Black Ferns director of rugby Wayne Smith selected 39 players in five internationals before he named his Rugby World Cup squad on September 13. Of the 15 Test debutantes selected, seven failed to make the cut for the World Cup squad. Lock and loose forward Joanah Ngan- Woo has experienced little consternation about her position. The 2019 debutante came off the bench in the 23-10 win over Australia in the Pac Four Series in Tauranga in June, and she has started every game thereafter.
On August 27, she produced a star turn in the 22-14 win over Australia in the second Test of the Laurie O’Reilly Cup series in Adelaide. Stuff noted of her performance: “The best Black Fern on the field in her 60 minutes. Did it all with her carries, defence and offloads. Worked her way over for a crucial try early in the second half.” “I’m super excited about the World Cup, says Ngan-Woo.
“We’ve been building consistently throughout the year with camps, Test matches and the inclusion of the sevens girls, who have added greater professionalism and cohesion.” “I’m really enjoying the game plan we’re playing at the moment. It’s suited to the skills I have and allows me to express myself more. Now we have fulltime contracts, I have more time to analyse my game and improve upon my fitness.”
Ngan-Woo, who has a degree in international relations and is employed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is often sighted at Wellington Lions practices. “They used to restrict what I could do but when they discovered I could handle a bit, we tackle each other hard out and do full-on lineouts and scrums. The boys have been really good at teaching me the processes they go through to deal with things. It’s helped my game a lot.”
Dominic Bird, the tallest All Black of all-time, standing at 2.06m, is one of Ngan-Woo’s (1.80m) competitors. “He’s massive. I feel like an ant standing beside him. He’s real technical in the lineouts but explains things really well.” A functioning lineout and the ability to both start and defend rolling mauls will be essential for the Black Ferns’ World Cup success. On the 2021 northern tour, the Black Ferns were pulverised by the English and the French in this facet of the game. “We’ve been privileged to have Mike Cron, one of the best forward coaches in the world, helping us out. He’s given us all kinds of little techniques to improve on both attack and defence. I feel way more confident now. “Probably the most valuable thing he has taught us is you only have two or three seconds to react, so you have to be decisive with the call and have clarity in each person’s role. We’ve been doing a lot of training to close the back door as we know the English and French will bring it.”
At the provincial level, Ngan-Woo has established a formidable and durable locking partnership with former Black Fern Jackie Patea-Fereti. This year in Test rugby she has partnered with Chelsea Bremner from Canterbury and Maia Roos from Auckland. “I feel I have a good connection with Maia because we played together in the NZ Barbarians in 2020. She’s thin and fast and goes everywhere, whereas I’m a little bulkier and love to carry. “Chelsea is similar in work-rate but I haven’t played with her much so don’t know her as well, but they’re both super exciting talents.”
Eloise Blackwell, a 46-Test Black Fern, was a World Cup winner in 2017. She missed the squad but has been a mentor for Ngan-Woo. With 25 Test wins in a row, England is the resounding favourite for the World Cup. However, Italy knocking over France last month, Australia stretching New Zealand (once) in August, and Canada improving quickly suggests the tournament isn’t necessarily a one-horse race. “The Italy-France result shows how much the game is growing and analysis is improving. France beat Italy the game before but Italy learned something and took a different approach into the next Test. “Australia is really good in the contact areas. They get to the gain line from their carries, so we’re going to have to adjust our tackles to better stop that. “Canada is more technical. They’re good at set-piece and well organised. The USA had really solid offloading skills and brought the physicality.”
The ascent of Ngan-Woo will surprise few in Wellington. A product of St Catherine’s College, where she won a First XV Premiership in her first season in 2009, Ngan-Woo has become a mainstay of both the Oriental Rongotai (Ories) club and Wellington Pride. She was the first woman to reach the milestone of 100 games for Oriental Rongotai, fittingly celebrating that milestone with a 21-20 victory over fierce rivals Norths. Between 2014 and 2021, Ories won 94 of their 105 games by an average score of 51-10. They were Tia Passi Memorial Cup champions in 2014, 2017, 2019 and 2021.
In the 2021 final, Ngan-Woo scored two tries in a 26-15 win against Norths to secure the inaugural Dawn Patelesio Medal as the player of the final. Patelesio played 302 senior games and represented Manusina at the 2002 World Cup in Barcelona. Ories won the first round Rebecca Liua’ana Trophy five times in this span too, having never won any competition previously. She had played 58 games for the Wellington Pride before this season and scored 16 tries. In 2020 she captained her province, and a year later she was nominated for the Fiao’o Faamausili Medal as Farah Palmer Cup player of the year.
Ngan-Woo and wing Ayesha Leti-I’iga are the only Wellington-based players in the Black Ferns. Both are from the Ories, where Leti-I’iga has scored an incredible 170 tries in 67 games in addition to her 56 tries in 43 games for Wellington. “At Ories prizegiving, they had a little presentation for Ayesha and I. It’s really special the support they have given us over the years. It’s a pity there isn’t a World Cup game in Wellington, but we’ll be giving it heaps and hoping to make our friends and family proud,” Ngan-Woo concludes.
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