England put the Black Ferns to the sword in an astonishing display of running and defending rugby.
In the first half they had to weather the expected storm as the world champions attacked with their usual skill and bravado, but an unexpected gap in their armour appeared at the line-out. By half-time they had coughed up possession seven times, thanks either to a wonky throw or the excellence of Abbie Ward and Zoe Aldcroft.
England kicked off into a strong low sun and the wind. They won an early penalty, drove towards the line but, offered a penalty under the posts, went for the corner. It didn’t work.
A first scrum to the Ferns saw them press close to the line, but a vital turnover let Zoe Harrison clear and prevent the visitors from taking an early lead.
Instead, a drive by Poppy Cleall led to chain-passing left. Ellie Kildunne fed Abby Dow; as she was hauled down, she popped a pass up to Ward who strode over. 5-0
The Roses gained more confidence from a strong scrum and a penalty. Ward burrowed under the Kiwi defences from two metres out. 12-0
On the last visit to New Zealand (2017) she scored a try in each of three matches. Today’s double was even more praiseworthy.
The Ferns mounted several incisive attacks, highlighted by their outstanding off-loads under pressure. Ayesha Leti-I’iga was very dangerous coming off the left wing to accept passes from Kendra Cocksedge, who was her usual inventive self. But England’s defensive structures proved sound.
Three successive Ferns’ line-out mishaps gave England unexpected ball. Aimee Barrett-Theron spoke to Les Elder as the penalties mounted up, but when the white shirts drove off an attacking line-out they were found guilty of crossing.
At New Zealand’s next attack the crowd had to cross its fingers. But at the last gasp Marlie Packer, not borne down by the weight of her 77 caps, won a vital turnover and penalty.
Things really looked up when the Roses won a scrum against the head. The confidence it gave them was shown in another Kildunne special. As was the team policy, the ball moved quickly to exploit the talents of the wide backs. She dummied and stepped her way through tackles to go over.
This was a scoreline beyond the dreams of avarice, the largest losing margin the Ferns had ever experienced at this juncture. Surely they would come storming back. Yes, the first score after the turn-round came to Alana Bremner on debut. 17-7
A few minutes later her joy turned to ten minutes in the bin. England had attacked, with Lydia Thompson in the vanguard. One player the Ferns respect is the Worcester winger. Bremner infringed close to her line and had to depart the scene.
The game now swung conclusively England’s way. First it was time for Lark Davies’ party piece: an accurate line-out throw, then a burrow under and over the line. 22-7
Now Maud Muir came on for her debut alongside Alex Matthews. The immediate upshot – the pack motored forward at the set-scrum! This was the second feature that few could have predicted pre-match.
The Roses were intent on moving the ball fast, using really quick repossessions to force gaps in the line. Holly Aitchison now showed her outstanding qualities. As the ball moved right she spotted a weakness, turned infield and was through to the line. 29-7
This was England’s final score in Rotorua, but here there was plenty of time left.
The Ferns were restored to 15 and attacked. They were right over the line, but the verdict came ‘held up’, another feather in the defence’s cap.
As they flung the ball about again, disaster! A high pass dropped into Dow’s hands – 38-7 and her 20th try in 19 showings.
The Black Ferns were determined to take the fight to the opposition again. More mazy handling and running allowed Stacey Fluhler to sprint into the corner for a fine try. 38-12
It was always likely that the Red Roses would last better, and so it proved. The replacements simply upped the pace and pressure. As the clock went red, Helena Rowland completed another imaginative attack with a fine feint, acceleration and off-load to Harrison who dropped over the line.
Result: England 43 New Zealand 12
We have to remind ourselves that scores like this simply do not happen – till now.
A central question before the match was whether England’s extensive playing record over the past two years (14 matches, 14 wins) would be enough to counter the world champions who had played 0 matches over the same period.
The answer came in seven tries, as well as even more encouraging features like a much improved scrum and resilient defensive systems.
And so to Northampton.
The Black Ferns are sure to put obvious things right, above all the line-out. They were short of major figures like Kelly Brazier and Portia Woodman, but then England were deprived of Emily Scarratt, then, at the last moment, Amber Reed. Lagi Tuima stepped into the breach (which reminds us of another missing person), and Sarah McKenna was added to the bench.
Kiwis have always been the quickest to react to setbacks, so we can be sure of another nerve-racking moment or two next week.
For the present this was a huge triumph for the home team. They can be very proud of their achievements. The win increases their lead in world rankings: 95.61 points to New Zealand’s 92.95.
England: 15. Ellie Kildunne 14. Lydia Thompson 13. Holly Aitchison 12. Lagi Tuima 11. Abby Dow 10. Zoe Harrison 9. Claudia Macdonald 1. Hannah Botterman 2. Lark Davies 3. Sarah Bern 4. Poppy Cleall 5. Abbie Ward 6. Zoe Aldcroft 7. Marlie Packer 8. Sarah Hunter (captain)
Bench: 16. Amy Cokayne 17. Vickii Cornborough 18. Maud Muir 19. Harriet Millar-Mills 20. Alex Matthews 21. Leanne Infante 22. Helena Rowland 23. Sarah McKenna
New Zealand: 15. Renee Holmes 14. Renee Wickliffe 13. Stacey Fluhler 12. Chelsea Alley 11. Ayesha Leti-I’iga 10. Ruahei Demant 9. Kendra Cocksedge 1. Pip Love 2. Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate 3. Aleisha Pearl Nelson 4. Eloise Blackwell 5. Kelsie Wills 6. Alana Bremner 7. Les Elder (captain) 8. Dhys Faleafaga
Bench: 16. Grace Houpapa-Barrett 17. Krystal Murray 18. Aldora Itunu 19. Liana Mikaele-Tu’u
20. Kennedy Simon 21. Ariana Bayler 22. Patricia Maliepo 23. Grace Brooker
Player of the Match: Zoe Harrison (1 try and all the kicks)
Referee: Aimee Barrett-Theron (SARU)
ARs: Aurélie Groizeleau (FFR) and Clara Munarini (FIR)
TMO: Ben Whitehouse (WRU)
The 100th test
John Birch’s archival labours (https://www.scrumqueens.com/features/counting-tests-minefield-stats) have revealed that the Exeter test may have been the Black Ferns’ 100th test, or their 104th or their 105th!
Somebody had to lose
Aimee Barrett-Theron had refereed the two sides a combined ten times previously. They had won every match. This was the showdown.