Almost as many eyes, it seems, will be focused on the stands at Eden Park on Saturday as the playing surface when the Black Ferns take the field for the second leg of the Laurie O’Reilly Trophy series against the Wallaroos.
The closest thing New Zealand has to a national stadium is sold out for the All Blacks v Wallabies / Black Ferns v Wallaroos double header – and there is no doubt the vast majority of fans who’ve bought tickets will be there primarily to see the men in action.
But, with New Zealand bidding to host the next women’s World Cup in 2021, the number of fans who turn up for the curtain-raiser will be keenly observed. Packed – or at least healthily-filled – stands will be a major boon for the New Zealand bid. Vast swathes of empty seats won’t be a good look.
Halfback Kendra Cocksedge – one of the stand-outs in the Black Ferns’ 31-11 first test victory in Sydney last Saturday – was relaxed about the likely turnout.
Asked about her message to fans who might be sitting in nearby pubs pondering whether to have another pint or head on down to the park, Cocksedge said: “Obviously it’s sold out, so my message would be to either get to the pub early or get down there [to the ground].”
She would, she admitted, vastly prefer it if fans took the second option, particularly as the match is the lone contest the Black Ferns have on home soil this year
“It’s a massive deal,” she said. “We are really excited to be playing in front of our home crowd. We are hoping that we get the sold-out crowd down there nice and early to support us, so we can be seen playing live and good quality rugby.
“We have got a lot of girls from Auckland and there are a lot of family and friends that live up here. To be able to play in front of them is super exciting. With the Black Ferns and our culture, family is really important for us. And no doubt our family and friends will be out there. We just need other people to come along early as well.”
The World Cup bid – and the likelihood that World Rugby’s power brokers would be looking on – was also in the back of the players’ minds, she confirmed.
“That is why we want people to get down there early. Those types of things will help us host the next World Cup, so the more the merrier.”
Cocksedge nabbed the opening try last Saturday and also set up another on the stroke of half time with a clever quick tap. But it was largely a tough night at the office for the Black Ferns’ normally potent backs, and Cocksedge also found herself attracting the ire of the referee for her constant chirping.
For Saturday night’s return match she was aiming for a quieter night personally, and more explosive night from her fellow backs.
“I’ve got to zip it up at times and focus on my game,” she dead-panned.
“We were a little bit rusty. We’ve got things that we’ve polished that we really want to take into this weekend. They put a lot of pressure on us at times. But they also gave us a lot of opportunities that we didn’t execute.
“The forwards are getting us brilliant ball. We have got a great set piece at the moment. We have just got to make sure we execute off that.”
Coach Glen Moore also suggested the Black Ferns’ backline would be more effective on Saturday night – although he was happy enough to see his side score tries from forward drives when they found themselves largely stifled out wide.
“[Australia] probably would have anticipated that the bulk of our game was about using flair and using the backs,” Moore said. “We anticipated and trained to be able to play both styles of game and when we flicked into that we were pretty potent.”
The Wallaroos’ significant improvement on previous performances against the Black Caps was symptomatic of the increase in standard of the women’s game at international level, Moore said.
“I think you’ve got to look at what is happening globally. Everyone has got better. They are looking at ways of putting a lot of pressure on us. And we anticipated there would be pressure come. We were pleased that we had another avenue that we could go to.”
That said, Moore was also confident his side retained an edge in most – if not all – areas of the field.
“But we have got to get parity up front,” he said. “The tight five have got to do a really good job and get us on the front foot. We have got good, dynamic loose forwards who can both defend and carry. Everyone has got to fulfil their role. Then sometimes those opportunities will come through the middle and sometimes they will come on the edge.”
Neither Moore nor Cocksedge had any complaints about a 2018 schedule that sees the world champions play at home just once. The five tests the team will play this year represents an improvement on many previous years – and a further bolstering of the fixture list was expected next year.
“Five games is absolutely awesome,” Cocksedge said. “We are super excited about that, having one in Australia and one here and then three overseas at the end of the year. Any games we get, we’ll take.”