Whatever happens in Saturday’s semi-final against England at Eden Park, Rugby World Cup 2021 will be Elissa Alarie’s last tournament in a Canada jersey. She is determined to bow out on a high.
England are fitting opponents, having been on the opposite side of the line for the biggest match of Alarie’s distinguished test career to date, the RWC 2014 final.
Alarie started her one and only test at scrum-half that day in Paris, deputising for the injured Stephanie Bernier, as 16 points from Emily Scarratt helped England to a 21-9 win and a second Rugby World Cup title.
She is one of four survivors from the RWC 2014 final in Canada's match-day squad this weekend, Scarratt one of four in the England 23.
But, back in the familiar number 15 jersey, Alarie will not be driven by revenge when she runs out at Eden Park on Saturday.
“I haven't even really thought of it that way,” she told World Rugby. “I think that 2014 was its own story, and maybe we were a bit too happy to just make it to the final.
“What's really different this year is that our goal has been to win it, and we're not just happy to be in semi-finals.
“It's been part of our goal, so we're going out there determined and ready to fight and we can't wait for game day at this point.”
Having helped Canada to fifth place at RWC 2017 in Ireland, Alarie put any thoughts of retirement on hold when she discovered the next tournament would be played in New Zealand.
“I was like, eh, there’s no way I can miss that!” she recalled.
“I’ve learnt so much”
The tournament has lived up to her expectations – “the excitement is so palpable” – and Alarie is grateful to her family, who have travelled to New Zealand and spent their time between matches touring the country in a rented motorhome.
This week, she has offered advice to younger team-mates about how to cope with the excitement of playing in a semi-final, in front of a large crowd at Eden Park.
It is the development she has witnessed in those players, and the culture built within the squad, as they have put together an eight-match winning run that is helping to motivate Alarie ahead of the meeting with England.
When Canada returned to test rugby following the pandemic last November, their schedule contained a 51-12 defeat to England at Twickenham Stoop. Alarie says the difference in the squad between then and now is “night and day”.
“The growth this team has had since then, I can say personally, I've been playing rugby for 20 years and I've learnt so much in the past six months,” Alarie said.
“The sense of belonging we have with this team and the incredible journey we've had in the past six to eight months, being able to make it to the final and win it would be just an incredible thing to experience with the team.”
Alarie predicts an intense forward battle when the teams meet in Auckland and that is evident in the squad selection, with coach Kevin Rouet again opting for a seven-one split on the replacements’ bench.
England have won all seven matches between the sides at Rugby World Cup, including two semi-finals and the final eight years ago.
Red Roses winger Claudia MacDonald returns to the starting line-up following injury, meaning Abby Dow switches to the number 14 jersey, while Hannah Botterman has been selected at loosehead prop.
“I’m really looking forward to it. It's two great rugby nations going for that final spot, and we know we’ll get a good game,” England captain Sarah Hunter, another survivor of the RWC 2014 final, said.
“But our focus is on ourselves and the game we want to play and how we want to show how capable we are. Hopefully there’ll be dry conditions, which will allow us to play more how we want to so it should be a pretty exciting game.”
Black Ferns relishing “privileged pressure”
New Zealand’s players are embracing the support, and pressure, that is coming their way as they prepare to take on France in the second semi-final at Eden Park.
The Black Ferns head into Saturday’s match on a 10-match winning run and have so far played in front of packed crowds in Auckland and Whangārei.
Director of rugby Wayne Smith has backed his players to enjoy the occasion at Eden Park. “This isn’t uptight like the men are,” he said, “this is just pure joy and excitement being able to go out and have fun.”
“We’re loving it,” Theresa Fitzpatrick, who described playing in a home semi-final as “privileged pressure”, added.
“We’re loving the hype that’s around our team. It’s probably something that we’ve missed in the past and so it's really awesome for the Black Ferns to produce this.
“The support behind us is unreal and we can really feel the love from the spectators and all the support from our families. It’s something that we’re trying to embrace and get used to at the same time.”
Smith has made one personnel change to his side for the match against France, as Renee Holmes returns at full-back and Ruby Tui lines up on the right wing, with Portia Woodman moving to the left.
That switch has been made to counter one of France’s strengths, with Smith saying that Les Bleues “probably have the best kicking game in the tournament”.
France coach Thomas Darracq, meanwhile, has recalled Romane Ménager at number eight after she recovered from a head knock suffered against England. Charlotte Escudero moves to openside flanker, with Marjorie Mayans dropping to the bench.
It means Ménager will line up in the RWC 2021 semi-final alongside her twin sister, winger Marine.
“If you’d told us when we were little that we would play in the French team together, that would have been incredible,” Romane said.
“To play in a World Cup together is monstrous and a World Cup semi-final, I don't know if we ever dared dream it. It's going to be a very emotional moment and we'll be very proud to be able to talk about it later together."
Nine of Les Bleues’ starting line-up also started in the most recent meeting between the sides, a 29-7 win for France last November. Five of the Black Ferns line-up started in Castres.