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England vs Canada: Powerful Red Roses pack face first real test in semi-final showdown


T

he deluge of tributes could almost match the downpour that met the World Cup quarter-final demolition of Australia.

England were singing in the rain en route to a 41-5 thrashing in Auckland last weekend. The torrent was so ­prolonged it left standing water on the pitch.

The standing ovations had already started elsewhere, meanwhile, well before England had extended their record Test-winning run to 29 matches at Waitakere Stadium.

This team deserve their flowers and then some, and murals created in England for record-breaking captain Sarah Hunter, Emily Scarratt and Shaunagh Brown are equally merited.

England’s players and head coach Simon Middleton will not be keen to join those well-meaning and respectful celebrations, however, because of the singular nature of winning.

Hat-trick hero: Marlie Packer scored a memorable treble as England thrashed Australia

/ PA

Middleton’s side have racked up those 29 consecutive Test victories thanks to a relentless focus. Now England are finally in the tournament’s business end, none of that is about to change. Canada will pose England’s toughest challenge yet in tomorrow’s semi-final, especially in the pack.

England have swept aside all comers so far in New Zealand, but can now expect a major forward tussle. The Canadians would love to dismantle England’s much-vaunted tight game, and the Red Roses can ill afford any slipping of standards now.

Middleton has been comfortable making changes to his starting line-up, even though there is so much on the line. Claudia MacDonald starts on the left wing against Canada, having been out of action through injury for two weeks. Not for Middleton the safety of familiarity then, with the boss keeping his players fresh and focused.

“I was really pleased with our performance against Australia in what were tough conditions; the players produced a professional performance and deserve great credit,” he said.

“Continuity is an important factor in team selection and we have achieved that through training, the pool stages and the quarter-final.

“Having said that, if you see an opportunity to improve or create different pictures that you believe could benefit the team’s performance, you have to be brave enough with your selections to make those calls. We have done that throughout the competition to date and that philosophy will not change.

“Claudia was outstanding in our win over Fiji and has been outstanding in training. It’s really important to pick on form, and when all players are on form you pick who is in the best of form.

“Canada are an opponent we know well with great pedigree and history in the women’s game. We know they are a strong side. We respect all they might bring but are focused on our own performance.”

England have stuck to their driving-game guns in this tournament, and that ploy undoubtedly generates plenty of momentum and dominance. But there is a wider feeling that England will have to open up at some point in the competition in order to win it.

The coaches and players will be quite happy to stick to the hitherto winning formula. England entered the tournament as favourites and their potent displays have done little to alter that opinion.

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But in many ways the tournament proper starts here, with Canada the first foe potentially able to mix it with England’s powerhouse pack. England thrashed Canada 52-12 last year, but that result remains an outlier among the generally close contests between the sides.

Canada back-rower Sophie De Goede will go up against Saracens team-mate Marlie Packer, with the 23-year-old well known to the full England squad. The mismatches are over, this World Cup is down to the best of the best. England went to New Zealand determined to dispatch all comers. Time to deliver.

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