When WXVI hits New Zealand shores in less than a fortnight the Black Ferns will face the same opponents they tamed in the finals of the Rugby World Cup in three consecutive weekends.

Arguably this assignment will be tougher with a new team, France and England hellbent on revenge after narrow losses and an improved Wales.

In All Blacks history, much is known about distinguished opposition. That’s not so much the case with women. Who are the best XV of players to face the Black Ferns?

Naturally, the Black Ferns most frequent and successful opponent England (10 wins in 30 Tests) comprises most of an All Stars XV to have thrived against the Black Ferns.

15. Niamh Briggs (Ireland) – The biggest upset in Rugby World Cup history was in 2014 when Ireland upset the Black Ferns 17-14 to end the Kiwis’ reign as four-time champions. Briggs was one of the most influential performers in that outcome creating the winning try for Alison Miller.

Now the assistant coach of Ireland, the Munster woman is Ireland’s all-time leading points scorer and was capped 62 times. She won Six Nations titles in 2013 and 2015. The infamous 2014 World Cup upset remains the only Test between the Black Ferns and Ireland.

14. Kat Merchant (England) – The fitness trainer and popular commentator was something of a machine during her career scoring 44 tries in 58 Tests. She retired after England’s 2014 Rugby World Cup triumph due to concussion. With four tries, Merchant was the leading try scorer against the Black Ferns in a spell from 2011 and 2012 when England beat the Black Ferns five times in six Tests.

On December 1, 2012, Merchant scored twice in a 32-23 win against the Black Ferns at Twickenham. On the same day, the All Blacks were beaten 38-21 by England. It was the first occasion the All Blacks and the Black Ferns had lost a Test on the same day.

13. Emily Scarratt (England) – In 2019 Scarratt was named World Rugby Women’s Player of the Year and selected at centre in the World Rugby Women’s 15s Team of the Decade (2010-2019). She has scored a world record 760 points (59 tries) in 108 Tests (93 wins). Scarratt featured in all five wins against the Black Ferns in 2011 and 2012 and scored the first try after two minutes to set the tone in a famous 29-21 victory in Rotorua in 2017. She can cover multiple positions in the backline and was part of the winning team at the Rugby World Cup in 2014.

12. Rachel Burford (England) – When England won the Cup in 2014 Burford was named RFU Players Association Player of the Year. A veteran of 84 Tests and four World Cups, Burford was part of four English teams to beat the Black Ferns in 2009, 2011, and 2012. In the latter part of her career, she formed a formidable partnership with Emily Scarratt.

In 2017 Burford was awarded the International Rugby Players’ Association Merit Award alongside All Blacks legend Richie McCaw at the World Rugby Awards. Away from the field Burford has been a trailblazer for women’s rugby. She has held several key administrative posts at World Rugby, joining the Women’s Advisory Board, Rugby Committee and Laws Review Group and becoming the first woman on the Rugby Players Association (RPA) board in 2014.

11. Emily Feltham (England) – Far from the biggest name on the list, Feltham holds the unique distinction of scoring possibly the most famous try against the Black Ferns. In 2001 the Black Ferns lost on home soil for the first time. They hadn’t conceded a try in 14 of their first 20 internationals. At North Harbour Stadium in Albany, England was down 15-17 with only minutes remaining and fumbled the ball only metres short of the English line. English centurion and hooker Amy Garrett describes what happened next.

“The ball suddenly came out of a ruck to Teresa O’Reilly, and we had no choice but to have a go. O’Reilly passed it to scrum-half Jo Yapp, and she drew several players, then passed it to Assunta DeBiase who passed it to Emily. Emily was petite and had a hearing impairment in one ear so she often played just one side, but boy could she fizz. She ran 65 meters. Unbelievable.”

A 23-year-old Salisbury schoolteacher at the time, the local newspaper The Gazette & Herald reported there were 40,000 people present when it happened. North Harbour Stadium only holds 25,000.

10. Katy Daley-McLean (England) – In December 2019 Katy Daley-Mclean was selected in the World Rugby Women’s 15s Team of the Decade (2010-2019). A fortnight later she retired after 116 Tests and 101 wins for England.

In 2012 Daley-McLean was selected as captain and was to the fore of a 3-0 sweep of the Black Ferns in an unbeaten season. Two years later she captained England to victory in the Rugby World Cup.

Daley-McLean had hurt the Black Ferns as early as 2009. In the 58th minute of a tight Test at Twickenham, she became the first, and so far, the only player to kick a drop goal against the Black Ferns, in a 10-3 victory. The Black Ferns’ seven-year, 24-Test, winning streak was over.

Daly-MacLean rated the 29-21 win in Rotorua in 2017 as her finest display against the Black Ferns. It was a curtain raiser to the British and Irish Lions versus Māori All Blacks international.

9. Cheryl McAfee (Australia) – Australia hasn’t beaten the Black Ferns in 25 Tests but was never closer when World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee McAfee was captain. In 2008 in Canberra, Australia only went down 22-16. McAfee was a brilliant all-round halfback who drove Australia to their highest Rugby World Cup placing – third in 2010.

A pioneer of Sevens, she rated two victories over the Black Ferns Sevens in a World Cup qualifying tournament in Samoa in 2009 as her career highlight. It was the first time an Australian women’s team had beaten a New Zealand side and the Aussies went on to win that inaugural World Cup in Dubai.

8. Romane Ménager (France) – Did her best to break Kiwi hearts in the World Cup semi-last year with two tries and some brutal defence. The 57-test veteran has been involved in three of France’s four victories against the Black Ferns. Her 60 metre solo try was the highlight and telling difference in a 30-27 win in Grenoble in 2019. Her twin sister Marine Ménager is also a French international.

7. Maggie Alphonsi (England) – Anna Richards and Rochelle Martin are among many to insist Alphonsi was their toughest opponent. The dynamic flanker played 74 Tests and won a World Cup in 2014, conquering the Black Ferns in 2009 and 2011. Alphonsi was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame and became the face of English women’s rugby with her informed and charismatic commentary.

6. Gaëlle Hermet (France) – France has beaten the Black Ferns four times and Hermet has been skipper each time. Typically an openside flanker, she can cover all three back row positions and has featured on the blindside in all the victories against New Zealand. Capped 55 times, she first captained France aged 21. France has won 183 of their 267 all-time internationals.

5. Tamara Taylor (England) – Between February 2011 and February 2013, England won 23 out of 25 Tests and Taylor started in five victories against New Zealand.

It was her ability to dictate lineouts that made her such a threat though she lost the 2006, 2010 and 2017 World Cup finals to the Black Ferns. World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee Anna Richards describes the 2006 World Cup final as the toughest match she played.

Taylor played 115 Tests, winning 92. She was noted for her keen analysis.

“Lineouts now have a lot more movement in them – analysis has improved and there’s more access to footage which means teams can’t always rely on basic movements, you need to have dummy movements and movements that look like what you were going to do but are slightly different.

“Locks aren’t the only jumpers now. There has been less emphasis on locks having to be jumpers. More teams are putting taller, heavier players into the second row to add weight and power to the scrum and using them as lifters in the lineout.”

4. Donna Kennedy (Scotland) – Donnor Kennedy was the epitome of tough and durable. Between 1993 and 2006 she started in 95 of Scotland’s first 100 tests; the veterinarian finished her distinguished career with 115 caps. Only twice did she face the Black Ferns, but she made a huge impression at the 2006 Rugby World Cup.

“I remember lining up against New Zealand and facing the Haka. Rugby is deeply ingrained in New Zealand so facing the haka was really stirring, a totally unique opportunity,” Kennedy said.

“It was close in the first half because I think they underestimated us, but then they brought on their big guns and won 21-0. It was a physical encounter and I got player of the match. It was one of my favourite games.”

“I loved the physical and strategic aspects of the game. I had no fear and always trained in the same way I played so some of our training sessions got heated as it was so competitive. I always considered it a badge of honour leaving the field with a black eye and bruises.”

3. Sophie Hemming (England) – The redoubtable tighthead played 71 Tests and was named in the World Rugby Women’s 15s Team of the Decade (2010-2019). Hemming featured in wins against the Black Ferns in 2009, 2011, and 2012 and gave the Black Ferns scrum a torrid time in the 2010 Rugby World Cup Final. England’s second most capped player and loosehead prop Rochelle Clark said, “The best tighthead I partnered with was Sophie Hemming. She was an excellent craftswoman at the scrum, dedicated, hardworking, and hard.”

2. Amy Cokayne (England)– Nobody has ever scored a hat-trick in a single Test against the Black Ferns twice. Cokayne achieved the feat in consecutive Tests, albeit all six tries were scored from less than a metre out with lineout drives.

Nonetheless, Cokayne is a formidable player with all the desirable attributes of a contemporary hooker. She was at the heart of England’s world record 30 consecutive Test victories, including two against the Black Ferns. Before she left the field in the Rugby World Cup final last year, England’s lineout was a spotless 14 off 14.

Cokayne was educated at Feilding High School. In 2012 Feilding was 51-0 across a season of fifteens, tens’ and sevens’ matches, scoring 2380 points.

1. Rochelle Clark (England) – When Rochelle Clark retired from international rugby in 2018 the loosehead prop was the most-capped female international of all time with 137 Tests (112 wins). Furthermore, she was the most capped English player male or female, eclipsing the 114 Tests played by fellow prop and hero Jason Leonard.

Clark debuted in Colorado in 2003 where she earned her enduring nickname ‘Rocky.’ She played in the 2006, 2010, and 2017 Rugby World Cup finals against the Black Ferns and featured in series wins against the Black Ferns in 2011 and 2012. New Tightheads Mel Ngati, Moana Aiatu, Stephanie Te Ohaere-Fox, and Kathleen Wilton were all outmuscled.

She rated the 2017 victory against the Black Ferns in Rotorua as her finest.

“The game management was outstanding. Everyone knew their job and stuck to it. As usual, it was a physical game, but New Zealand struggled to reach our level and Katy Daley-McLean’s tactical kicking was a masterclass,” Clark said.

“New Zealand’s physicality is less overt than France’s, but they are really hard and supremely skilled. I love the New Zealand Rugby culture too. You go past parks and kids are tackling each other or kicking a rugby ball. It’s always on telly and the clubs look after you like you’re family.”

Clark’s Test try tally of 25 is double that of the male prop world record holder Martin Castrogiovanni, who dotted down a dozen times in 119 Tests for Italy.

Honourable Mentions

Sarah Hunter holds the world record for most tests by a female with 140 (120 wins) as well as the record for most internationals, male or female, as captain of England. Hunter led the Red Roses into battle 84 times and won on 65 occasions. She played in series victories against the Black Ferns in 2011, 2012, and 2021. Despite her longevity and versatility, she was never as dynamic as those selected in this squad.

Canadian goal-kicking loose forward Sophie De Goode has been consistently outstanding in recent seasons.

With Fiao’o Fa’amausili, Kathy Flores is the only woman to appear in the Rugby World Cup five times. In 1991 she featured for the USA when they won the inaugural tournament, beating the Black Ferns 7-0 in the semi-final. When she died in 2021 there was a moment of silence in her honour before the All Blacks v USA Test in Washington. She had an obituary published in the New York Times.

Centre Jenny Crawford was another who featured in that 1991 tournament and captained the USA in their 1998 World Cup final loss to the Black Ferns.

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