Women’s rugby stepped into a bright new spotlight Saturday when the opening matches of the ninth Women’s Rugby World Cup were played in front of a world-record crowd at Auckland’s Eden Park.
Tournament favorite England made an emphatic opening statement with an 84-19 win over Fiji while France beat South Africa 40-5 in a tournament of 26 matches played over 35 days.
Defending champion and tournament host New Zealand faced the almost unthinkable prospect of an opening loss to seventh-ranked Australia when it conceded three tries and trailed 17-0 after 28 minutes.
But it rallied to win 41-17, snatching the lead for the first time in the 56th minute.
Three matches are set for Sunday – the United States vs. Italy, Canada against Japan and Wales vs. Scotland.
More than 35,000 tickets were pre-sold Saturday, already exceeding the record crowd for a women’s rugby international of 20,000 which saw the final of the 2014 World Cup between England and Canada in Paris. With late walk-ups, the peak attendance is expected to exceed 40,000.
The world tournament comes at a time at which the increasing popularity of rugby among women is leading global growth in the sport. While player salaries continue to lag behind men, increasing investment by World Rugby and national rugby unions is slowly leveling the playing field.
The 12 teams at this World Cup are divided into three groups of four with England and France on course to clash in Group C.
France 40, South Africa 5
Scrumhalf Laur Sansus scored the first try of the World Cup after only two minutes, offering an early glimpse of the challenge France intends to bring to England and New Zealand.
While France is ranked No. 4 in the world, its star-studded lineup is expected to out-perform that ranking. Sansus is one of those stars, the player of the championship in this season’s Six Nations tournament.
Inside center Gabrielle Vernier scored the second try and Emilie Boulard the third, giving France a 19-0 lead over 11th-ranked South Africa in better than even time. Vernier scored off a neat chip kick by flyhalf Caroline Drouine and Boulard went almost the length of the field from an intercept.
The score remained 19-0 at halftime as South Africa’s performance was lifted by a strong scrum. That revival continued when South African winger Nomawethu Mabenge scored the first try of the second half.
France had become sluggish and had to find a new gear. That they did so efficiently again was impressive – Sansus scored her second try in the 68th minute, attacking quickly from a tapped penalty.
Drouin scored three minutes later and France’s lead expanded to 33-5. Joanna Grisez added the final try after the fulltime siren.
England 84, Fiji 19
England showed why they are the world’s top-ranked team and tournament favorites, scoring 14 tries in a comprehensive win over Fiji including 10 tries and 60 points in the second half.
Winger Claudia McDonald scored four tries, including three in the second half.
A powerful but mobile tight five, strong, ball-carrying loose forwards, tactical genius in the halves, defensive strength in midfield and swift finishers in the back three: they have the full package. Their rolling maul from lineouts especially was devastating.
Fiji is ranked 21st in the world only because of a lack of opportunities. The team was unable to call on several of its Olympic sevens stars and stretched the England defense when the team raised the pace of the game in the first half.
England’s opening try also came through winger McDonald who touched down in the fifth minute, making a blindside dab after an attacking lineout. Hooker Amy Cokayne scored the second in the 19th minute as England made an impact with its phase play and lineout drive. Lock Abbie Ward was the next to benefit from the lineout drive, scoring in the 27th minute.
Helena Rowland scored England’s fourth first-half try but it was bookended by tries to Alowesi Nakoci and Sesenieli Donu for Fiji, which trailed 24-14 at halftime.
The floodgates opened in the second half as Fiji played almost without possession and England ran in 10 more tries.
”We were more composed in the second half,” captain Sarah Hunter said. ”We went back to being England and managed to put in a good performance. ”
New Zealand 41, Australia 17
New Zealand suffered a glaring case of stage fright in front of the record audience and needed a hat trick from superstar winger Portia Woodman to come from behind and snatch a first-up win.
Australia scored three early tries to lead 17-0 after 28 minutes, putting New Zealand under enormous pressure. But New Zealand narrowed the lead to 17-12 by halftime with the help of Woodman’s first try, drew level at 17-17 with Woodman’s second try and went ahead finally with a try to prop Awhina Tangen-Wainohu in the 56th minute.
Woodman’s third try gave New Zealand its first comfortable lead at 31-17 after 60 minutes.
New Zealand was able to seize control of the game midway through the second half when Australia lost two players, including captain Shannon Perry, almost simultaneously to the sin bin for high tackles.
New Zealand’s go-ahead try, and Woodman’s hat trick try, came in that period when Australia was down to 13 players.
A late double to winger Ruby Tui made the win more convincing.
But New Zealand’s performance will have worried many of their fans. They were disorganized and unconvincing until they eventually were able to make good a numerical advantage.
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