Black Ferns coach Wayne Smith believes his team has an opportunity to match Wales physically when they meet in the Rugby World Cup 2021 quarter-finals at Whangārei’s Northland Events Centre on Saturday.
The hosts beat Wales 56-12 in the pool phase, but their opponents kept them scoreless for the opening 17 minutes in Auckland and caused them problems up front throughout.
Smith has made six personnel changes to the side that beat Scotland 57-0 last weekend, while seven of Saturday’s line-up also started the first match against Wales.
“It’s about the attitude to play well against Wales because to be fair, they've bumped us physically in that first game that we played them. We've got a bit of ground to make up,” Smith said.
“This is an opportunity for our women to show that we can match them. I'm all about you getting the attitude right. When the boot's on, you switch on, that's what we're trying to do.”
Stacey Fluhler returns to the Black Ferns midfield for the quarter-final, which kicks off at 19:30 local time (GMT+13), while co-captain Kennedy Simon is named on the replacements’ bench having missed the pool phase through injury.
Smith described Simon as the “most innovative captain I’ve been involved with” due to the work she has done to help her team-mates while sidelined, and the back-row cannot wait to be back on the pitch at Northland Events Centre.
“I'm extremely excited,” she said. “I'm really grateful to still be here and have the faith of my team and my coaches to allow me to take the opportunity to put my feet out on the park and put the black jersey on.”
Wales coach Ioan Cunningham has made four personnel changes from the defeat to Australia, as Carys Phillips, Donna Rose, Keira Bevan and Lowri Norkett come into the side. Jasmine Joyce, meanwhile, switches to full-back.
“What an opportunity,” he said. “We’ve just got to leave everything out there. No regrets, just go for it – things can happen.”
FAMILIAR FOES FACE OFF
France captain Gaëlle Hermet has backed her side to rise to the occasion when they take on Italy in the weekend’s opening quarter-final in Whangārei, which kicks off at 16:30 local time.
Italy created history last weekend, beating Japan to become the first Italian side, male or female, to reach a Rugby World Cup quarter-final.
Their prize is a first tournament meeting with Les Bleues, who they have already played three times this year and beat in their final RWC 2021 warm-up match.
Italy have never recorded back-to-back victories against France and could become only the second team to prevent Les Bleues from reaching the semi-finals of a women’s Rugby World Cup, emulating Canada at RWC 1998.
Hermet, though, describes the knockout phase as a “second competition” and says France are determined to reach an eighth Rugby World Cup semi-final.
"It's a little bit of a thrill,” she said. “We are just eager to be on the field, to be able to play because we know it's a special game. It's a game with a lot at stake where it's either you pass or it breaks down.
"We're entering the final stages but we don't want to add the extra pressure of the final stages.
“But we want to galvanise ourselves a little bit by saying that it promises to be a big game… we really want to be focused at 200 per cent.”
France coach Thomas Darracq has made eight personnel changes to the side that beat Fiji 44-0 last Saturday, while Caroline Drouin shifts back to fly-half from centre.
Italy will be without second-row Sara Tounesi for the rest of RWC 2021 after she received a 12-match ban for a biting incident during the defeat of Japan.
Valeria Fedrighi replaces Tounesi while Lucia Gai, Isabella Locatelli and Sofia Stefan have also been drafted into the starting line-up. The Azzurre bench has been boosted by the return of Manuela Furlan, who injured her knee in a 21-0 defeat to Les Bleues last month.
“For me France is really challenging, because they have different attacking options,” Italy coach Andrea Di Giandomenico said.
"We know France want to win this Rugby World Cup. Every competition France plays, they play to win. There’s nothing to lose for us, we will just enjoy the moment."
QUARTER-FINALS CONTINUE IN AUCKLAND
On Sunday, Australia will become the latest team to attempt to end England’s record winning run when they meet at Waitakere Stadium in Auckland at 13:30 local time (GMT+13).
The Red Roses have won their last 28 matches and head into the RWC 2021 quarter-finals with a 7.21 rating point lead at the top of the World Rugby Women’s Rankings powered by Capgemini.
England have triumphed on each of the five occasions they have played the Wallaroos, including a 15-0 victory in the RWC 2010 semi-finals.
Australia’s RWC 2021 squad boasts three survivors from that match, Ilaseva Batibasaga, captain Shannon Parry and Sharni Williams, while England star Emily Scarratt also played in the match.
The Wallaroos head into the quarter-finals on the back of successive victories over Scotland and Wales, and will take heart from the relative success they earned up front against the latter.
However, they will need to be at their absolute best against England, who scored 28 tries – more than any other team – to beat Fiji, France and South Africa, and top Pool C.
Whoever comes out on top on Sunday will take on Canada or the USA, who contest the second quarter-final at Waitakere Stadium (kick-off 16:30 local time), at Eden Park on 5 November.
The weekend’s final quarter-final is a repeat of last Sunday’s Pool B match between the North American rivals, which Canada won 29-14 to qualify for the knockout phase with a perfect record.
Canada have won the last six meetings between the sides, dating back to 2019, and will be confident of securing a return to the semi-finals for the first time since RWC 2014, when they were beaten in the final by England.