Source: Mike Lee KLC Fotos

Looking Forward to the World Cup – Part Four – Black Ferns

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Playing Strength

It still isn’t obvious to me why the Black Ferns selectors found it necessary to take thirteen debutants on tour. There had been retirements of important players (Charmaine Smith was a sad loss through injury); but were there so many other non-availabilities that the balance of the squad was inevitably skewed?

One background issue which may be significant is the total number of registered players. The latest figure I found for NZ comes inevitably from the indefatigable John Birch, but dates back four years: 27,838. Compare this with the RFU’s claim (late 2021) of 40,000 registered players in clubs, plus some 80,000 girls playing in schools, colleges and universities. But at international level it’s the quality of the elite players that counts.

When their turn came, there was obvious talent on show among the younger element. Players like Ariana Bayler, Krystal Murray and Patricia Maliepo made good impressions, but their impact was limited by the inability of the side to get on top of the opposition. Will the summer be full enough for them to step up from ‘highly promising’ to ‘first choice picks’? It’s a big ask

Far more significant was the performance of the old hands, players like Aleisha Pearl Nelson, Eloise Blackwell, Kelly Brazier, Kendra Cocksedge, Renee Wickliffe and Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate. None of them could claim to have been at the peak of their powers; some were removed from the action far earlier than expected; the example they needed to be setting for their younger team-mates was hard to spot.

Cocksedge has long been the central motor of the team. As early as mid-tour she was reduced to acts of peevishness that reflected her concern at the turn of events. The team seemed over-dependent on her: she took all the penalty kicks to touch, though her accuracy and length of kick compared poorly with her opponents’.

In the 2019 Super Series Brazier pulled all the strings. On the European tour she found it next to impossible to stamp her qualities on games. Likewise Wickliffe: she scored a glorious hat-trick to down the English in California; three years later her contributions were far more limited.

Two exceptions were Stacey Fluhler, who came across from the magnificent 7s squad to light up passages of play; and the young winger, Ayesha Leti-I’iga, who confirmed her high promise.

Inadequacies up front are now coming under the eagle eye of Mike Cron, one of the most respected coaches in New Zealand. That is the most crucial area for the Black Ferns to recover their well-being.

In the early days of lockdown New Zealand seemed to profit as the Farah Palmer Cup was allowed to take place, the only major competition in the world to survive. That seemed to put them well ahead in the race. Since then critics have complained about the quantity and quality of the matches staged. The FPC has been classed as ‘amateur’ – no doubt in more senses than one.

The newly launched Super Rugby Aupiki tournament is seen as far too brief and limited to have the desired effect on Fern fortunes. It lasts from 5 to 27 March and involves four teams who will play just three rounds. The two leaders will compete in a fourth game, the final. Since they are composite sides, it will take them a while to gel. Some Kiwi observers compare the enterprise unfavourably with the Elite 1 league in France and the AP 15s in England, both season-long and multi-clubbed. Their national team selectors can survey a far wider choice of playing talent.

Last year the initial Black Ferns squad was withdrawn early from the FPC. Whatever they gained from being together practising at a high level, they lost in valuable game-time.

Home Advantage

This is a key issue

New Zealand Rugby had assumed all along that playing the World Cup at home for the first time was not only a privilege long overdue, but a gold-plated chance to secure a sixth trophy, an achievement unlikely to be broken for many a decade. The venues chosen, in the far north of the country, represent the heartland of women’s rugby in Aotearoa. Eden Park is a fortress to end all fortresses.

When Alison Hughes took over as tournament director, she immediately switched the opening round from the smaller stage of Whangarei to Eden Park. This was a smart move, both to give the tournament the big send-off it needed, and to let the Black Ferns make the maximum impact.

Kiwi commentators were much taken by the crowds at the two matches in France; their size, their enthusiasm, their bands, their renderings of the Marseillaise, their warm reception of the Black Ferns post-match. They set a challenge for World Cup crowds to surpass..

The NZ organizing committee made an early commitment to break the world record for attendance, Eden Park presenting a natural location for the attempt. Europe has seen a huge increase in attendances at test matches; can New Zealand expect to follow suit?. One grave unknown is the progress of the pandemic. We can only hope that all travel restrictions will have been lifted by the autumn.

Just recently Australia and New Zealand had to call off a cricket tournament. We aren’t over the worst effects yet.

Next part: Reviews and Pandemics