Try-scoring missile Portia Woodman is already one of the great Black Ferns – but this Rugby World Cup could elevate her to the top. And then she still has more to give, Jim Kayes reports.
Portia Woodman is already one of the greatest Black Ferns of all time – and may yet be crowned the best ever, says two-time world champion Melodie Robinson.
“She is definitely the best wing the Black Ferns have had,” says Robinson, “and that’s ahead of Vanessa Cootes and Louisa Wall, so that’s saying something.”
Robinson, who played 18 tests before forging a successful career in broadcasting and rugby commentary, rates Woodman as the fourth greatest Black Fern behind Anna Richards, Farah Palmer and Fi’aoo Fa’amausili.
“They are legends, but Portia is still playing so imagine what she can still achieve,” Robinson says.
Woodman certainly captured attention on Saturday when she returned to the national XVs side after a heavy diet of sevens and barely missed a step, scoring seven tries in the 95-12 thrashing of Japan at Eden Park.
“I didn’t see that performance coming,” Black Ferns coach Wayne Smith says of Woodman’s Eden Park haul.
“She was new back in the team and before the Japan game she was struggling with all the new systems. I thought I would have to be patient. I thought, ‘She’s a world class athlete and she will come right eventually’ – but she came right really quickly.”
Her seven tries last Saturday was the third best try-scoring performance by a Black Fern in a test, sitting behind her eight against Hong Kong at the last World Cup and Cootes’ nine tries in 1996.
Woodman has 31 tries in 20 tests, a tally easily the equal of All Blacks Doug Howlett, Christian Cullen, Joe Rokocoko and Julian Savea, who also had ‘soft’ tests to bolster their numbers.
She doesn’t yet have the international fame that Jonah Lomu got at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa, but next month’s tournament in New Zealand – starting on October 8 at Eden Park – could propel Woodman into a rarefied air in the women’s game.
“She is a superstar,” Smith concedes, but he’s quick to qualify that. “She is one of many superstars. I don’t like to single players out especially because we have a few in this team who are exceptional – and she is one of them.”
The daughter of an All Black, Woodman was a talented sprinter, then a netballer who played for the Northern Mystics, and now a rugby player. She’s overcome adversity and injury, is an Olympic champion and an engaging person to chat with.
She’s also a terrific rugby player.
Sir John Kirwan rated her (before she ruptured her Achilles in October 2018) as the best wing in the game – male or female.
Smith, who is also new to the Black Ferns, admits he doesn’t know Woodman that well: “I probably know her dad better because I played with Kawhena.”
But from what he’s seen, he’s impressed – especially with her honesty and self-reliance.
Woodman is just as classy off the field as she is on it. She is incredibly popular on the sevens circuit where her friendly persona has won over fans, players and officials.
It’s not hard to see why. When she fronted the media in Auckland last week, she talked with humility but also passion about her career, representing her country, and playing at home.
Footage of Portia Woodman’s sixth try during the Black Ferns’ rout of Japan at Eden Park last weekend.
Getting to play for the Black Ferns in Whangārei would be especially special for the 31-year-old, who was schooled at Mt Albert Grammar in Auckland, and lives in Mt Maunganui but hails from Kaikohe.
Of Ngāpuhi descent, Woodman’s father, Kawhena, and uncle Fred, played for Northland, just as she does.
“The potential to play in Whangārei is one of the biggest highlights of my career. To represent my country at Okara Park would be pretty cool,” Woodman says.
She also talked about the challenge of returning to XVs, the support of her teammates and being able to lean on them and her wife, Renee Wickcliffe, the 44-test capped wing who’s also in the World Cup squad.
When quizzed on whether sevens stars will continue to be able to play XVs too, Woodman gave a heartfelt response.
“I’d like to say yes, but in all honesty both programmes are getting a bit more professional,” says the woman crowned world sevens player of the last decade. “The XVs are getting more games every year and to have a new girl, from sevens, transition to XVs, it would be quite hard.
“I’ve been around for a bit and even then, there are so many new systems it’s been a bit of a struggle. So I would like to say yes, but who knows.”
A two-part doco, The Black Ferns – Wāhine Toa, premieres on Thursday 8.30pm on Prime.
As for her own career, Woodman realises the horizon is getting closer, but she isn’t finished yet. She has won a XVs World Cup, collected Olympic silver in Rio and gold in Tokyo, and Commonwealth Games bronze in Birmingham this year.
Just a few weeks ago, she was in the sevens side who finished second to Australia at the World Cup in Cape Town.
It would seem the Paris Olympics in 2024 are a reasonable goal, but another XVs World Cup is perhaps a bridge too far even for someone as talented as Woodman.
“I’m not going to say that because I missed out on two years with injury and two years with Covid,” she says, “so surely, I’ve banked a few years I can tack on to the end. We will see how this [Rugby World Cup] goes.”