New Zealand flanker Sarah Hirini (second from left) leads the celebrations after their semi-final win over France
Wellington (AFP) - The curtain comes down Saturday on a women’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand which has smashed records and been declared a milestone in the growth of the sport.
Favourites England will face the hosts and holders in the final in front of a sell-out 40,000 crowd at Auckland’s famed Eden Park.
It will be the biggest attendance in history for a women’s rugby match and is the second time that this World Cup has broken the record, after 34,000 packed the same stadium for the opening day.
The previous highest figure was the 20,000 who saw England beat Canada in the 2014 final in Paris.
In line with a boom in some other women’s sports, this ninth edition, which began on October 8, is the best-attended women’s Rugby World Cup ever.
“This is what we’ve wanted for a long time and everyone is turning up to the party, which is awesome,” New Zealand flanker Sarah Hirini said during the build-up to the final.
“It’s on us players to continue the momentum and keep building.”
It is a far cry from the first women’s World Cup, in 1991, when an estimated 3,000 people saw the United States beat England in the final in Cardiff.
That tournament was not even approved by the International Rugby Board, the sport’s governing body at the time.
Hirini believes hosting the World Cup has helped change “women’s sport in New Zealand” and also farther afield.
“I’ve had messages from players in other teams saying ‘thank you’ for what you are doing here in Aotearoa (New Zealand),” she said.
“It’s not just for us – it’s for the next generation of players.”
- ‘People are waking up’ -
Viewers in rugby-mad New Zealand have also eagerly tuned in to World Cup matches on their screens.
The Black Ferns’ nail-biting win over France in last weekend’s semi-finals attracted a domestic television audience of one million, or about one in five of the population.
Sarah Hunter will lead out the England team in Auckland for the final of her fourth World Cup and has witnessed first-hand the boom in women’s rugby.
The 37-year-old loose forward remembers how during her first World Cup, in 2010 in England, pool matches were played in front of temporary stands at a sports park south of London.
The 2010 final, when New Zealand edged England, was watched by 13,000 at The Stoop, home of top club Harlequins in southwest London.
“It’s a great venue,” Hunter said this week.
“But to go from that to 40,000 at Eden Park shows the growth.”
She says the current World Cup in New Zealand is “next level” for women’s rugby.
“It feels like people are finally waking up to how great our sport is,” she said.
“There are really exciting times ahead and the next World Cup is only three years away.”
England will again be hosts in 2025.
- ‘Rugby needs this’ -
There is still plenty of work to do.
There were 12 teams at this World Cup, compared to the 20 which will compete at the men’s version in France next year.
The women’s World Cup will increase to 16 teams in 2025.
And while the first day and final saw tickets sell fast, many matches played out in front of sparse crowds.
The title has only ever been won by the United States, New Zealand (five times) and England (twice), underlining the dearth of highly competitive teams.
England are on a winning streak of 30 matches and when they played New Zealand last year they thrashed them twice.
Ex-All Blacks winger John Kirwan said he had been impressed by the quality of the rugby.
“People have been taking it for what it is – a really good spectacle and really good rugby,” Kirwan, who was part of the New Zealand team which won the men’s inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987, told AFP.
“That’s what the fans want and that’s what the World Cup is delivering, so I’m absolutely stoked because rugby needs this.”