Allan Bunting, the man many pundits saw as the likeliest candidate for the top job with the Black Ferns, has been added to the management team. He becomes Manager of Culture and Leadership, to join Wayne Smith, Director.
This completely new and slightly strange sounding role covers two areas seen as in urgent need of attention. ‘Culture’ most certainly, but ‘Leadership’?
Ethnic sensitivities were seen as a skill gravely lacking in the management’s structures, and since last year’s touring squad consisted of 50% Maori and 25% Pasifika players, it was a worrying deficit.
At what level? Presumably player-level, as the management is once again male dominated, with Whitney Hansen the only women (she is retained along with Wesley Clarke as the two assistants).
Players complained to the Review panel of the lack of easy channels of communication to the staff. So presumably Bunting will become the sounding board for them.
But his value will come in other directions too. He brings extensive experience of women’s rugby, having been the Black Ferns 7s coach for a decade, and they carried all before them. More recently – and much more briefly – he coached Chiefs Manawa to victory in the Super Aupiki.
A New Squad
A new-look Black Ferns squad to take part in the Pacific-4 Series will be announced on 4 May.
To call this a crucial selection barely does it justice; so much will depend on it. The series runs through June in the home country, each nation playing three matches. They will help determine the make-up of the next Black Ferns’ squad, the one that will carry all the nation’s hopes at the World Cup.
There would still be time to make adjustments to the final squad of 30, but time will press urgently.
Will all the distinguished senior members of the last touring side make the cut? Names like Kelly Brazier, Renee Wickliffe, Aleisha Nelson, Aldora Itunu and Carla Hohepa.
If they are missing, that places more responsibility on fewer shoulders. The two main leaders on the Northern Tour, Les Elder (captain) and Kendra Cocksedge (co-vice), found it a tough challenge. Their own game standards came under pressure, making it harder for them to inspire the rest of the team.
Fifteen debutants were included; the tour became a chastening experience for them.
The Value of the Pac-4 Series
First and foremost the Pac-4 comes as a welcome relief for New Zealand after two years without a home fixture.
A glance at the world rankings shows the four nations involved closely packed together near the top of the ladder, NZ 2nd, Canada 4th, Australia 5th and USA 6th.
But none of them is under any illusions about the true disparities in current form. In the background lurks the knowledge of the distance all four of them lag behind the best in Europe.
Can the Black Ferns expect to carry all before them, as they have done so consistently over the decades? Or will Canada or even the USA prove to have the measure of them? A win (away from home) for either of them would really upset the apple-cart.
Hope springs eternal
The Black Ferns have a second game against the Wallaroos due in August, but they must be looking for more tests against more opposition. Whether that will include either or both of France and England is one of the fascinating mysteries to be resolved before long.
Bunting’s appointment will surely be the last NZR makes for a long while. It smacks of a final attempt to make up for past neglect. Time will tell whether this formidable new staffing arrangement can do the trick.