Women’s rugby stepped into a bright new spotlight on Saturday when the opening matches of the ninth women’s Rugby World Cup kicked off in front of a world record crowd at Auckland’s Eden Park.
France beat South Africa 40-5 in the first match of the tournament which includes 26 matches played over 35 days.
More than 35,000 tickets were pre-sold, already exceeding the record crowd for a women’s rugby international of 20,000 which saw the final of the 2014 World Cup between England and Canada in Paris.
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With late walk ups, the peak attendance is expected to exceed 40,000 for Saturday’s triple header which finishes with a clash between Australia and defending champions New Zealand (5.15pm kickoff AEST).
France halfback Laure Sansus scored the first try of the World Cup after only two minutes, offering an early glimpse of the challenge France intends to bring to tournament favorites England and New Zealand.
While France is ranked No.4 in the world, its star-studded lineup is expected to out-perform that ranking.
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Sansus is one of those stars, the player of the championship in this season’s Six Nations.
Inside centre Gabrielle Vernier scored the second try and Emilie Boulard the third, giving France a 19-0 lead over 11th-ranked South Africa in better than even time.
Vernier scored off a neat chip kick by five-eighth Caroline Drouine and Boulard went almost the length of the field from an intercept.
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The score remained 19-0 at halftime as South Africa’s performance was lifted by a strong scrum.
That revival continued when South African winger Nomawethu Mabenge scored the first try of the second half.
France had become sluggish and had to find a new gear.
That they did so efficiently again was impressive – Sansus scored her second try in the 68th minute, attacking quickly from a tapped penalty.
Drouin scored three minutes later and France’s lead expanded to 33-5.
Joanna Grisez added the final try after the fulltime siren.
“I think we had a very good first half, we put in a lot of effort, a lot of desire, a lot of aggression,” Grisez said.
“We had a bit of a time out in the first half, which meant we were a bit behind.
“They were very aggressive, they were present in the contact areas and I think we had a bit of trouble setting up our game. After that, we agreed to be aggressive and that’s what happened and I think it showed in the second half.
“We finished well and I think it was important for us to finish with the heart and especially to free ourselves from the pressure of the first phase.”
All of the top title contenders are in action on opening day with top-ranked England thrashing Fiji 84-19 before the trans-Tasman clash.
England winger Claudia McDonald scored four tries, including three in the second half.
A powerful but mobile tight five, strong ball-carrying loose forwards, tactical genius in the halves, defensive strength in midfield and swift finishers in the back three: they have the full package.
Their rolling maul from lineouts especially was devastating and the floodgates opened in the second half as Fiji played almost without possession and England ran in 10 more tries.
“We were more composed in the second half,” captain Sarah Hunter said.
“We went back to being England and managed to put in a good performance.”
The tournament comes at a time at which the increasing popularity of rugby among women is leading global growth in the sport.
While player salaries continue to lag behind men, increasing investment by World Rugby and national unions is slowly leveling the playing field.
The 12 teams at this World Cup are divided into three groups of four.
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