The inaugural WXV1 concluded on Saturday at Go Media Stadium in Auckland with England overpowering the Black Ferns 33-12 to win the title. The Red Roses finished 2023 with an unblemished 10-0 record. Previously they enjoyed resounding victories over Australia (42-7) and Canada (45-12) in the WXV1 series.
WXV1 represents a new frontier for international women’s rugby with the top three teams in the Six Nations set to meet the top three countries in the Pacific 4 series annually. Already the benefits of exposure to greater competition could be seen in the marked improvement of Australia. The Wallaroos upset of France was a monumental surprise.
For the Black Ferns, two defeats and a fourth-place finish is a failure. The loss to England is their largest on home soil and few would argue with the outcome.
The French setback on opening weekend in Wellington will linger. It was a match the Black Ferns could, should and would have won if they had treasured possession more carefully. A disastrous 15 handling errors literally handed Les Tricolors the spoils.
England Top Dogs
England arrived ranked world number one and left having prevailed, now winning 58 of their last 61 internationals.
Vast experience no doubt played a part in their success. England boasted 525 more Test caps than the Black Ferns The Red Roses lineout drive remains kryptonite. Hooker Lark Atkin-Davies scored five tries in a fortnight, but it would be misleading to present England as geriatric, bullying maulers.
The Red Roses haven’t radically altered their approach – still ruthlessly efficient at set-piece -but they are far from one-dimensional.
Every player in the starting XV on the final Saturday had scored at least a single test try. Combined outside backs Abby Dow, Jess Breach, Claudia MacDonald, and Ellie Kildunne have crossed for 108 tries between them. Fullback Kildunne is a delightful talent, audacious, graceful, and smiley.
England has rejuvenated their roster with only 10 players from the Rugby World Cup final in 2022 featuring in Saturday’s win. Blindside Morwenna Talling, lock Rosie Galligan, and sturdy second-five Tatyana Heard look set for a long tenure in white.
Black Ferns Lacking Cohesion?
The Black Ferns’ expansive, intuitive and possession-based approach has captivated the imagination of rugby fans. It’s attracted a distinctly newer and vibrant audience too. Free-wheeling tactics largely endured in 2023 but not with the same success.
The Rugby World Cup strategy was born out of the reality that the pack was a mile behind where it needed to be. The opposition and Black Ferns themselves are now different. This year the forwards arguably made the biggest strides. Liana Mikaele-Tu’u and Maia Roos enhanced their reputations and have emerged as key leaders. Props Chryss Viliko (despite her red card against France) Kate Henwood and Sophie Fisher have disrupted the Canterbury front row monopoly.
The Black Ferns bullied France in the second half but were wasteful. They persisted with high risks inside their territory when a more measured strategy would have won the match.
A total of 45 tries in seven Tests suggests there is enough ammunition to persevere with a form of all-out attack. Rookie wingers Kaytlin Vaha’akolo and Mererangi Paul were both nominated for World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year with the former capturing the accolade. Ruby Tui was sharp after a US sabbatical.
The supply chains to get the ball to the speedsters were inconsistent. Nobody conclusively stamped their authority at halfback, the retirement of the Black Ferns’ most capped player Kendra Cocksedge (68 Tests) keenly felt. Rahui Demant was unchallenged at first five, but defensive kicking doesn’t yet appear to be part of her repertoire.
The midfield of Sylvia Brunt and Amy Du Plessis is undoubtedly promising but will take time to emulate the excellence of Thressa Fitzpatrick and Stacey Waaka. When England’s most experienced player Marile Packer debuted in 2008, Brunt was only four years old.
It’s worth noting the Black Ferns Sevens gold medal Olympic-winning cohort of Tui, Fitzpatrick, Waaka, Portia Woodman and Sarah Hirini had played a combined 185 World Series tournaments to the end of 2022. They scored 21 of the Black Ferns 44 Rugby World Cup tries.
A decade of professional training, playing, friendship and nous no longer exists. Not to mention England had a red card in the World Cup final last year when ahead 14-0. They conceded three tries in the corner that winger Lydia Thomspon would have been defending.
Black Ferns Director of Rugby Alan Bunting admitted: “My biggest lesson has been just patience. We want to win now, but that’s a pretty experienced English team and they’ve been professional for six years.
“They’ve had quite a bit of time, and with patience, and I know, with a bit more time and getting to play them more often, we’ll know how they play.”
Demant believes the Black Ferns “Rugby IQ” has expanded enormously. Different coaches bring specific strengths that expand ideas and create “better reading of pictures and solutions” within a game. Good habits around diet, gym and video analysis are becoming more ingrained.
Outside of a Rugby World Cup 2023, was the Black Ferns’ busiest year with seven Tests.
A New Zealand v England Trophy?
The Black Ferns and England is the most storied rivalry in women’s international rugby. The ountries are responsible for winning eight out of nine Rugby World Cups. Unlike the Black Ferns and Australia, New Zealand and England don’t play for a trophy.
When the question of who a potential trophy could be named after was posed to captains Ruahei Demant and Marile Packer there was initial hesitation and then support, in principle, for the idea.
Without long consideration, Alan Bunting quipped, “Smithy” (Sir Wayne Smith) would be a worthy name. Former players Anna Richards, Dame Farah Palmer, Huriana Manuel, Gill Burns, Carol Isherwood and Maggie Alphonsi are all inductees of the World Rugby Hall of Fame. What about Karen Almond, the 1994 English World Cup-winning captain who settled in Christchurch and contributed to Canterbury rugby?
When New Zealand plays England in men’s rugby, they compete for the Sir Edmund Hillary Trophy. What about a female figure that’s had a great contribution to society being acknowledged?
Here’s a nomination: the late Māori Queen Dame Te Atairangikaahu had a strong relationship with the royal family and was an avid supporter of culture and sport. She played an active role in local and global political events involving indigenous issues.
In 2023 the Black Ferns and All Blacks had more players red-carded than they have had in their entire history. Players are better prepared than ever with more training, more access to video footage and more coaches yet statistically they are more ill-disciplined. That makes no sense. What does it say about the laws of the game and how they are being enforced?
In World XV1 there were 10 cards (7 yellow, 3 red) issued in nine games. Of course, player safety is paramount and foul play needs to be punished but a team playing with fewer numbers is unfair and contravenes the spirit of fairness supposedly inherent within the sport. Playing undermanned is like telling a boxer that they can only punch with one arm.
There must be better ways for dealing with foul play and ensuring safety than the currently punitive reduction of numbers. Replacement players, penalty points, judiciary sentences. There are plenty of smart minds around with better solutions that keep numbers even.
Ruahei Demant was asked before the final how the Black Ferns would respond if she was sent off. Her response referred to the second-minute red card to Iritana Hohaia in a test in July.
“That was a gift because it gave us an opportunity. We thought we had a plan, but we had to adjust a bit. We’ve planned for a lot of ‘what ifs.’ We know what playing with 14 or 13 looks like. We trust our process and each other,” she said.
The fact that this question is even being asked, a red card is described as a “gift,” and much preparation time is given to tackling a negative handicap rather than positive skills is an indictment on the game.
Aussie, Aussie, Aussie
Ironically Australia received two of the three red cards but won two matches. The Wallaroos surprise 29-20 victory over France was the only real surprise of the tournament. Prop Eva Karpani was an unlikely hero with three tries.
Australia has opened a high-performance hub in Brisbane and made advances towards professionalism and it showed in their improvement and passion.
The Black Ferns have never lost in 25 Test matches against Australia. They were genuinely delighted with their neighbours’ improving fortunes.
“I’m stoked for them. They’ve worked hard. A stronger Australia helps New Zealand,” prop Kyrstal Murray said.
Rikki Swannell had a huge workload at the men’s Rugby World Cup and created history by becoming the first female broadcaster to be a lead play-by-play announcer on an All Blacks Test. With little rest, she returned to Wellington and croaked her way through the Black Ferns and France. Thankfully her throat recovered quickly. Enthusiastic, informed, confident, and original, Swannell is very much the voice of the Black Ferns now. (Wellington-based Iwi radio station Te Upoko O Te Ika covered all three of NZ’s World XV1 matches.
Why are we Waiting?
In the three double header exchanges the wait between matches stretched to an hour. Earnest warmups, officious officials looking officially important, but doing nothing and audio sewage from obnoxious PAs were the only things to keep the crowd entertained. Why do two matches of rugby take as long to complete as a day at cricket? At a Sevens tournament teams roll out continuously.
Why are we paying five bucks for a hotdog on a stick when we can pay half that for a sausage at Bunnings which actually sponsors women’s rugby? Fans know when they’re being short-changed with mediocre and expensive food and beverages.