'The RWC is the catapult to push on women's rugby'
August 11, 2014
Gary Street is the man who has to make the hardest of all selection calls ahead of Wednesday's World Cup semi-final against Ireland © Getty Images
The quick-paced, relentless schedule of the 2014 Women's Rugby World Cup means analysis of the previous match inevitably becomes inter-mingled with predicting how the next opposition will line-up. But when talking to England coach Gary Street about their performance against Canada and the expectation ahead of their semi-final against Ireland on Wednesday, one statistic stood out like a giraffe among a field of mice.
Maggie Alphonsi, England's era-defining openside, made 29 tackles against Canada. That effort contributed to their overall tally of 233. It was a colossal defensive performance.
As England eye up the threat of Ireland, the players are picking their bruised bodies up off the ground after their gruelling match against Canada. It was a game that did not go entirely to plan. England were favourites heading into the game and looking at the kicks Canada left out on the field, England were lucky to draw the match. Canada's two starting props put in a performance for the ages while their tight-five as a whole got the better of England. It was an unfamiliar position for England to be in, a side who pride themselves on the strength of the pack and a force on which much of their set piece is built.
But Street is not interested in listening to claims they were fortunate to draw. It was a case of mission accomplished; they topped the pool and made it to the knockout stages. Street told ESPN: "I don't think we were lucky. We made mistakes but our defence was outstanding and that's built on systems and making sure we get ourselves organised.
"We made 233 tackles and that takes a huge amount of work to do. They had a lot of the ball and possession but rugby is a game of attack and defence and we were really pleased with how we did. Our main goal was to get out of the pool and we've done that. We can improve our performance and accuracy but we are in a good spot going into the semi-final."
For England, they are well aware they will have to improve their handling if they are to have any hope of knocking over Ireland. "It was really unusual," Street added. "We do more on the core-skills than anything else and we pride ourselves on handling. It's strange and unusual but World Cups bring different pressures. I'm confident we won't be making that many unforced errors and we were saying on Sunday that we feel as a group that our best is yet to come."
So far it has been three games in 12 days. The squad has been rotated, key players rested where needs be but when it comes to the knockout stages, Street and his coaching staff have tough decisions to make. Captain Katy Mclean sat out the two pool matches following their opening round hammering of Samoa and her stand-in Ceri Large played well in her shoes. In the back-row Street has the task of fitting five into three and there is every chance England's star performer against Spain Marlie Packer will not get a look in. It's all part of the headache for Street.
"We've tried to keep them fresh. We knew it was going to be a good problem to have with the five fighting for three places and as a coach, it's what you want. It's a really attritional position and with Maggie making 29 huge impacts, it will take its toll. We try to keep them as fresh as possible and they know between them that they have to keep on top of their game to get into the starting XV.
England's Emily Scarratt has been a key player in Street's side © Getty Images
"At fly-half, heading into the semi-finals with Katy fresh, it's looking good but Ceri has come of age in this tournament and we've been delighted with her, it's not easy to be back-up to the captain. I think this World Cup could really help her push on."
Such thoughts of ongoing player development will wait until Sunday's final round of the competition. Next up are Ireland. They have without doubt been the story of this tournament. Their round two win over New Zealand was the result of the competition and Wednesday's semi-final could boil down to a battle of the boot between the two faultless kickers England's Emily Scarratt and Ireland's Niamh Briggs. It is an area of the World Cup and the ever-developing women's game that has impressed Street.
"The tournament has made the world sit up and recognise that women's rugby is a sport to watch. The skill level has been huge and without a doubt, the thing that has improved the most since I first started getting involved with women's rugby is the goal-kickers. Every side has a goal-kicker now who can slot conversions from the touchline. Hopefully ours will be on form."
For Street, he hopes when they line up in Sunday's concluding round of the competition, they will be running out against either France or Canada in the final and not in the third/fourth play-off. That will help nullify the itch left by their 13-10 loss to the Kiwis four years previous. But you feel for the game as a whole, it is largely irrelevant who ends up lifting the World Cup on Sunday. For the past three rounds of action, the spectacle of physicality, passion and precision has caused the women's game to be propelled deservedly on to the next level.
"It's been fantastic," Street said. "Speaking to the other coaches, the support we've had from back in England has been brilliant. There's huge interest in France as well as over two million watched here their game against Australia on French television. The semi-finals and finals have sold out.
"This is the catapult for women's rugby to really push on.
"My inbox gets rammed with the public sending their well-wishers but it's brilliant. It's changed perspectives without a doubt. I always told people who ever asked me why I was involved with women's rugby of the skill level involved and this tournament has proved it. The competitiveness has been remarkable. I'm glad the tournament has had the exposure it deserves."
© Getty Images
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Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.
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