A thrilling Black Ferns’ win and a record-smashing crowd to open the Rugby World Cup should kickstart a new era for the game – and for women’s sport, Suzanne McFadden reports.
How do you measure the value, the impact, of a single day in sporting history?
The spectacular opening day of the Rugby World Cup at Eden Park on Saturday meant so much to so many different people.
To the women who’d come before, like four-time World Cup winner and Black Ferns forward, Monalisa Urquhart, it meant finally getting to fill the only gap in her career – witnessing a women’s rugby tournament played in front of a massive crowd, roaring for the Black Ferns instead of booing them.
To former Black Ferns captain Les Elder, who could have been out on the field but was overlooked; she’d been suppressing her emotions – “putting on my actor’s face” – until the enormity of the day broke her down.
To current Black Ferns co-captain Ruahei Demant who didn’t want the “magical” night to end – no matter how nerve-jangling the start to their first game against Australia.
Perhaps they were overwhelmed by the world record crowd of 34,000, the desire to perform in front of family, the passion they poured into their extraordinary haka. But after 30 minutes of uncharacteristically running backwards – and trailing at halftime for only the second time in a World Cup match – the Black Ferns finally got into gear to play “beautiful free-flowing rugby”, as Demant called it, scoring 41 unanswered points.
To Portia Woodman, who became the top try-scoring Black Fern in World Cup history with her hat-trick of tries – but who was still “Portia from Kaikohe” when the first whistle blew, knowing she had her Ngāpuhi whānau in the stands right behind her.
To Fijiana captain, Sereima Leweniqila, who got to lead a Fijian side onto a Rugby World Cup pitch for the first time, with a sea of light blue supporters screaming their names. Even though they were dealt to by tournament favourites England, 84-19, they managed to rattle their opposition with their physicality and score three spectacular tries.
And to the thousands of young girls in the crowd, madly waving their poi (so much gentler than netball’s thundersticks) – girls who’d likely never been to watch rugby before but after an exciting triple-header, may have just been inspired to pick up the oval ball.
And what about the impact it has on women’s rugby and all female sport in Aotearoa? How do you measure that?
There’s no doubt it was momentous – easily the largest crowd to assemble for any female sporting event in New Zealand’s history. And it was a watershed moment for women’s rugby – proving it could stand on its own, without the crutch of a men’s game propping it up.
We’ve already seen the transformative benefits from giving women’s sport its own platform on football in the Northern Hemisphere, and league and Aussie Rules across the Tasman.
RWC2021 tournament director, Michelle Hooper, who’s endured every hurdle the pandemic put up and a year’s delay, sums it up neatly. “It felt like the cornerstone for women’s rugby,” she says.
“From this point the possibilities are endless. Collectively we’ve proven that women’s rugby can stand on its own two feet – to entertain, to inspire and be the main event.”
She has no doubt the momentum will continue through the month-long tournament and has full faith the crowds will continue to show up “and show it wasn’t a one-off – it was just the beginning.”
But first, there’s a moment to be dealt with – the wobbly first-up performance of the home side.
The Wallaroos have never beaten the Black Ferns, but they had the measure of them for the first 30 minutes on Saturday, outclassing them in every facet – territory, possession, passing, mauls and breakdowns.
Their flying wings, Bienne Terita and Ivania Wong, scored three tries in that first strangely mesmerising spell, leaving the Black Ferns trailing 17-0 and reducing the crowd to a dampened-down murmur.
“We maybe let the occasion get to us,” Woodman says. “Forgetting to just play simple, catch the ball, run hard.”
Lock Joanah Ngan-Woo, the outstanding Black Fern forward of 2022, finally broke the Australians’ period of dominance, crashing over for New Zealand’s first try of seven. It was the “flick of the switch”, Demant says, that turned their fortunes around, and stopped the fans’ shivering, that had nothing to do with the bitterly cold breeze.
Down 17-12 at halftime (the only other World Cup match they’d trailed at the break was the final of the 2017 World Cup), the Black Ferns were given a talking-to by head coach Wayne Smith.
“There wasn’t a big growling in the sheds. Smithy was calm and collected, ‘Girls we’ve just got to hold on to the ball’,” Woodman says. “’We’re being ‘out-mongreled’ so we have to hit out physically at the get-go, tackles and on attack’.”
That’s something the Black Ferns acknowledge they must clean up before their second match, against Wales next Sunday.
The second half was a different game altogether. The experience of the sevens players among the Ferns was crucial – handling the huge crowd and the pressure of expectation, and using their acceleration to punch through gaps in the Aussie defence.
Among the highlights: Woodman’s pace to score three times in the corners (one of them after Stacey Fluhler’s deft flip of the ball over her head into Woodman’s hands); Ruby Tui’s best performance yet in the 15s game, shrugging off diving Wallaroos to add two tries of her own.
Although it wasn’t a scenario the Black Ferns had really practised for, they made the most of one fateful moment for the Australians after almost 60 minutes, having two players yellow-carded (Wong and captain Shannon Parry) in one movement.
Parry was understandably disappointed with her side’s loss of discipline and control after those explosive opening 30 minutes – and a full 80-minute effort still eludes the Wallaroos.
That was certainly missing from the Black Ferns’ performance on Saturday night, too. Although Demant was proud of the way they implemented the coaching team’s halftime messages in the second half, and the impact their bench made, she was still puzzled by why it took them so long to get into the game.
“It wasn’t anything new that we needed to do, so I know we will go back and review the way we started the game, and we will be a better team for it in the next match.”
But nothing could take away from the performance of the 34,235 people in the stands (a wee way short of the sold-out 47,000 expected). A good portion of them arrived for the opening match between France and South Africa – where the French quarter broke into song when halfback Laura Sensus scored the first try of RWC2021 in the opening two minutes (France weathering a determined South African defence to win 40-5).
The Fijiana supporters far outnumbered England’s for the second match, and were rewarded with a courageous start. “We enjoyed it [for the] first 20 minutes, then we got frustrated, then we got a lesson about how it feels to go against the No.1 team in the world,” captain Leweniqila said. England were powerful and clinical, proving what a threat they are in this tournament.
Australian coach Jay Tregonning acknowledged the crowd, no matter how patriotic, for lifting his side as well. “Obviously a lot of our girls aren’t professional, they are all working hard at their normal jobs and have families, so to play in front of a crowd like that is outstanding recognition of their time and effort,” he said.
It was a crowd Demant, who gave a spine tingling karanga (welcome call) with Woodman and Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu ahead of the Black Ferns haka, will never forget. “It was electric, it was actually quite surreal to walk out to a sold-out Eden Park, seeing all the black, singing the anthem but not being able to hear each other, and hearing the echo of the crowd. It was something we’ve never heard before,” she said.
“Performing the haka and struggling to hear each other. Scoring tries and the roar of the crowd erupting.”
Up in the stands, Monalisa Urquhart (nee Codling) – who was always a ‘big-game’ Black Ferns player – was thrilled by the Eden Park atmosphere. “It’s the only thing that was really missing in my sporting career,” she said.
“We’re watching a new era in women’s rugby unfolding. But it’s not just rugby – it’s global. People can see females play sport and an exciting brand of sport, too
“I think people are just wanting something different. In rugby, I think the physicality, the big hits, are ruining the men’s game. But the women’s game has exploded and this is perfect timing. We’ve always known it’s a great product, we just had to get it out there.”
* The headliner game on Day Two in Whangārei on Sunday, between Wales and Scotland, was a doozey – and decided in the 85th minute. Wales dominated the first half, leading 15-5, before Scotland threw everything at them in the second, levelling 15-15 in the 79th minute. The Welsh were relentless from the final restart, treasuring the ball until they finally won a penalty five minutes after the hooter, to win 18-15.
In the other two matches, Italy’s Azzurri upset the United States, who struggled with their set pieces, 22-10, while Canada were far too strong for Japan, winning 41-5.