England and New Zealand have a chance to make history in a Rugby World Cup final on Saturday capping a tournament which has boosted the profile of women’s rugby and is book-ended by sellout crowds at Eden Park.
Almost 40,000 fans filled the Auckland stadium for matches on opening day and more will be present Saturday for the final. The pace of ticket sales increased markedly when New Zealand held on to beat France 25-24 in a semifinal last weekend and some extra seating has been added to meet demand.
Around 2.6 million fans worldwide watched live coverage of the 2017 final in which New Zealand beat England 41-32 and the audience for Saturday’s final is expected to eclipse that number. Final figures aren’t yet available but the expected world-record crowd on Saturday should take overall attendance for the tournament close to 200,000.
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The tournament has mirrored others in football in reflecting the growth in popularity in women’s sports. The quality of matches and the rise of crowd favorite personalities has contributed to the overall rise in the audience for the women’s game.
“Rugby World Cup 2021 has proven to be a triumph for rugby, women’s sport and New Zealand,” World Rugby chairman Bill Beaumont said. “On and off the field records have tumbled, personalities have been projected and barriers smashed as the stars of women’s rugby have shone brightly, underscored by two incredible semifinals.”
Beaumont said the tournament had been “the greatest women’s rugby event ever and an inspiration for girls and boys to get into rugby.”
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Tournament director Michelle Hooper said the event had unfolded as if perfectly scripted with tight semifinals leading to a dream final between top-ranked England and defending champion New Zealand.
“What we saw during the semifinals was arguably the greatest spectacle of international rugby this country has seen in a very long time,” Hooper said. “Those two matches have had an immeasurable impact on the game that we may not see the true results of until generations to come when young girls and boys will talk about those moments.”
England is attempting to add to a world-record winning streak of 30 Tests, dating to its win over New Zealand in 2019. New Zealand hopes to add to its five world titles with its first achieved at home.
The final offers a classic contrast in styles between England’s hard-nosed forward play, its daunting rolling maul and New Zealand’s always joyous back play made sharper by a number of world sevens series stars.
England captain Sarah Hunter will play her 140th test on Saturday, extending her record as rugby’s most-capped female player. She says there has been a sense of calm in the England camp this week.
“I just think that the real sense of wanting to be together overrides the feeling of pressure,” she said. “We’re just going to go in and play without fear because there’s many things you’ll never experience in life and for some that’s to play in a Rugby World Cup final.”
New Zealand winger Ruby Tui has become one of the stars of the tournament for the exuberance she portrays on the field and in interviews. She sees Saturday’s final as a milestone on a long road towards recognition for women’s rugby and remembers the start of that journey 12 years ago.
“Imagine this,” Tui said. “Nobody knows who the Black Ferns are. Nobody knows what they look like. Nobody follows women’s rugby.
“We were told you will never be paid. We were told we’re not going to give you Eden Park for the World Cup. We’ll give you somewhere that holds 5,000 because you’re not going to sell it out. Women’s rugby doesn’t matter.
“Here we are 12 years later. Eden Park’s sold out, bro.”
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