The Black Ferns have digested the news they will play their first home World Cup in 2021, and plan to produce a statement performance against the French this weekend. Steve Deane reports.
A looming test match against a French side, who already underlined their Six Nations champion credentials by scaring the Blacks Ferns a week ago, was enough to have the atmosphere at the team’s hotel in Grenoble peaking.
And that was before the news filtered through at lunchtime on Wednesday that – for the first time ever – the Women’s Rugby World Cup will be held on New Zealand soil in 2021.
“Everyone is pretty buzzing over here,” says Black Ferns back Ruahei Demant.
“It’s pretty cool. We don’t really get a lot of opportunities to play in front of our families at home, so to be able to have our prep at home, and have all our games at home, will be so much easier.
“And, with women’s rugby getting so much more popular, it’s a great thing for the game.”
News that New Zealand had seen off Australia in an overnight vote by World Rugby power-brokers was widely welcomed, including by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who had issued a video message of support backing New Zealand Rugby’s bid.
“I’m hugely excited the event will be held here,” Ardern said. “New Zealand is the home of women’s rugby, the Black Ferns captured our imaginations again when they won their fifth World Cup title last year, and our entire country will get behind the tournament and all the teams participating in 2021.”
To put the news in perspective, the Netherlands and Spain have both hosted the tournament while New Zealand has not. The Black Ferns may consistently reign at the top of the women’s game, but they are rarely seen at home – playing just one match in New Zealand this year, three in 2017, two in 2016 and none at all in 2015.
Preparations for 2021 can be expected to be extensive – and largely based in New Zealand – as the nation builds towards an event it has won five times without ever having played host.
“We couldn’t really remember the last time our set piece has been put under such heat. That was a real shock.”
– Ruahei Demant.
The fast-improving French – Six Nations champions this year after toppling England – shape as one of the major threats to dethrone the Black Ferns.
“Most definitely,” says Demant, who will start at second five-eights in the second test. “They have their Six Nations tournament every year. It’s given them a lot of opportunities to get regular game time. We don’t have that yet. It is getting better, but we don’t have it at that level.”
France’s improvement was evident as they held the Black Ferns to 0-0 at half-time in last weekend’s first test in Toulon, only to be subdued by two early second half tries.
“There has been quite a lot of chat up here about them being quite a powerhouse,” says Demant. “It had been eight years since the Black Ferns last played France. So we prepared for the game as a test match. We knew that it was going to be hard and we knew that it was going to be close.”
Even so, the Black Ferns were shocked by the monstrous forward effort the French produced in the Toulon mud.
“The conditions prohibited us from executing the style of play that we wanted to play, but that doesn’t take away from how difficult and how challenging the match was,” says Demant.
The French pack was particularly effective at scrum time, smashing the Black Ferns back in a fashion they have rarely, if ever, experienced.
“It came as a shock, particularly at set piece. We spoke about how, as a team, we couldn’t really remember the last time our set piece has been put under such heat. That was a real shock,” Demant says.
“Luckily for us, they just weren’t able to capitalise on their opportunities because they had quite a few.”
With the weather in Grenoble much more settled, conditions for the second test are expected to better suit the Black Ferns’ expansive approach.
And, with the carrot of an unbeaten season dangling in front of them – and the knowledge that the match now serves as the first in the build-up to an historic home World Cup – the Black Ferns will be out to produce a statement performance on Saturday (kick-off 2.30pm local time).
“We haven’t been down on the pitch yet – I think we go down tomorrow to train on it,” says Demant. “But there have been clear skies here all week and hopefully it will continue like that on Saturday.”
The team has also enjoyed an eight-day turnaround with no travel, enabling them to focus fully on the job at hand.
“We’ve done a lot of clarity work, clarified a lot of things that we perhaps didn’t get right last week. We’ve had more time to analyse [the French], more time to focus on how we want to approach this week.
“Everyone is feeling a lot better, the bodies are better, everything is good and ready to go.”