The Black Ferns are halfway through their European tour.
On Saturday they will face the French in the first of two encounters that might just see a toppling of the world order.
Despite first appearances the pandemic has done the Kiwis few favours. New Zealand was the first nation to restart rugby after lockdown; the latest edition of the Farah Palmer Cup seemed to leave them well ahead in pre-World Cup preparations.
It hasn’t worked out like that.
Glenn Moore brought large numbers of uncapped players over to gain experience. It isn’t immediately obvious why so many were needed. Simon Middleton also introduced eleven debutants into his training squad, but only two received a first cap, Holly Aitchison, a highly gifted Sevens players, and Maud Muir, the young prop, the latest candidate to occupy the crucial position of tight-head.
The analysts will be providing Moore with match details hidden from mere mortals. These, added to his own view of the Northampton game, will define who has the right to play their third test match in three weeks.
With huge crowds to roar them on, the French will take some beating. They have the advantage of two recent wins (see below); they won’t need to rewrite history. But one or preferably two victories would be a great send-off for the new year, and a chance at last to reach a World Cup final.
With the Black Ferns in some disarray they can hardly have a better chance of doing the double over the world champions.
It was a surprise, to say the least, to see the Ferns so easily dispossessed and outmanoeuvred in their recent games. We tend to assume that all New Zealanders are born with certain instinctive gifts that make them next to unbeatable on the rugby field.
Of course the tour is largely a training ground for the RWC to come. Even so, the gap in basic skills between the Ferns and the Red Roses was an eye-opener.
The return of Portia Woodman for the second match was widely heralded. She hadn’t played a single test since the previous RWC final and it showed. Her first touch of the ball at Northampton saw it drop behind her.
France have had to make two changes from the side that beat South Africa last weekend. Marjorie Mayans and Rose Bernardou are declared unfit. With all due respect to Mayans, the French Queen of the Tackle, it is Bernardou’s absence that the team will feel keenest. Only six caps into her career, she has already proved herself a real anchor in the No 3 shirt.
Into the squad come Célia Domain (Blagnac, prop) and Manaé Feleu (Grenoble Amazones, back-row).
In their preparations the French have followed England’s practice by inviting a top referee to oversee match simulations, in their case, Aurélie Groizeleau.
This is a really big opportunity for France. The two games in Pau and Castres have taken on even more savour after the events at Exeter and Northampton.
The last thing the Ferns imagined doing was returning home winless, but the last three matches between the nations ranked second and fourth in the world, look like this:
Toulon : France 0 NZ 14
Grenoble : France 30 NZ 27
San Diego : NZ 16 France 25
Know Your Referee
Aurélie Groizeleau had refereed England five times before, New Zealand never. Perhaps it showed. The Red Roses will have been familiar with what are known the ref’s funny little ways. Certainly the Ferns suffered many blasts of the whistle.
The two referees this time round will be Aimee Barrett-Theron, who didn’t have her finest match at Exeter, and Hollie Davidson.
France v South Africa
The contest in Vannes between France and South Africa was a splendid occasion. Though the French won comfortably 46-3, the Springboks made a great impression on the big crowd, highlighted by a communal dance post-match.
They travel on Thursday to meet Wales at the Arms Park on Saturday. Stanley Raubenheimer will announce his team as they arrive.
Ignoring all the flag-waving of two fine victories, Simon Middleton was careful to highlight shortcomings in the Red Roses’ displays. Understandably they were limited to the back play. The forwards have been close to faultless; the selectors are still searching for the perfect balance out behind.
The two centres at Northampton, Aitchison and Helena Rowland, are two outstanding prospects, both fine Sevens players. Every time they received the ball last Sunday, the Black Ferns were left guessing their intentions; they are such instinctive players. English fans can be grateful they opted to switch back to Fifteens. But it will take time for them to settle into new patterns of play.
As for shortcomings: there were three (unnecessary?) cut-out passes at Franklin’s Gardens that missed their target. More important, the defensive line was found wanting a few times. Ellie Kildunne is still learning the advanced lessons of positional play at the back; covering the width of the field is no easy matter. In both games, the Ferns were able to outsmart the English backs with their decision-making and handling.
The joy of the current English set-up is the unpredictability of the back-play. Twice in the opening minutes of the second match Rowland made huge ground by quite different methods. Refreshing to see.
Now for the Canadians.
The next item on the list is the game between Ireland and the USA on Friday 12 November. The RDS Stadium Dublin will play host for the first time.