Witnessing the Black Ferns’ magic has made dyed-in-the-wool men’s rugby aficionado Jim Kayes fall for the women’s game in this Rugby World Cup. And he’s not alone, he writes.
Sometimes it’s okay to make a woman cry.
On Sunday, about half an hour before the Black Ferns kicked off against Wales in their second World Cup match, I bumped into Alison Hughes from World Rugby in the stands at Auckland’s Waitakere Stadium.
As we chatted, I mentioned I’d driven back up to Auckland after two nights away with my brother and four brothers-in-law.
A boys’ weekend, that on Saturday evening saw us happily settle in front of the telly to watch England play France. In women’s rugby, that is.
“We’d planned the day to make sure we were back to watch it,” I told Hughes. “Six middle aged blokes watching women play rugby.”
It was then her eyes brimmed with tears, and she started to apologise, needlessly, for being “unprofessional”.
“But that’s 20 years of work right there,” she said, of the battle to get women’s rugby taken seriously.
We loved watching that match on Saturday and, with beers in hand, offered versions of the same “informed” comments we make watching any men’s game.
It felt the same in the crowd on Sunday. At one point, a frustrated bloke rose to his feet in the stand and loudly remonstrated with the referee: “She’s off her feet ref”.
There’s a lot to like about the women’s game and even more to enjoy about the Black Ferns.
Yes, their scrum was wobbly at times, though the official stats show New Zealand won four of their five scrums and Wales only nine of their 13. The Black Ferns’ scrum was a lot better when 19-year-old Santo Taumata came on early in the second half.
Fitness for the front row continues to be a work-on and the pack continues to be far too high in the mauls.
I think Smithy likes to talk it up a bit too, just to keep his pack on edge.
It’s also true that the Black Ferns struggled with their kicks at goal (they made three of 10 conversion attempts), but brought the cross-field kick pass into their game with great effect.
Coach Wayne Smith has lamented the poor discipline that saw the Black Ferns penalised 17 times with two yellow cards.
He said the Black Ferns would not win the World Cup with that sort of penalty count. He’s also worried about his pack’s ability to stop England and France when they get a drive on – as Wales did to score twice on Sunday.
That’s a legitimate concern but I think Smithy likes to talk it up a bit too, just to keep his pack on edge. He knows how England will play, but he also knows that if the Blacks Ferns can get some ball and just a smidgen of space, they will take a bit to stop.
I truly don’t want to compare them to the men’s game, but sometimes it’s worthwhile doing so because Portia Woodman’s 18 tries are now the most by any New Zealander at a World Cup – three more than Jonah Lomu.
She won’t want to watch the tape of one of them though because she really should have passed to the unmarked teammate outside. It didn’t matter against Wales but it might in the tougher games to come.
Woodman and Ruby Tui are scoring some superb tries and both are tough on defence. Tui isn’t massive, but if she is a lightweight she competes as fearlessly and effectively as a heavyweight.
Smithy had told me that first five and co-captain Ruahei Demant was all class and she was certainly commanding against Wales, with astute positional play, some telling dabs with the ball, and good defence. Her passing and support play were exceptional. The ball she threw to wing Renee Wickcliffe in the 48th minute was a peach and she stayed in support to keep the move going as the Black Ferns surged 80 metres for Sylvia Brunt to score her second try of the match.
The Blacks Ferns attack is terrific, but defence wins big test matches as England showed when they restricted France to just one decent opportunity on Saturday – which the French capitalised on. And France were just as impressive defensively.
On Sunday the Black Ferns made 74 tackles and missed just seven, and some of those made were thumping hits that were enjoyed by the decent size crowd almost as much as the tries were.
The truth is, and it’s taken me 700 words to work my way around to this, I am a late, but now passionate, convert to the women’s game.
Correction, the women’s 15s game. The Black Ferns Sevens have been sensational for a long time but I am prepared to admit I wasn’t that fussed about the 15s team.
I’ve reported on more than 200 All Blacks tests but after watching the Blacks Ferns lose to England in 2001, the pre-RWC match against Japan at Eden Park a few weeks ago was the first full test I’ve watched in the 21 years since.
It’s embarrassing, really, but I know I’m not alone.
These Black Ferns have me enthralled. During the Japan test I was texting poor ol’ Wayne Smith with my thoughts on how amazing blindside flanker Liana Miakele-Tu’u was.
Then I moved on to Charmaine McMenamin, who was No.8 that day, only for them to switch positions for the RWC opener against Australia (they were still terrific).
Smith will be blocking my texts soon because I haven’t got started on the Bremner sisters, Chelsea and Alana, nor the ever-smiling Stacey Fluhler.
“[Fluhler] has to start in the midfield with Amy du Plessis,” one of the brother-in-laws declared on Saturday night. I almost dropped my beer at the passion behind the comment.
It’s not so much a revolution that’s happening each weekend in Auckland and Whangarei, but a realisation that women’s rugby is really good to watch.
For the opening day matches at Eden Park, I took my teenage daughter and three of her friends. They went to watch Rita Ora. They left as Black Ferns fans.
I know the feeling.
* The Black Ferns, already through to the quarterfinals, meet the winless Scotland in their final pool game in Whangārei on Saturday.