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WORK IN PROGRESS

8 September 2022
australia v new zealand o'reilly cup
Joanah Ngan-Woo was the outstanding Black Ferns forward during the Laurie O’Reilly Cup.

The Black Ferns have done the business on the field – racking up a 5-0 record under Wayne Smith, retaining the Laurie O’Reilly Cup last month, bedding in a new game plan and blooding several new players. So their progress is clear, their performances on an upward tangent. What is not so clear is just how far they have come to the point where they can challenge global heavyweights and lineout driving England or France in the Rugby World Cup semifinal or final, should they meet them on November 5 or 12. We know they are fitter than they were last year; we know they are desperate to use the width and their skills to play a high tempo game.

But if you are only as good as your last game, then there is much to be done. After a slick 52-5 demolition of the Wallaroos to seal the Laurie O’Reilly in Christchurch last month, we eagerly awaited what they might do on a dry track under a warm afternoon sun in Adelaide for a historic first Test in this under-rated Australian city.

‘We know they are fitter than they were last year; we know they are desperate to use the width and their skills to play a high tempo game.’

The Black Ferns ran in eight tries on August 20, having a look at sevens stars Tyla Nathan-Wong and Theresa Fitzpatrick. Their short passing game and tempo, dictated, as ever, by Kendra Cocksedge in just her second and last Test in her adopted home city, was too much for the Wallaroos.

Charmaine McMenamin, in her first Test since 2019, made a pleasing return at No 8. Coach Wayne Smith was not, however, happy with some of the accuracy and called his troops out publicly on it. The scoreline was impressive, but he is about standards and performance. A week later, much had changed. He again rang the changes, while the Wallaroos were unrecognisable in attitude, if not in personnel.

The home team brought heat at the breakdown and the Black Ferns, who again adopted the short passing game through the forwards, did not deal with it efficiently. There were too many handling errors, and the backline flow was not helped when Chelsea Semple was concussed and yellow carded for one of those accidental head clashes that happen in rugby from time to time but which are being ruled on with too heavy a hand. At 22-7 with 17 minutes to play, though, the Black Ferns still had control.

Their locks, Maia Roos and the industrious Joanah Ngan-Woo, were in fine form, and the abrasive loose forward Kendra Reynolds showed her power with a try in close. The 22-14 final margin may have seemed flattering to Australia, but the Black Ferns know that you have to bring that mental application for the entire 80 minutes. It anything, it will have knocked any complacency out of them ahead of the October 8 Rugby World Cup opener against the same opponents at Eden Park.

The RWC squad, believed to be 32 in number, will be announced on September 13. The timing of that is significant, because it will be two days after the Black Ferns Sevens have finished their second pinnacle event, the RWC Sevens in Cape Town, in six weeks. The decks will be cleared, the Farah Palmer finals will be done and dusted – where we have seen some good rugby in the Premiership – and it will be about training, honing skills and strategy, and the final September 24 hitout against Japan, known as the Sakura 15, a historic Test at Eden Park against the world’s number 13 team, who squared a home series with Ireland last month.

That last hitout was originally supposed to be against the NZ Barbarians, who would have provided a sterner test, but this will still be a bonafide international. “Adding another Test to our schedule is important – the more we can train and play together the better. Eden Park is a fantastic venue, and getting the chance to play there before the World Cup is fantastic,” says Smith.

“We saw Japan beat Australia earlier this year, so know they are a team that is building. We are really grateful to have some strong opposition before we start the World Cup. Playing our first Test against them, at Eden Park, will be a great occasion.” The time for experimentation will be over, as that Test will be played with 23 of the 32 RWC squad.

Smith has certainly left no stone unturned in giving opportunities to all those in the hunt for selection during June and August. The big variable is how many of the Sevens Sisters he will name. Most will be in the backline, where one would think Portia Woodman, who was nigh on unstoppable at Rugby World Cup 2017, Stacey Fluhler and Kelly Brazier are locks. Ruby Tui has already committed to 15s and she should be among the chosen 32 as her form has warranted it. Theresa Fitzpatrick could well make it, as there is no Grace Brooker and the midfield ranks are thinner than in other positions.

Fluhler could operate at centre, while Amy du Plessis has taken her chances with some compelling displays of late. Sylvia Brunt has the X-factor that might be needed to unlock the defences of the top sides. Wing Ayesha Leti-I’iga, now an established and high-performing Black Fern, is a certainty, though she has to work harder for her tries than she does for Ories and the Wellington Pride. Renee Holmes appeals as the best fullback. Brazier and Hazel Tubic are the utility back options, while captain Ruahei Demant can play at 10 or 12, but looks to be the preferred first five. She is a smart, resourceful player with a good pass.

The halfbacks will be Cocksedge, Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu and Ariana Bayler, all offering something slightly different but with an ability to adapt the game plan. The pack has options aplenty, but it looks like McMenamin has made a late rails run to make the squad, while Kendra Reynolds, Kaipo Olsen-Baker (if over her knee injury), Tafito Lafaele and Alana Bremner (as long as she tidies up her handling) will be the core of the loose forwards. Kennedy Simon’s injury in Adelaide did not look good.

Will Sarah Hirini, the reigning NZR player of the year, commit to this team? If she is available, then surely you must pick her. It looks like Smith has decided former captain Les Elder and Eloise Blackwell, despite decent FPC form, do not meet his requirements. So the onus will go on the likes of Roos, Ngan-Woo and Chelsea Bremner to lead the second row charge. Tanya Kalounivale is the best tighthead scrummager, but one would think Amy Rule, Krystal Murray and Pip Love will also be in the mix.

‘But while there remains just one more Test before the Rugby World Cup, the reality is this: they will comfortably beat Japan and then RWC pool opponents Australia, Wales and Scotland.’

What about the young comer Santo Taumata, who debuted in Adelaide and looked at home? Luka Connor shapes up as the top hooker, following in the footsteps of two of the greats in Farah Palmer and Fiao’o Faamausili, who dominated that Black Ferns No 2 jersey for two decades. Smith and his assistants Wes Clarke and Whitney Hansen, plus selector Sir Graham Henry, will have some tough calls to make before September 13. But while there remains just one more Test before the Rugby World Cup, the reality is this: they will comfortably beat Japan and then RWC pool opponents Australia, Wales and Scotland.

They should then win their quarter-final, as they will likely be in the top 2-3 seeds out of the pool stages. That will leave November 5 as the semifinal and D-Day, potentially against RWC favourite England or recent nemesis France. Only then will we know how far this Black Ferns team have come and be able to gauge the full extent of their progress.

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