England held off a strong Canadian side on Saturday to reach the final of the Rugby World Cup and register their 30th consecutive win.
The Roses claimed three tries, two of which came from the blistering Abby Dow, to battle through a physical and determined Canada 26-19.
They will face New Zealand, following the hosts’ pulsating 25-24 win over France in the other semi-final.
This English-Canadian clash was a semi-final for the ages and intoxicating for the neutral.
The Roses have somewhat become the team you love to root against over in New Zealand with fans no doubt enjoying the amateur versus professionals narrative of this showdown.
Let’s put this into context: not long ago Rugby Canada had a pay-to-play structure in place.
Notoriously the Canadian women’s players had to pay $500 each for their hotel rooms at a previous Nations Cup, while the men got paid $500 to play in it, and it is not-so-well-documented that this Canadian women’s team have Crowdfunded in order to train together in anticipation of this World Cup.
It makes it even more impressive, therefore, that Canada not only put on a truly competitive showing but one that may well have swung their way if it weren’t for some inconsistencies in kicking and set-piece.
The commitment to this duel became apparent from the start: Canada have been lauded as the only team with a strong enough pack to rival England’s making this match-up an anticipated forwards battle.
Both teams started by contradicting this prediction, however, and appeared to be on a mission to show their varied attacking ability.
England, who have created concerns this campaign surrounding their pack reliance, immediately looked to explore more expansive movement and employ their territorial kicking.
This change has to be credited to one of the more under-appreciated players of the English side so far, Loughborough Lightning star Helena Rowland.
Rowland didn’t quite get the opportunity to stretch her legs last week in wet conditions but she came alive for England in the semis, using her sevens experience to step and carve her way through defenders.
She is a true utility back, having played at fly-half for her domestic team, centre for England and now turning her hand to fullback after only playing in the position a couple of times before this year’s Six Nations.
This ability is what makes her an ace attacking threat; Rowland is a fullback who thinks like a fly-half first and foremost.
An excellent distributor, she plays with her head up and is able to fill in the formation where needed – an incredibly valuable skill at this stage of the women’s game.
It was her quick feet and intention that set up the platform for England to secure their first score of the game.
In the end, the Roses took it over the line in classic fashion following a powerful rolling maul off the back of a lineout in the seventh minute.
No matter the criticism, you cannot help but admire the mastery with which England wield this weapon, putting Marlie Packer’s name on the board.
Emily Scarratt slotted the conversion to give the world number ones an early lead.
The Canadian resolve continued as they executed what previous opponents have failed to in capitalising off English errors.
They couldn’t quite turn this into points however and after a lacklustre kick didn’t find touch Rowland made a fantastic counter-run in the 14th minute.
The fullback read Alysha Corrigan perfectly, changing pace and faking the inside line for a split second before refocusing on the outside in a brilliant passage of play that set up Abby Dow to carve round the final defender Alex Tessier.
In a blow to England’s possible final starting 15 this Saturday, Rowland would be taken off on a stretcher with an injury in the opening minutes of the second half.
Canada were not deterred by being two tries down and showed they had done the work to analyse the English defence when scrum-half Justine Pelletier sniped through a gap along the scrum left by a drifting Leanne Infante.
A fantastic break from Pelletier ensued before she deftly grubbered the ball for openside Karen Paquin to pounce and finish the job in support.
Canada continued to respond and became almost English in their next successful attack.
The Canucks took the opportunity of a lineout on England’s five metre to give the Roses a taste of their own medicine through a driving maul.
After being well-defended they began wave after wave of attritional play and it surely dawned on the viewer that a team have not knocked on England’s door and come away with the try in this manner so far this tournament.
But that is what followed: Canada pushed to eight phases before spotting the space out wide and Corrigan did the honours.
After captain Sophie de Goede added the extras, England exhibited good game management by taking the lead going into the second half with points from a penalty in front of the posts.
The second half saw what can only be described as a screamer of a try from Dow which demonstrated the potential of England when they effectively link their forwards and backs and have confidence in their ability to find space.
Following a period of nail-biting play from Canada in England’s 22, the ball was turned over twice by the Roses.
Abbie Ward used her counter-rucking nous to regain possession and allowed Zoe Harrison to pass wide to Claudia MacDonald in the in-goal area who set off on a 24-metre jaunt, beating defenders left and right.
Dow then received a brilliant pass from her opposite wing and left the Canadians in the dust with a steaming 68-metre finish.
This length-of-the-pitch epic has entered the history books as one of the best rugby world cup tries ever and England are boring no more.
Fighting back yet again, the Canadians replied with an excellent try from Tyson Buekeboom after a grinding period of brute force.
Scarratt would bring the scoring to a close 19-26 by going for the three points again off a penalty decision.
In a game where the forwards were predicted to dominate, we got to see some well-executed, exciting running rugby and a truly great showing of the women’s game.
The atmosphere seemed electric at Eden Park and the performance of this amateur Canadian side has undoubtedly demanded investment and resources from their governing body.
If this is fulfilled, we will be seeing a world-class Canada return to the tournament in four years’ time.
England’s Red Roses will now take on the threat pundits across the globe predicted: an epic final showdown with New Zealand’s Black Ferns on Kiwi home turf.
These sides have been pitted against each other from the first day of this tournament and this Saturday at 6.30am GMT, we will finally see who has what it takes to take home the silverware.
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Featured image credit: Hagen Hopkins – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images