We caught up with TV commentators Willie Los’e, Simon Ward and two-time Women’s Rugby World Cup winner Melodie Robinson to get their thoughts on the Women’s Rugby World Cup 2017 semi-finals.
Four-time champions New Zealand will take on USA, in their first semi-final since 1998, at Kingspan Stadium before defending champions England meet France.
Willie, what can we expect from the two semi-finals?
“I think New Zealand are finding form at the right time, obviously they are still hurting from what happened three years ago and they really see this as an opportunity for redemption. They have spoken about it often and they are now starting to play like world champions so I think they will just have too much strike power for an American side that certainly is improving and getting better and better. As far as the second semi-final I just can’t call it. I think it is going to be too close to call. I think you have got the power of England, the strength of England against a French side that in my mind is probably the most skilful here in 2017.”
What has impressed you about semi-finalists?
“The way they have gone about their business, especially in round three where they knew it was do or die and they came out there. New Zealand were just so clinical in that first-half performance against Canada. The same with England who just really dominated and shut the USA out completely. To the USA’s credit they came back in that second half and got the bonus point which showed a lot of spirit. The French side against Ireland scored 21 unanswered points and the way they just held onto the ball and the skill-set they had, backs and forwards running like sevens players was something I haven’t seen in a French side for a very, very long time. If they can keep their composure and if they can keep their confidence and score points early against England I think it is going to be a terrific match.”
Melodie, what are your thoughts on the New Zealand v USA semi-final?
“I think it is going to be an interesting one because USA still haven’t fully developed to their potential believe it or not, even though they’re in a semi-final because they simply don’t get as much rugby as the other teams in terms of test matches and they have got sevens players with less 15s experience but with just as much athletic prowess as New Zealand, so that’s what makes this game intriguing. If the United States play it super physical and slow down the New Zealand ruck ball and try and get in behind the advantage line and really use the strength of their bodies and send it out wide, they are going to give it a massive shot. However, if you look at history, the closest they have got is something like 34-3 (since their WRWC 1991 semi-final win), and also New Zealand are one of the three form teams in my mind.
“Many would back New Zealand to win because of their past experience of semi-finals rugby and because their backline is on fire. They have got players like Portia Woodman (pictured) who is absolutely unbelievable in terms of breaking the line and getting tries and getting past people, and they just have more players with 15s experience as a squad of 23.
“It is going to be really fascinating to watch and I do think New Zealand will win it by around 15 points. But I do think the United States can still surprise a few people because of what they have got out wide. New Zealand should do what England did and go back to the basics, which is basically using the set-piece – the scrums and the rolling maul – because that’s how England beat them and took them down very easily in the first 30 minutes of the last pool game. That goes against what they usually play like so it will be interesting to see what they do.”
What do the semi-finals offer as a showcase of women’s rugby and this tournament?
“Both are going to be high octane; they are going to be high quality. There are going to be a number of different tactics out there so, if you’re a rugby lover, you are going to see all these different tools employed by the four teams. I don’t expect any of the semi-finals to be blow-outs, they should be competitive until the 80-minute mark and I think the France v England game is the one to watch because France have been really amazing. Losing their openside Romane Menager is a big loss because she been a standout so far, but the way that they have been offloading and defending. Everything they do is at a real high impact level so I think England will have to play very well to beat them. They have beaten them a number of times recently but they have been close games. I can’t wait to watch that one.”
Simon, you’ve seen plenty of both England and France at Ireland 2017, what can we expect in their semi-final?
“I am not sure what to expect because I think France, we have seen a ‘jouer, jouer’ back in their side that is remarkable considering the new coaches have only been in place for seven months. I think we have seen the French of old, men or women, that stitching together of a wonderful flowing game, the offload game, forwards and backs able to combine effortlessly and you have seen particularly the second-rows and the props in open loose play have remarkable athleticism. That means they have the capacity to open any defence. Now England’s defence is one of the better defences here through this tournament.
“I don’t think we have seen the full England hand yet. I think Simon Middleton has been holding back and I think we may well see some different moves, particularly in the backs. They have the structures and the strength in depth to be able to hold out against the best. I don’t think we have seen the best of England’s attack yet, though Katy Mclean has been in outstanding form. I think she has been a game-manager in supreme style both in terms of the delivery, the options that she is taking and in terms of kicking from hand. Funnily enough, one of the key things may be kicking from the tee. I think points could be key at critical moments and therefore the kicking of Montserrat Amedee and Emily Scarratt could be vital for the momentum of the game. It’s going to be fascinating.”
Can this France squad reach their country’s first World Cup final?
“Yes, no question. Romane Menager is a loss but Julie Annery has played well. She isn’t Menager but she will do a good job in that back-row. They have the capacity and the flexibility within their team, and I say team because I am not sure about the squad as a whole, is outstanding. A key character may be the fly-half Caroline Drouin who is very young and inexperienced and if Marlie Packer gets in her face quickly she may well discover what international rugby is really about.”