Krystal Murray is resourceful. The Black Ferns prop holds up the loosehead side of the scrum, kicks goals, and has the attacking attributes of a midfield back.
Before the Rugby World Cup final against England last year Black Ferns Director of Rugby Sir Wayne Smith was asked who’s the most likely candidate to kick a winning drop goal.
“Krystal Murray would be number one. I showed her how to do a back-heeled one, the other day and she not only did it the first time; she also turned side on and did it,” Smith responded.
Murray added, “I can’t remember not being able to do something with a rugby ball. I’ve been holding one for 25 years. I know how it bounces, how to kick it and how to pass.”
Murray will require all her resourcefulness and muscle to help the Black Ferns conquer England in the final fixture of WXV 1 at Go Media Stadium in Auckland on Saturday.
The Black Ferns must beat England while picking up more or the same number of bonus points to capture the inaugural title.
The Black Ferns only resurfaced as title contenders after the Wallaroos stunning upset of France, who had beaten New Zealand (18-17) in Wellington in the opening round. As expected the Black Ferns overpowered Wales 70-7 in round two.
England have won all nine Tests in 2023 and have prevailed in 57 of their last 60 internationals. Their lineout drive is kryptonite. Hooker Lark Atkin-Davies scored a world record four tries in a 45-12 hammering of Canada last Friday. That followed a 42-7 mauling of Australia.
Saturday is the first meeting between the Black Ferns and England since the transformational World Cup final won by the Black Ferns 34-31 at Eden Park. The Red Roses unprecedented 30-match winning streak was broken.
Murray scored a try and was the last player to touch the ball after lifting lock Jonah Ngan-Woo who stole an English lineout five metres short of the Black Ferns’ line. England had scored four tries from lineout drives.
“It happened so fast. We knew we had to defend the line at all costs. We didn’t care how. We’re lucky we had a great lock in Joanah who said, ‘We’ve got to win it in the air’,” Murray recalled.
“She tapped the ball and it headed toward me. My first thought was just to catch the bloody thing. I got stuck in an awkward position where I couldn’t breathe. Someone was lying on top of me and then everyone was on top of me. My stomach hurt but I could hear ‘Gossie’ (Sarah Hirini) screaming ‘Don’t let go, don’t let go.’”
England are unlikely to relinquish any advantage if gained on Saturday. Their rolling maul is running like a locomotive. Loose forward and captain Mairle Parker (43 tries) is due to play her 99th Test. Wingers Abby Dow (33 tries in 39 Tests) and Jessica Breach (36 tries in 32 Tests) are clinical finishers.
“We’ve got to trust what we’ve been learning to do and match their energy physically. The rolling maul is a massive asset to them. We know what’s coming,” Murray said.
Avoiding penalties and territory, calculating the right time to contest a lineout, and staying connected with firm shoulders and strong leg driving appears the only way to thwart the maul – and the Black Ferns simply have to. Hooker Amy Cokayne has scored six tries in the last two tests against the Black Ferns despite not running a single metre for each try.
The Black Ferns lost their own,16-match unbeaten streak when France toppled them in Wellington. With an infuriating and unusual 15 handling errors, the hosts were the architects of their own demise.
“We went away from our process when chasing the lead. We needed to have more trust in our plan,” Murray admitted.
“We found our feet in the second half. Our timing on when to go all-out or show restraint was better. We’re still fine-tuning ourselves. We’ve got some relatively new players, that’s no excuse, but it takes time to build new combinations and adapt to different conditions.”
“We were controlled well by our leadership group against Wales. We got good messages from them and stuck to the task.”
Murray engaged in a right royal scrum tussle with tighthead Clara Joyeux (42 Tests) against France. Murray was subbed in the 46th minute after she conceded a penalty but returned 18 minutes later following a red card to Chryss Viliko and decimated Les Tricolores.
“It was just a good tussle between some front rowers. It can go one way or the other. It’s about mindset and getting the little things right,” Murray said.
“When you go down one it makes you kick up another level. Everybody has to work harder. We showed good character to stay in the fight.”
Murray’s likely opponent against England is the world-class Sarah Bern (60 Tests, 20 tries).
Domestically, the Black Ferns’ prop has had a big season.
Keeping the Northland Farah Palmer Cup side in sync is a battle. Despite enormous logistical challenges, the Kauri won the championship when they upset Manawatū 32-29 in the final at Central Energy Arena in Palmerston North.
Remarkably the lights in the stadium went off with six minutes remaining and the visitors hanging on grimly to the lead. There was a 25-minute delay.
“‘Don’t you fellas pay your power bill’ I asked one of my Manawatū sisters,” Murray said.
“It couldn’t have happened at a better time for us because Manawatū were starting to gain on us.”
Northland’s enterprising approach, where it was sometimes difficult to distinguish the difference between backs and forwards, was exhausting to play and required a lot of ingenuity.
Former Black Ferns World Cup-winning loose forward Aroha Savage was named Back of the Year at the Northland Rugby Awards. Savage covered five positions in 2023.
Murray and hooker Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate were like a pair of turbo twins. Between them, they scored a dozen tries and delivered 40 offloads. Northland had the size to bully and maul opponents and that, coupled with improving fitness, was a toxic recipe.
“To be honest my highlight of the season was the first time we played Manawatū. We lost that game, but it was the moment I recognised how adaptable our Northland players are,” Murray said.
“We spoke about our game plan the night before. It was changing and we needed a bit of buy-in, which we got. When we played Manawatū next time we knew exactly what we had to work on to be able to win the championship.”
Northland’s training base is in Kerikeri. None of the Kauri players live there. Kerikeri just happened to be the most convenient place to get to for Tuesday night training.
“Northland starts at Kaipara and stretches to Te Hāpua. She’s a big place,” Murray observed.
“We have girls travel from Whangārei, Te Kao, Pukenui, Kaipara and Kaitaia to train. Some of those drives are over two hours but it is what it is.
“A lot of girls have home lives and there are quite a lot of Mums in the team, so the travel is too much for two trainings a week, so we had to be quick and organised to get across our content.
“We call our towns hubs. I’m part of the Kaitaia hub. Girls from the surrounding areas and I train on a Thursday. Being a Black Fern I can definitely impart a lot of knowledge to help those with other lives upskill.”
The youngest of five siblings, Murray was raised in Kaitaia and started playing rugby aged nine. A Northland Secondary Schools representative, she joined the Army after leaving college, was a supply technician for five years and built dog kennels. She played touch, rugby, and league. In 2017 she represented the rugby league Kiwi Ferns in the World Cup, scoring five tries in five matches for the runners-up.
Murray was a foundation player for the Te Rarawa senior women’s team in Ahipara in 2018. They won Northland’s Rana Paraha Trophy in 2019 and 2023.
With 216 points in 29 appearances (including tries in seven consecutive games), Murray holds the Northland records for most points and tries (19). She holds the single-season marks for most points (65), conversions (14), and penalties (5). When the Black Ferns won the Rugby World Cup last year a street parade was thrown in Kaitaia.
“Being acknowledged by our small community was very special. It was awesome to see all the kids out, even little boys saying they want to be Black Ferns. It’s important to show the community things that do happen north of the Mangamuku Gorge.”
The Black Ferns against England kicks off at Go Media Stadium, Auckland at 7:05 pm and is live on Sky Sport.