New Zealand Black Ferns ready to step out of All Blacks’ shadow at Women’s Rugby World Cup

New Zealand Black Ferns players performing the haka. Pic: Michael Bradley/AFP/Getty Images

MOST staunch New Zealand rugby people support the Black Ferns, four-time Women’s Rugby World Cup winners.

But they do not see enough of them in action to have deep knowledge of their talents.

While the self-styled ‘Sevens Sistas’ have been the fresh face of women’s rugby in recent years, and just weeks ago lifted another World Series title, they are too often out of sight, out of mind.

That is hardly their fault, just the reality of a schedule fraught with difficulty and congested with blanket coverage of the men’s game.

The Black Ferns have fashioned a record, since their 1991 test-rugby introduction, that is the envy of any nation and which is comparable to the mighty All Blacks.

They have won 72 of their 83 internationals. Their 10th, and latest, reverse came in June, falling 29-21 to England, in Rotorua, in the curtain-raiser to the Maori All Blacks-Lions fixture.

It was just the second home defeat in their history.

Ireland, of course, are the sole side to have defeated the Blacks Ferns at a Rugby World Cup. Who can forget that scything break by full-back, Niamh Briggs, for Alison Miller’s try, in Marcoussis, back in 2014? That was an astonishing upset, the first by any Irish national side over their New Zealand counterparts. It rather ruined a World Cup in which the Black Ferns won four games in style. But they faltered once, and it was enough for them to languish in fifth, when the tournament’s final whistle was blown.

Ireland players, from left, Ashleigh Baxter, Niamh Briggs and Nora Stapleton celebrate victory over New Zealand at the 2014 Women’s Rugby World Cup. Picture: Aurélien Meunier/Sportsfile
Ireland players, from left, Ashleigh Baxter, Niamh Briggs and Nora Stapleton celebrate victory over New Zealand at the 2014 Women’s Rugby World Cup. Picture: Aurélien Meunier/Sportsfile

Fast forward to this week and they are odds-on to top Pool A and show their wares under a warm sun, during the tail-end of the Irish summer.

That loss to England, in June, will remove any ounce of complacency and means they enter the World Cup with a steely focus.

“There’s definitely a level of excitement. Losing that test, against England, has lifted the focus and intensity and we’re confident about playing them again,” said head coach, Glenn Moore, formerly at the helm of Super Rugby’s Highlanders.

They have spent hours on the training paddock, in lieu of match practice, and there has been time (always at a premium for a mostly non-professional side, which is rarely in full assembly) to fine-tune their preparations.

“Our strength-and-conditioning programmes have been robust. We know the June series was really important for us,” said Moore.

The Black Ferns also beat Canada 28-16 and dispatched Australia 44-17. There was a blow last week, when flanker/lock, the seasoned and tough Rawinia Everitt, was ruled out with a bad back injury. But the Black Ferns will otherwise be at full firepower.

If they receive enough clean ball, their backline can be devastating.

Fullback, Selica Winiata, might be the smallest in the squad, but she is fast and hugely committed. Last season, she crossed for nine tries in five tests, including a brace against Ireland, in the 38-8 win in Dublin. Wing, Portia Woodman, is another match-winner. She ran in a hat-trick against Ireland, in 2016, from centre, but expect her on the flanks this time. The other wings, Carla Hohepa, who scored the winning try in the 2010 WRWC final, and Renee Wickliffe, are not short of gas and experience. There is plenty of versatility in the backline, a pre-requisite for a tight tournament squad.

Pre-eminent is Kelly Brazier, a skilled sevens exponent, who once claimed 64 points — as a 19-year-old — in an Otago senior club game. She will be starting, but will it be in the No 10 or 12 jersey? Possibly the latter, where her step and pace on second-phase play is more potent than trying to engineer a tactical kicking game from pivot. Victoria Subritzky-Nafatali, a robust, highly skilled all-rounder, could also do the job.

At the scrum base, you will find the blonde-haired whippet, a bundle of energy known as Kendra Cocksedge, the world’s best women’s player in 2015. She can find the tryline and kicks goals and, with 37 caps to her name since 2007, is a clear leader in this side.

Some of the pack have not long taken up the game. Charmaine Smith, for example, was playing netball when she made the shift, less than three years ago. Now, she is a mainstay, either at lock or the side of the scrum. Fellow second-rower, Eloise Blackwell, brings 27 caps worth of experience to the engine room.

There may be a feeling, after England won the set-piece and physicality stakes in Rotorua, that the Black Ferns are vulnerable, when the going gets rugged in the tight.

They better not say that in the vicinity of captain and hooker, Fiao’o Fa’amausili, a world-class practitioner who stands on the verge of breaking the all-time appearance record for the Black Ferns.

Her 15-year career is taking in a remarkable fifth World Cup and, for much of that time, she has been operating at world-class standard. Now 36, age has not wearied the South Auckland policewoman, whose 2016 form was of such quality that she was a nominee for World Rugby’s women’s player of the year.

Now on 47 test caps, if and when she hits the half-century mark, Fa’amausili will surpass the record of 49 set by the great Anna Richards and Emma Jensen.

It will be some feat.

“I still run out with a smile on my face because I still love the game. The black jersey means everything. To me, it has layers, layers of my club jersey (she is one of 31 Black Ferns out of Auckland’s Marist club) and my province (Auckland Storm, for whom she scored 10 tries last season and has 97 games under her belt).

Picture: Sportsfile
Picture: Sportsfile

“So you are not just running out with these girls, you are running out with all the other players and coaches. From the first season to the 15th, it’s still a buzzy feeling. I know the hardships they go through and the hurt and the early morning trainings,” Fa’amausili told the New Zealand Herald earlier this season.

Her motto is simple: “You go hard or you go home!”

More rugby people in New Zealand should know of her and some of the mainstream media need to get with the picture. She is the embodiment of a team that has evolved over the last 20 years, but has unmatcheable pedigree. That might count for something in the World Cup when the going gets tight.

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