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Women's Rugby World Cup: Best is yet to come from England, says Sarah Hunter

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England v New ZealandVenue: Kingspan Stadium, Belfast Date: Saturday, 26 August Kick-off: 19:45 BSTCoverage: Live radio and text commentary on BBC Radio 5 live, BBC Sport website and appEngland captain Sarah Hunter says the best is yet to come from her side as they bid to retain the Women’s Rugby World Cup. The Red Roses face world number one New Zealand in Saturday evening’s final at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast.England head coach Simon Middleton has shifted Emily Scarratt to full-back and put Meg Jones, 20, into the centre, with Danielle Waterman ruled out.

The rest of the side is unchanged to the one that beat France in the semis. “There is a feeling we still have our best game to come,” Hunter said.”There are two teams wanting to be world champions and we are going to give it our best shot that is for sure.”Middleton says Jones deserves her start after impressing off the bench against the French, while adding that the outstanding Scarratt “can play anywhere”.”Jones has played really well at 13 and gives a good balance to the side,” added Middleton.”She’s an aggressive defender and can get us on the front foot.”

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The world’s bestDespite the competitiveness of the likes of France, USA and Canada, there’s no doubt that England and New Zealand are – and have been for some time – the best two teams in the world by some distance.The Black Ferns have the edge in World Cups, winning in the final in 2002, 2006 and 2010, but England produced a commanding display to win in Rotorua in June.In 2014, New Zealand were sensationally beaten by Ireland in the pool stages, allowing England a more straightforward route to the title.If Middleton’s side are going to retain the trophy, they will have to do it the hard way this time around.England’s Waterman out of final with concussionEngland win tense battle with France to reach finalStory of the first ever Women’s World CupHow successful has the tournament been?

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The size of the crowds throughout the tournament, and the fact that the final is taking place in Belfast rather than the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, shows that the women’s game still has a way to go in terms of attracting widespread public interest. Meanwhile Ireland’s sub-standard performance has no doubt dampened the enthusiasm of the locals, with tickets still available for the final as of Friday afternoon.But progress is unarguably being made.France’s terrestrial television coverage of England against France attracted over three million viewers, while Saturday’s final will be broadcast in a primetime slot on ITV in the UK. The final will also be broadcast to millions on BBC Radio 5 live.”This is the biggest World Cup final there has ever been in the women’s game,” said England scrum-half Natasha Hunt, a winner in 2014.The standard of officiating – a blight on the tournament three years ago – has also improved out of sight, with the impressive Joy Neville, a former Ireland captain, taking charge of the showpiece.”Everything has moved on, and the refereeing has moved on with it,” added Hunt.There remains too great a gulf in playing standards between the top teams and the rest, but games such as England against France were outstanding, and the final should better it.

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Unfair scheduling?The scheduling of the tournament has been criticised by leading players and coaches.The great Black Ferns wing Portia Woodman has spoken up about the short turnaround between matches, which has stretched the players mentally and physically.For example the experienced Waterman – one of a handful of England players to feature in a fourth World Cup – failed a Head Injury Assessment during the victory over the French, and because of the proximity of the games, wasn’t able to pass the requisite return-to-play protocols, ruling her out of the final. “I’d like to see the men do something like this. They probably wouldn’t handle this as well as we do,” Woodman said after the 45-12 semi-final win over the USA.The America coach Pete Steinberg has rallied against what he calls “discrimination” by World Rugby, and has criticised the funding of the tournament and the 12-team structure.”I see this as a slap in the face for the women’s game. I see it that World Rugby doesn’t treat the women with the same respect as they do the men,” said Steinberg.World Rugby place the Women’s World Cup in a similar category to the men’s Under-20 Junior World Championship, rather than the men’s Rugby World Cup.However at the 2015 men’s World Cup, a handful of teams also had to deal with four or five day turnarounds, so it is not an issue consigned only to the women’s event.What next?

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World Rugby’s biggest challenge is widening the depth of the women’s game across the world.While countries like England run professional programmes, many players at the tournament are amateurs. There is even continued doubt over the immediate future for some players in England, with the Rugby Football Union switching their focus to Sevens ahead of April’s Commonwealth Games.It means a handful of 15-a-side stars may have to seek alternative employment come Monday morning, although the RFU say providing long-term contracts for both forms is the aim.But regardless of the RFU’s policy, the way the emphasis of the women’s game switches between XVs and Sevens is surely not conducive to long-term growth and sustainability.
Source: Rugby Union bbc

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