England coach Craig Richards praised his side’s fighting spirit after they surged back from an early shock to sink Papua New Guinea 42-4 and seal their place at the top of Group A in the women’s Rugby League World Cup.
An early try from Martha Molowia promised to give Richards’ side the test they craved but they stormed back with eight tries including a hat-trick for winger Leah Burke and a brace for Amy Hardcastle.
It was just the test required by Richards as he builds his squad towards a likely semi-final clash with New Zealand, who conclude Group B on Thursday night against red-hot favourites Australia.
Craig Richards: Tonight was about grit
“We needed a few questions to be answered and while you never want to be scored against as a coach, we found out the answer about what we do when we go behind,” said Richards.
“I don’t think we could have gone into the semis against either Australia or New Zealand without something tough, a physical battle and some adversity, and that’s we got tonight.
“Tonight was about grit. We knew it wouldn’t be fancy at times and it wasn’t, and that’s what pleased me the most – the girls sticking together, staying connected and winning the game in a different way to how we won the first two.”
England’s fighting qualities were typified by the bruised left eye sported by player of the match Jodie Cunningham, who also hailed her team-mates for the way they wrested back the momentum and ultimately coasted to victory.
“It was tough and PNG threw a lot at us, but we dug in really hard across the field and we finished well when we got the opportunities,” said Cunningham. “We never panicked at any moment because we knew we would have the class to come through.”
Orchids captain Elsie Albert paid tribute to England’s performance and said she believed the hosts stood a chance against their yet-to-be-determined opponents in the final four.
“Coming into this game we knew England were a different side to four years ago when we beat them,” said Albert.
“We hung in the first half but in the second half, possessions went their way and they showed that they’ve really done their homework.
“Both (England and New Zealand) are very good sides with very good forward packs. It will go down to a close game and I don’t think it’s easy to pick a winner.”