England and New Zealand are set to collide in front of a world-record crowd in the hotly anticipated Rugby World Cup final this Saturday at a sold-out Eden Park.
After seeing off Canada and France respectively in the semi-finals, there is just one hurdle left between these world heavyweights and the trophy: each other.
A sense of déjà vu has filled the air since their semi-final victories as these foes have met four times in World Cup finals previously – the Kiwis came away with the title in all.
The last final resulted in heartbreak for England in 2017 after New Zealand came back from a 12-point deficit to claim their fifth World Cup trophy and enter this year’s tournament as defending champions.
Despite this, England have been strong favourites so far thanks to their world number one status and now 30-game winning streak.
England’s head coach Simon Middleton said: “With success comes scrutiny and the inevitable pressure that brings with it. When things get tough, this team knows how to get going.
“Great teams don’t fear those challenges, they embrace them, and meet them head on, that’s what we intend to do.”
England have a mix of veterans and young talent on their team sheet and sport a largely unchanged pack from their semi-final victory.
Hannah Botterman will miss out due to a knee injury as Vickii Cornborough takes up the reins at loosehead.
Amy Cokayne and Sarah Bern retain their staple starts at hooker and tighthead.
The 2021 World Player of the Year Zoe Aldcroft and the seasoned Abbie Ward will be controlling the lineouts at lock.
Captain Sarah Hunter receives her 140th cap for her start at number 8 this weekend while experienced outside centre Emily Scarratt will continue her post as vice-captain.
Flankers Alex Matthews and Marlie Packer bolster the back row with Hunter after a series of outstanding performances this campaign.
In the backs, there has been a, perhaps unexpected, reshuffle.
Helena Rowland has not returned in time for the final after incurring a foot injury early in the second half against Canada.
This leaves the door open for Ellie Kildunne at fullback.
Kildunne will be flanked by a good balance of the pacy Abby Dow and the experienced Lydia Thompson.
Fans might be shocked to see Claudia MacDonald moving to the bench after exhibiting excellent form on the wing this tournament.
However, this looks to be a strategic swap as the exclusion of Lucy Packer from the team sheet leaves a scrum half replacement hole to fill in support of Leanne Infante who remains in her starting nine shirt.
Saracen’s Holly Aitchison has re-entered the fold at inside centre, pushing recent starter Tatyana Heard to the bench.
Aitchison has only played a total of 18 minutes in the knock-outs with her only start this World Cup being against South Africa in the pools.
Zoe Harrison and Scarratt will continue to do the honours at ten and 13 respectively.
Cath O’Donnell returns to the matchday 23 as a finisher alongside Lark Davies, Maud Muir, Shaunagh Brown, Poppy Cleall, Sadia Kabeya, MacDonald and Heard.
New Zealand’s team sheet features the usual stand-out players as they look to continue their creative brand of rugby.
Phillipa Lowe, Georgia Ponsonby and Amy Rule make up the front row who will take on their dominant English opposites.
Maiakawanakaulani Roos, who made her international debut for the Black Ferns only last year against England, will start alongside Chelsea Bremner at lock.
The experienced carrier Sarah Hirini has been chosen ahead of Kennedy Simon at openside flanker and will start next to Alana Bremner (blindside) and Charmaine McMenamin (number 8).
The backline has almost picked itself.
Kendra Cocksedge will retain her position at scrum half in her final game for the Black Ferns before retiring from the world stage.
Cocksedge has experienced four world cups and boasts a quick-tap, confident style of play that suits this Kiwi team down to the ground.
The 10-12 axis is made up of captain Ruahei Demant who tops the successful conversion table at this tournament, and one of last weekend’s try scorers Theresa Fitzpatrick.
Stacey Fluhler starts at outside centre and then comes the back-three everyone has been talking about.
The Rugby World Cup’s all-time try scorer Portia Woodman is at 11 and she will be a threat England want to stifle.
A charismatic Ruby Tui will bring the offloading fun and flair on the other wing while Renee Holmes will be putting boot to ball at fullback.
Co-captain Simon is listed as an impact player alongside Luka Connor, Krystal Murray, Santo Taumata, Joanah Ngan-Woo, Ariana Bayler, Hazel Tubic and crash winger Ayesha Leti-I’iga.
The story so far
England and New Zealand have been pit against each other from the start.
Every analysis of these teams’ performance has been made in light of how they will need to perform at this final against this opposition.
The Black Ferns recovered from a cataclysmic coaching review earlier this year which outed coach Glenn Moore following bullying accusations.
But with Wayne Smith at the helm, this Kiwi team have taken on an expressive, free-flowing style that has excited rugby fans and inspired a nation of support.
They are a far cry from the Ferns who suffered four heavy defeats to England and France in last year’s northern tour.
England, on the other hand, have endured criticism throughout this tournament of their reliance on a traditionally strong but ‘boring’ set-piece.
Nevertheless, the Red Roses have continued to dominate their opponents, produced outstanding results and fired some warning shots with their recent tries.
These conflicting styles are sure to produce a compelling final and it will be interesting to see how they intend to front up to each other.
The Black Ferns will need to improve their pack performance if they are to defend the English set-piece and the Red Roses will be tested exponentially by the Kiwi’s dynamic back line.
The champions this Saturday will have done the work to tease out the errors from these recent showings and capitalise on them when the time comes.
You can watch the drama unfold this Saturday at 6.30 am GMT on ITV.
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Featured image credit: Hagen Hopkins – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images