England’s Thompson and Aitchison to face New Zealand in World Cup final

The England head coach, Simon Middleton, says he is confident his team will rise to the ultimate challenge when they face New Zealand in Saturday’s Rugby World Cup final. Middleton has unveiled a slightly reshuffled starting XV containing the wing Lydia Thompson and the centre Holly Aitchison and believes his players are ready to embrace the extra pressure of the occasion.

In the absence of the injured Helena Rowland, Middleton has recalled the experienced Thompson to help contain the dangerous Black Ferns outside backs, while Aitchison replaces Tatyana Heard at inside‑centre. Ellie Kildunne will now start at full-back, with Heard and Claudia MacDonald on the bench.

There are also six forward replacements, including Sadia Kabeya, Cath O’Donnell and Shaunagh Brown, as England look to stop their attack-orientated hosts at source in the final at a sold-out Eden Park.

“When things get tough, this team knows how to get going,” said Middleton. “That is why we are relishing Saturday and all that it will bring.

“There can be no bigger challenge in sport than to play the world champions in their own backyard in front of a sell-out crowd – 99.9% of which will be forming part of the opposition. Great teams don’t fear those challenges, they embrace them and meet them head on. That’s what we intend to do.”

Middleton also praised his squad’s “ability, resilience and unwavering belief in each other” as they go in search of a 31st successive Test win. “You are always striving to create something special in team sport and we have done that with this group of Red Roses,” added the head coach. “We know in our heart of hearts that this will more than likely be the last time this group all come together but what they have created and achieved will live on for a long time.

“I could not be any prouder of the squad, how we have conducted ourselves and how we have performed. We set ourselves an objective to leave this country a better squad than when we arrived and regardless of what happens on Saturday we will do that.”

England are also keen to lift the trophy for all their non-playing teammates, including the injured Hannah Botterman and Laura Keates plus absent friends such as Bryony Cleall and Natasha “Mo” Hunt, who narrowly missed out on selection for the final World Cup squad.

Brown, for instance, says she is desperate to win Saturday’s game “in honour” of Botterman, who damaged a knee in training before the semi-final against Canada. “I want her to know that everything she’s worked for over the last five years is still all worth it,” said the Harlequins prop. “It’s also for the people who trained with us all summer and didn’t make it out here. I love playing but a huge part of it now for me is to play for other people.”

The 32-year-old Brown, who took up the game only seven years ago, also suggests the squad are motivated to take the final leap to help boost the profile of the game even further in England. “We want to play for the kid at home who has never played the game before but watches it on the TV and sees a group of girls having fun.

“It’s also about the social acceptability of women playing rugby. The amount of times, even to this day, that I hear people telling women they’re too small or not strong enough to play rugby. You just think: ‘What world are you living in?’ In every women’s team there’s so much variation in size and weight and height. Rugby is so special in the way it celebrates different kinds of humans.”

A desire also exists to justify the Rugby Football Union’s decision to offer professional contracts to the leading female players in the wake of their defeat to New Zealand in the final of the 2017 World Cup. “It would reinforce that we’re worth it,” says Brown. “If you invest in us, this is what a full-time programme can do.”

A world record crowd for a women’s fixture of more than 40,000 is set to attend the final, with Brown insisting nerves will not be an issue for the Red Roses.

“We’re in a good place and it’s now time for the last dance. The coaches have been reinforcing the fact that we don’t need to stress. We just need to play how we play every other week. Yes it’s a big deal. Yes, it’s a World Cup final. But we’re here because we’ve earned it.”

The Black Ferns have made just one injury-enforced change to their match-day 23, with the 2017 World Cup winner Charmaine McMenamin replacing Liana Mikaele-Tu’u, who sustained a thumb injury in the semi-final victory. The team features six players who took part in the 2017 World Cup final against the same opposition.