Women’s rugby entered a bright new spotlight on Saturday when the opening matches of the ninth Rugby Women’s World Cup were played in front of a world record crowd at Auckland’s Eden Park.
Tournament favorites England made an emphatic opening statement with an 84-19 victory over Fiji, while France beat South Africa 40-5 in a 26-match tournament played over 35 days.
Defending champions and tournament hosts New Zealand faced the almost unthinkable prospect of an opening loss to seventh-placed Australia when they conceded three tries and trailed 17-0 after 28 minutes.
But he recovered to win 41-17, seizing the lead for the first time in the 56th minute.
Three games are scheduled for Sunday: the United States against Italy, Canada against Japan and Wales against Scotland.
More than 35,000 tickets were sold on Saturday, already breaking the record 20,000 spectators for an international women’s rugby match that saw the 2014 World Cup final between England and Canada in Paris. With late arrivals, peak attendance is expected to exceed 40,000.
The global tournament comes at a time when rugby’s growing popularity among women is driving the sport’s global growth. While player salaries remain lower than men’s, increased investment by World Rugby and national rugby unions is slowly leveling the playing field.
The 12 teams in 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 World Cup try after just two minutes, offering an early glimpse of the challenge France intend to bring to England and New Zealand.
While France is ranked No. 4 in the world, its star-studded lineup is expected to top that ranking. Sansus is one of those stars, the player of the championship in this season’s Six Nations Tournament.
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-par time. Vernier scored on a clean chip shot from flyhalf Caroline Drouine and Boulard went almost the entire length of the field from an interception.
The score remained 19-0 at half time when South Africa’s performance was aided by a strong scrum. That resurgence continued when South African winger Nomawethu Mabenge scored the first try of the second half.
France had become slow and had to find a new gear. That they did it so efficiently again was impressive: Sansus scored his second try in the 68th minute, attacking quickly from a lofted penalty.
Drouin scored three minutes later and France’s lead was extended to 33-5. Joanna Grisez added the last attempt after the full-time siren.
England 84, Fiji 19
England showed why they are the top-ranked team in the world and tournament favourites, scoring 14 tries in a lopsided win over Fiji, including 10 tries and 60 points in the second half.
Wing Claudia McDonald scored four tries, including three in the second half.
A powerful but mobile tight five, strong, loose ball-carrying forwards, tactical genius in the halves, defensive strength in midfield and quick finishing off the back three – they have the complete package. His rolling mallet at the lineouts was especially devastating.
Fiji is ranked 21st in the world only due to lack of opportunity. The team was unable to call up several of its Olympic Sevens stars and stretched England’s defense as the team increased the pace of play in the first half.
England’s first try also came through winger McDonald, who scored in the fifth minute, making a blind touch after an attacking lineout. Hooker Amy Cokayne scored the second in the 19th minute as England made an impact with their phase and line-out play. Lock Abbie Ward was next to benefit from the lineout, scoring in the 27th minute.
Helena Rowland scored England’s fourth try of the first half, but it was backed up by tries from Alowesi Nakoci and Sesenieli Donu for Fiji, who trailed 24-14 at half-time.
The floodgates opened in the second half when Fiji played almost out of possession and England ran in 10 more attempts.
“We were more composed in the second half,” captain Sarah Hunter said. “We were England again and we managed to put in a good performance. ”
New Zealand 41, Australia 17
New Zealand suffered a blatant case of stage fright in front of a record audience and needed a hat-trick from superstar Portia Woodman to come from behind for a first victory.
Australia scored three early tries to lead 17-0 after 28 minutes, putting New Zealand under enormous pressure. But New Zealand cut the lead to 17-12 at halftime with the help of Woodman’s first try, tied it 17-17 with Woodman’s second try and finally took the lead with a try to support Awhina Tangen-Wainohu in the minute. 56.
Woodman’s third try gave New Zealand its first comfortable lead 31-17 after 60 minutes.
New Zealand were able to take control of the game midway through the second half when Australia lost two players, including captain Shannon Perry, almost simultaneously in the no-bin for high tackles.
New Zealand’s go-ahead attempt and Woodman’s hat-trick came in that period in which Australia was down to 13 players.
A late brace from winger Ruby Tui made the victory more convincing.
But New Zealand’s performance will have worried many of their fans. They were disorganized and unconvincing until they were finally able to gain a good numerical advantage.
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