History beckons for Red Roses and New Zealand in game-changing finale

Not since Martin Johnson hoisted the Webb Ellis Cup into the Sydney sky in 2003 has an English rugby union team been as tantalisingly close to World Cup glory in the southern hemisphere. If the Red Roses can join a truly exclusive club it would be a similarly symbolic moment and unquestionably place them among the finest women’s sides of all time.

Before all those debates can begin, though, there is still a game to be won. In September the head coach, Simon Middleton, acknowledged there could be no excuses in New Zealand for a squad who have benefited from full-time contracts for a longer period than any of their rivals. For all the Black Ferns’ rapid improvement, England have now won 30 Tests on the spin. Hence Middleton’s bullish tone on a sunny day in Bagshot a little over seven weeks ago: “We’ve got to win it. This is the best prepared squad with the best strength in depth we’ve ever had.”

Now, finally, that moment of truth has arrived, with Middleton having also spoken before the tournament of his desire for England to be seen as “the best team in the world, across any sport”. On the eve of their defining 80 minutes, the Red Roses would swap such grandiose talk for the ugliest of wins if it delivers them safely to their promised land. While a stylistic clash between England’s hard-edged forwards and New Zealand’s silky runners is likely, it could also boil down to which side starts the fastest. Should the Black Ferns get ahead early, the hosts could prove a real handful.

To be in and around the England team hotel this week, nevertheless, has been instructive. The Red Roses’ captain, Sarah Hunter, has felt “a sense of calmness” and a collective determination to play with no fear. Middleton has also sounded relaxed, even aiming a mischievous potshot at a New Zealand team he believes may find it harder to stay composed. “I think it will be more intimidating for them,” he suggested, when asked whether the Eden Park factor might sway the outcome. “To lose in front of a home crowd is a tough gig, so the pressure on them is absolutely massive.”

His opposite number, Wayne Smith, was suitably amused when this soundbite was relayed to him – “He’s trying to put pressure on an old fella … I’ve been coaching for 36 years, he’s just a newcomer” – and chose instead to talk up the Red Roses. “We’re playing the best team in the world and we will have to be at our best,” said the long-serving coach, for whom beachside retirement beckons after this weekend’s contest. “I was part of an All Blacks team which won 18 games in a row, so to have won 30 is difficult to get your head around.”

A classic finale, either way, would further fuel the steady growth of the women’s game, with a crowd of more than 40,000 set to contribute to a gamechanging occasion. “In 2010 nobody knew who the Black Ferns were,” observed Ruby Tui, the Black Ferns’ charismatic winger. “We were told we would never be paid. We were told we’d never play at Eden Park. We were told women’s rugby didn’t matter. And now here we are 12 years later and Eden Park’s sold out, bro. It’s a really, really special moment. Kiwis are normally so laid back we’re lying down but we’ve finally got up.”

Tui is a sports promoter’s dream and Smith confirmed she ranks high among the thousands of players, male and female, with whom he has worked over his long career. “She is phenomenal,” said the former All Black. “If I had to write a book on the top 10 athletes I’ve worked with, she’d be one of them. She’s an incredible character and deserves everything she gets.”

The Olympic sevens gold medallist, though, will find herself sharing a pitch with opponents who are also developing a special aura. Fate also seems to be at work. Decades ago a youthful Middleton, then playing for his local club Knottingley, near Pontefract, attended a coaching masterclass given by the widely respected Smith. Now here he is, pitting his wits against the great man in a World Cup final. While England have not been entirely faultless in this tournament, they may just be saving their best until last.