England have surfed their way into the Rugby World Cup semi-finals against Canada after turning out another decisive win against Australia last Sunday.
A horrendously wet Waitakere was the battleground for the third quarter-final which saw the Red Roses well-watered through their seven-try victory and Marlie Packer hat-trick.
Despite getting over the line in the final minute of the first half thanks to some creative running rugby, Australia never got a foothold in the game as England’s forward pack continued to wreak havoc in their world cup campaign.
Rivulets of water ran down the faces of the players while they lined up for their national anthems – a defining visual feature of what was sure to be a game won through appropriate management of the elements.
And that was certainly the case: in conditions that could’ve rivalled a grassroots game in the late English autumn, the Roses showed their superior ability to work with the rain.
As the heavens opened with the first half, it seemed the criticism from the media in the past week did little to dampen the fortitude with which England deployed their traditional driving set-piece attack.
It wasn’t long before the English wave ebbed up to Australia’s five-metre.
Captain Sarah Hunter collected England’s first try in the seventh minute after she dribbled the ball right under the posts at the back of a dominant driving scrum, adding further gloss to her record-breaking 138th cap.
Cue a smile to break through even the strongest of Auckland mizzle.
The sopping conditions should have played even further into the grinding hands of the English pack, yet a period of unexpected edge-to-edge movement was what stretched the Wallaroo defence enough for the resulting scrum and score.
England continued pushing for this width and showed great dexterity in their game by embracing the challenging nature of the wet, but not shying away from a tactful use of the backs and their boot.
There were, naturally, moments of error from each side, mostly owing to the climate.
The first half saw two yellow cards – one for each of the quarter-finalists.
The 15th minute had Zoe Aldcroft breathe a sigh of relief after her reckless clear on Aussie centre Georgina Friedrichs was mitigated down to the sin bin.
Meanwhile Wallaroo skipper Shannon Parry’s binning 13 minutes later revealed just how difficult it is to defend England’s close-range attack and driving set piece legally after she became the second captain in a row to become the victim of her team’s repeated five-metre infringements.
It was only last week South African captain Nolusindiso Booi was binned against England in the same manner.
The Roses’ success with this attritional attacking play may fuel the nay-sayers but it demands that any rival contain this threat if they are to make a dent in the English armour.
The driving maul was triumphant again and again: giving England their second try in the first half as Packer went over for her first of three, and then returning with a vengeance in the second to have either a direct or assisting role in three further scores.
In contrast, the Aussies had major issues with their set pieces throughout.
Their line-out in particular was continually lost, in part to English skill, but primarily through a lack of control and accuracy.
The underdogs did, however, pull a moment out of the water that may send warning waves through the England camp and signal a potential vulnerability under running threat from their future knockout opponents.
This slid through in the form of a lovely Australian try scored from well-worked offload play – one that could’ve been lifted from the Kiwi handbook.
Fly-half Arabella Mackenzie was instrumental with her perfectly timed pass causing Tatyana Heard to shoot up too quickly on Liz Patu, giving the prop space for a short break before offloading on the inside to Grace Hamilton.
From here it was a case of drawing in defenders before running it down the line to be finished in slip-n-slide style by Emily Chancellor.
It wasn’t anything complex or spectacular; just a well-supported piece of running rugby. And that is what should worry the English fan, if anything, as we look forward to the inevitable showdown with New Zealand.
Continuing along the small list of improvements, the goal-kicking still looks scratchy from England, with Emily Scarratt going two from six and Rowland securing the final conversion.
This is another element of the game that may come back to bite in these high-pressure knock-outs.
Tatyana Heard forced her way into starting this quarter-final thanks to her player-of-the-match performance last week, and no doubt Middleton will look to continue this.
Heard offers an attacking and defensive threat that differs from the backs around her and this makes the centre a useful weapon in a Roses squad that can often be accused of predictability.
With all that being said, the media this week will suggest the win could’ve still been marginally greater.
The overwhelming amount of possession England held throughout should’ve allowed them to come away with more points.
Yes, Australia defended well in parts, but the Roses had multiple opportunities to compound the Wallaroos’ misery where handling areas prevented the trigger from being pulled.
This was especially apparent in the frustrating period between their first and second score where time and time again they would lap at the try line but not have the discipline to finish the job.
In a game where each footstep sent up heavy splashes of surface water and each tackle whipped up further spiralled sprays, some of this is to be expected, but against a stronger team in a closer fought contest, they will need to ruthlessly capitalise on these moments.
Nevertheless, the win was decisive and showed that the women’s rugby truth we hold to be self-evident persists: some things are inevitable – and England is one of them.
England’s Red Roses will now take on Canada in the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup 2021 this Saturday at 3.30 am GMT.
The winner will face either New Zealand or France in the final.
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Featured image credit: Steve, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons