KINGSPAN STADIUM, Belfast — As the floodlights faded and the ticker tape that had coronated New Zealand a few hours before lay in a neat pile, ready to be swept away forever, there was a sense of ‘what now?’
The 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup has been a clear success. The Black Ferns’ 41-32 victory over England in Saturday’s final was watched by around 15,000 fans inside this famous ground, amid a raucous atmosphere that many of the players had never experienced before.
Millions more watched on at home, with the showpiece shown on free-to-air prime time TV in the UK, while earlier rounds had received record viewing figures in France.
Women’s rugby might never have had a better foundation from which to grow.
“A World Cup final gets aired on prime time free TV and it would be awesome for that to start to happen a bit more,” England’s versatile back Emily Scarratt said. “It is growing, this is the biggest springboard that we can possibly have and we have to make sure that we actually kick on from here.”
Yet, as the agony and ecstasy began to subside following what was an enthralling, end-to-end contest, protagonists on both sides struggled to predict what the future might hold.
For England, there is a nagging fear that this could be the end of an era. Seven of Simon Middleton’s squad are 30 or over — four of whom started on Saturday — while Danielle Waterman only missed out through injury.
Waterman — and captain Sarah Hunter — will be 36 by the time the next tournament rolls around and it would be a stretch to suggest that they would definitely be there.
“When you come to the end of a World Cup, it’s generally the end of a cycle,” Middleton said. “It was at the last World Cup and it will be the end for some players, for various reasons, and then we’ll start to rebuild again.”
He added: “That is one of the legacies of this squad, the fact that there are a lot of players in it who have still got a lot of World Cups left in them.”
Young players have undoubtedly emerged for the Red Roses over the last 18 days but many, like rampaging prop Sarah Bern, may find their progress stunted as focus switches to Sevens. Bern is not an exponent of the shorter game, so must instead turn her focus to the new Premier 15s domestic competition.
Middleton, though, is confident that those England players who now find themselves without a contract and back at their amateur clubs, will be exposed to the competitive rugby required to improve on the road to the 2021 World Cup.
“You look at the men’s game and we’d love to echo that,” Middleton said. “The new league format will help to increase the quality of players and then you want to be playing in tournaments like this all the time, and on stages like this all the time.
“But it’s a slow process and it’s a tough process.”
An hour or so after referee Joy Neville had blown her whistle to bring Saturday’s pulsating showpiece to an end, Black Ferns captain Fiao’o Faamausili sat in front of the media, struggling to take in what had just happened.
“This has been a long time waiting for us,” Faamausili, a survivor of New Zealand’s 2014 pool stage exit, said. “I couldn’t be any prouder.”
That the World Cup was won against an England team who have been full-time professionals for the past year made it no sweeter, according to the 36-year-old. Black Ferns coach Glenn Moore demands his squad “stinks of professionalism” even if they aren’t paid to play the sport they love — and they aren’t a team to go into matches with an inferiority complex.
“We’re a passionate country that just loves rugby and these girls have a lot of pride in the black jersey,” Faamausili said. “We aren’t going to back away from a challenge. As you can see in the haka we put a challenge out to a team and we make sure that we deliver. It just lights the fire in our belly even more that we’re not professional.”
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