WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand is host and defending champion but won’t start as favorite in the Women’s Rugby World Cup, which begins Saturday with three consecutive matches at Auckland’s Eden Park stadium.
The New Zealand Black Ferns won the last world tournament in Ireland in 2017 and were the top-ranked women’s team almost continuously from 2003 to 2020.
But the Ferns have slipped to No. 2 in world rankings behind England’s Red Roses, who assumed top spot in 2020 and are unbeaten in 23 matches going back to 2019.
France, though ranked No. 4, is also a leading contender, hardened by competition in Europe’s Six Nations tournament and after winning its last four matches against New Zealand.
The World Cup comes at a pivotal time for women’s rugby, after concerted efforts to increase the investment of money and resources by World Rugby and national rugby unions. The world tournament should showcase the benefits of that investment in the quality and competitiveness of matches.
The first three matches — France vs. South Africa, England vs. Fiji and Australia vs. New Zealand — are set to be played in front of a crowd of around 40,000 at Eden Park, a record for a women’s World Cup match. World Rugby hopes to seize on the moment.
“Women’s rugby is a cornerstone of World Rugby’s growth plan for the whole game,” World Rugby Director of Women’s Rugby Sally Horrox told the website Rugby.com.au. “If we are to grow a global game for all we will need more girls and women playing, coaching, refereeing, volunteering and leading our sport."
Horrox said the World Cup in New Zealand the following three editions were crucial to that plan.
“These events anchor us and provide a compass to guide us as we increase our effort and investment so that we fast track growth over the next decade," Horrox said.
World Rugby chief executive Alan Gilpin said the anticipated record crowd on opening day is “a great sign of confidence this is going to be a great tournament.” The tournament was due to go ahead in 2021 but was delayed because of travel issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A year delayed, you always worry it’s going to be hard to put a tournament on in these circumstances we are in,” Gilpin said. “The teams have been incredibly patient. Their commitment has been fantastic and I think what you are seeing is the New Zealand public getting behind it. I think it bodes well for the entire tournament.”
Singer-songwriter Rita Ora will perform at Eden Park on opening day to express her support for women’s sport.
“I’m an advocate for women, so for me to bring any attention to World Cup women’s rugby is amazing, especially with how successful the women’s Euro football was this year,” Ora said. "I think shining a light on this will eventually make it the norm, just like how people go to watch the male rugby. I do believe that there is a huge space for the women to follow suit — if they’re not doing that already.”
The teams that will contest the World Cup have been drawn in three groups of four. New Zealand is in Group A with Australia, Wales and Scotland, while England and France were drawn with South Africa and Fiji in Group C. Group B features Canada — also seen as a contender — the United States, Italy and Japan.
The top two teams from each pool and the next two best-placed teams will advance to the quarterfinals. The final is scheduled for Eden Park on Nov. 12.
While England must contend with favoritism, New Zealand has an extra weight to carry as host in country where rugby is a clear favorite as the national sport. New Zealand co-hosted the inaugural men's Rugby World Cup with Australia in 1987 and won the tournament, also adding men's titles at home in 2011 and in Britain in 2015.
“I will probably feel emotions I have never felt before,” New Zealand co-captain Ruahei Demant said of the long anticipated women's event. “You kind of dream of opportunities like this, playing a Rugby World Cup at home but you never think it would happen.
“To be one of the lucky ones, the right time in our careers, the stars are aligned. I can’t describe it because I don’t even know what it is going to be like.”
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