England and New Zealand won gripping semi-finals in Auckland on Saturday to set up a women’s Rugby World Cup decider between the two top-ranked teams.
Top seeds England absorbed a fierce challenge from Canada to prevail 26-19 before the defending champion Black Ferns delighted their Eden Park home crowd with a 25-24 defeat of France.
Both matches were decided in the dying moments, bringing to life a tournament that had largely been dominated by mismatches, including four lopsided quarter-finals last week.
New Zealand’s win was the most pulsating, only sealed when French flyhalf Caroline Drouin missed a relatively simple penalty shot at goal with 30 seconds left on the clock.
It was heartbreak for the fourth-ranked French, who have lost all eight semi-finals they have reached.
It hands the Black Ferns a chance to clinch a sixth title in the ninth edition of the tournament.
They will, however, need to topple two-time champions England, who have become the world’s leading team since adopting a professional women’s structure in 2019.
The Red Roses are on a 30-match winning streak, although that was severely challenged by the third-ranked Canucks, who threatened to pull off a major upset.
Two tries to winger Abby Dow – including a length-of-the-field score – proved crucial for England, along with the boot of centre Emily Scarratt, who slotted three penalty goals in her 11-point haul.
Otherwise, the tournament favourites were matched in all departments by Canada, who trailed 15-12 at halftime and were just four points behind when replacement forward Tyson Beukeboom crossed with 12 minutes remaining.
England captain Sarah Hunter said her team showed character to repel another late Canada assault.
“It went right down to the wire and I’m so proud of the way the team dug in at the end,” Hunter said.
“Canada were relentless, they came and they came and they came.
“For the rugby fans out there, that was a great showcase of what the women’s game is all about.”
England raced 12-0 clear when flanker Marlie Packer and Dow scored tries in the opening 15 minutes.
Canada levelled the scores when flanker Karen Paquin and centre Alysha Corrigan crossed, both set up by smart play from scrumhalf Justine Pelletier.
Scarratt landed penalties either side of the interval before the game’s most decisive moment.
A long spell of Canadian attack ended when the English claimed possession and swept 100 metres downfield from their own try-line, ending with Dow’s second try.
The second semi-final, which also featured three tries to each team, pitted New Zealand’s up-tempo attack against a French defence which had been the best at the 12-nation tournament.
France raced 10-0 ahead thanks to the first of two tries to No.8 Romane Menager and they were still 17-10 ahead at the interval.
The hosts increased the pace of the game in the second half, with their three tries going to backs Stacey Fluhler, Ruby Tui and Theresa Fitzpatrick, who were all members of the Olympic gold medal-winning Sevens team in Tokyo last year.
Drouin could have spoiled the occasion but her last-minute penalty shot dragged well to the left.
New Zealand co-captain Ruahei Demant said her players felt like they were riding a wave of national support and hoped Eden Park would be sold out next week.
“I don’t think people realise what a difference it makes out there on the field,” she said.
“People are coming to support women, and women’s rugby, like never before.”
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