Where will the World Cup Final be won and lost?

As spectators, we can’t say much about the week of the World Cup final that could do it justice. The two best and most deserving teams on the planet are currently preparing not only for the biggest day of their careers, but also for the most important game in the history of the sport.

Literally everything that happens between now and the final whistle matters. Every touch of the ball in training, every physical effort on the body, every wink of sleep and every second of recovery. It’s remarkable what these two sets of players and coaches are currently going through just to get the better of each other. And we, the viewers, wouldn’t want it any other way.

When you watch the two best teams in the world, you can’t just ask “What will win or lose the game?”, because there won’t be one specific thing that will make the difference. With England and New Zealand, we can speculate how they will execute their radically different game plans, but with form out the window and new ideas up their sleeves, it may be impossible to predict.

That said, we’re going to look at one area for each team that could have an impact. It may be a pointless exercise, but getting excited for a final never hurt anyone.

Sarah Hunter looks back on the 2017 final with a bad taste in her mouth, citing New Zealand’s ability to change their game plan exclusively for the final 40 minutes of a four-year World Cup cycle as the reason for which England won silver. Wayne Smith has already spoken of his willingness to hold a game plan for the later stages of this tournament, and it’s still hard to say exactly what he means by that.

We’ve seen throughout this tournament that Ruahei Demant isn’t afraid to pull out creative kicks, but against France the Black Ferns played a bit more of a tactical kicking game than in the rest of the tournament. This talented backline thrives on unstructured storylines, and the best way to create them is to kick space and stress the opposition.

New Zealand spent the entire tournament attacking the wider spaces of the pitch. Now that teams are becoming aware of this, they’re starting to leave some space behind them – and it’s not going unpunished. England are a side that like to be on the same page and know exactly which direction they are heading – if Demant and Reneé Holmes can isolate Ellie Kildunne (if Helena Rowland is out of form) at the back , he could create huge opportunities for the Black Ferns to put England under pressure.

Let’s take a look at an example of this from the semi-final. This was after Stacey Fluhler had already scored a try from Demant pulling the strings in attack and running the ball, so France are aware of the threat on the outside.

Playing a 3-2-3 attacking structure, New Zealand have their entire backline outside Demant, who claims the ball in Bremner’s boot.

Demant sends it to Theresa Fitzpatrick and France full-back Emily Boulard (highlighted in blue) to cover. Fitzpatrick wastes no time trying to engage the home defense and feeds Holmes immediately.

Nobody wants to defend a 1v1 against Ruby Tui – so Boulard joins the line. Holmes spots the space behind and stabs in a really hard to defend grubber kick. Boulard rotates to chase the ball.

We all know it ends with Tui kicking the ball and pinning it down in a signature world-class fashion, but we’ll ignore that for a moment. The measure of brilliance of this kick is the list of potential results. What is the best scenario here for France? It was probably Boulard falling on the ball (which is much easier said than done) and France clearing the ball to near 22 under heaps of pressure.

That’s the worst that can happen to the Black Ferns – a net gain of 25 yards. Plus, it would have taken a pretty stellar defense from France to pull it off. New Zealand used their own strengths to their advantage to open up space behind, and you could really see them leaning into that and opening up their kicking game even more this weekend.

With Zoe Harrison and Leanne Infante in the middle, Emily Scarratt on the sidelines and hopefully Helena Rowland at the back, England will feel quite comfortable being dragged into a kicking battle. It’s the backlash of reopening space for people like Fluhler that should really stress them out.

England’s field looked sharp all tournament. Against Canada they defended well most of the time, but once Canada got going they struggled a bit to slow their ball down. It may be unique, but if it’s not, the black ferns will really bother them. Look no further than Alisha Corrigan’s try to see the impact a fastball can have, even against the Red Roses defense.

Oddly, England’s best set to slow down the Canadian ball came in the last 5 minutes. While Marlie Packer and Sarah Hunter are both world-class players who have had fantastic tournaments, it was the impact of Sadia Kabeya and Poppy Cleall off the bench that really made the difference. Let’s dissect just one example of the impact these two had.

With Alex Tessier not in a ‘boot’ position, Kabeya knows there is no real threat outside of the ball carrier here. Fresh on the pitch, 16 phases into this defensive set (during which Kabeya has already made several tackles and slowed down several rucks), Kabeya knows that if she works 10% harder, it will make everyone else’s job a little easier. As such, she absolutely steps out of the defensive line to make a clinical tackle.

Support player Gillian Boag for Canada needs to move quickly to beat Cleall to the breakdown, which she does. Cleall doesn’t attempt a jackal, instead using his heavy frame to trap the ball under Boag, meaning it’s available slower.

Subsequently, Cleall tries to regain the ball from Justine Pelletier. The ball could presumably be here, so she knows Aimee Barrett-Theron isn’t going to penalize her. Barrett-Theron tells her to stop playing ball, which she does.

That, however, means the ball is out as it is in Pelletier’s hands, giving England time to apply some line speed in the next phase. Alex Matthews and Maud Muir get up to tackle the excellent Nglula Fuamba.

The extra second of line speed from Matthews and Muir was enough to create some separation between Fuamba and Sophie De Goede. Cleall recovers the ball and legally competes, forcing the ball to spring. Luckily, Canada retain possession for a few more phases here, but are eventually stripped by Ellie Kildunne.

This English defensive set around the 75th minute is one of the most interesting moments of the game. Hunter and Packer have more than earned their places in the starting XV at this tournament, but both Kabeya and Cleall have shown that they could be downright crucial if the Black Ferns had a similar attack in the dying moments.

The Black Ferns have talent glued to their backline. It’s borderline indefensible if the ball goes that far – so you have to stop it from reaching that point. England must find a way to slow the New Zealand ball down more than they did against the Canadians or they will find themselves in a tight spot.

While Kendra Cocksedge constantly plays a rhythm game, supporting the fitness of the Black Ferns over anyone else, Simon Middleton must be curious if Kabeya’s inclusion could be one of those tiny win-or-lose factors. England a World Cup.

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