth place play-off on Saturday after battling past a Hong Kong side that kept them on their toes for the full 80 minutes.
Las Leonas, ranked 15 places above Hong Kong in the World Rugby Women's Rankings, went into the match as strong favourites and nearly opened the scoring in the fifth minute when centre Marina Bravo was held up over the line. They didn't have long to wait, though, as from the resulting scrum number eight Angela del Pan controlled the ball at the ball at the base of the scrum and dived on it over the line.
The rain began to fall at Queen's University and both sides found it hard to keep control of a damp ball, but that didn't stop them throwing it around and trying to attack from anywhere. Hong Kong missed an opportunity to get on the scoreboard when centre Adrienne Garvey, the scorer of their first World Cup points against Wales last week, saw her penalty come back off the post.
Spain doubled their lead just before the half-hour mark when captain Isabel Rico profited from some quick ball, the prop handing off one defender to race clear and dot down. Hong Kong, though, fought back with fly-half Rose Hopewell-Fong picking the ball up off her shoelaces and juggling it before she spun out of a tackle and sprinted away under the posts to the delight of her team-mates.
The try was nothing more than Hong Kong deserved, but they were unable to add to that solitary try with the only action of the first half a yellow card for second-row Elena Redondo for a high tackle. Hong Kong couldn't make the most of their player advantage and instead it was Amaia Erbina who crossed, linking well with her fellow centre Bravo before dancing her way through the defence.
Spain's ability to turn defence into attack so quickly was highlighted by their fourth try just before the hour, winger Iera Echebarria receiving the ball on her own 22, stepping inside and out as she left the defence behind to touch down. Las Leonas were ruled held up in the 74th minute, but did fashion another try, Echebarria stopped just short but looping a pass up which replacement Carlota Meliz gratefully grabbed to put the gloss on a second win for Spain at Ireland 2017.
Spain centre Marina Bravo: “It was a really tough match that we played and we are here in the World Cup to enjoy it. They were really strong but in the second half we showed our rugby and I think we did it well. We are really enjoying our rugby. We are really happy, we want to continue playing rugby and showing our rugby and also to learn because Spain came here to learn and improve our rugby and to show the world we play rugby and we enjoy it.”
Hong Kong captain Chow Mei Nam: “It's the first time for us to be on this world stage and we have had really tough opponents, but we have really enjoyed it. We are showing improvements, however the result is not what we want, but we have many more improvements to come. We put our bodies on the line and we made it hard for them to score a try.”
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