Source: Phil Walter/Getty Images

The New Black Ferns Set-up

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As soon as Wayne Smith was added to the Black Ferns coaching team on 4 April, we had to wonder if more lay behind this appointment than met the eye.

Indeed it did. He is now the man in charge. His task is as heavy as Glenn Moore’s was once the 2021 Northern Tour started unravelling, only he has five months fewer in which to achieve the big national ambition, to win a sixth World Cup.

Across the decades the All Blacks didn’t feel the lack of regular competition against the rest of the world. They could rest assured of victories when they mattered.

But Black Ferns rugby was a different case. They too enjoyed unparalleled success but suffered from neglect by NZR for too long. Past reviews pointed out shortcomings and sensible improvements; they were ignored. Perhaps the assumption as the top was that Kiwi rugby players will always turn up trumps; no need to give them preferential treatment. In these early days of female professionalism that neglect has proved costly.

Still, the results of the four matches against England and France came as an unpleasant shock, made all the worse because of the imminent home World Cup. When Dr Farah Palmer made a successful bid for the 2021 RWC, the unspoken assumption was that the New Zealand team would carry all before them, as they had just done in the Belfast final.

Now, six months before kick-off, a new man is in charge. At least his assistants are familiar faces to the squad.

Wesley Clarke, born in South Africa, moved to New Zealand and turned to coaching only after injuries prevented him from playing. His wife is none other than Farah Palmer, perhaps the greatest name of all in Aotearoa women’s rugby.

Whitney Hansen became a familiar face on the touchline during the last autumn tour. She played her last game as recently as 2018 for Canterbury, but was already transitioning to a coaching role. Crucially she was chosen for the RWC 2021 Coaching Internship Programme.

New Zealand have joined the small band of other nations adapting to a new (semi-)professional existence. How quickly can standards improve?

The evidence so far is that part-time contracts cannot possibly compete with full-time. Hence the Red Roses stand head and shoulders above their competitors.

A basic requirement is fitness. If you are still in employment outside the game for part of the week, you cannot hope to be in the same condition as your full-time rivals. How far can the Black Ferns, especially the forwards, improve their fitness levels over the intervening period?

It will be fascinating to compare the advance of those other nations dipping their toes into the pro-game, France, Italy, New Zealand and Wales. Only France have grown accustomed to their new status; it helped them see off the Black Ferns with plenty to spare.

We will get more precise answers over the coming summer (winter in New Zealand) as touring plans are announced. No nation has yet published any details.