This weekend’s other big rugby test
The Black Ferns have never lost to Australia's Wallaroos. They'll be calling on five debutants, including Southland's teenaged prodigy Alena Saili, to defend that record on Saturday night. Steve Deane reports.
There’s an unmissable rolling of the rrrs when Alena Saili describes her mental state ahead of her Black Ferns debut against the Australian Wallaroos in Sydney on Saturday night.
“I’m pretty nervous,” the 19-year-old softly says with a classic Southland burr. “But extremely excited.”
So too will folks down in the Deep South be, as another rugby prodigy of Samoan origins takes her next step on the world stage.
Saili isn’t quite a born and bred Southlander, but she’s pretty darn close. Born in Porirua, she moved south with her family when she was one. She grew up trailing round the province’s rugby fields watching her mother, Maima, crunch the ball up for the Marist and Collegiate clubs.
“I was always like a water girl or a tee girl. I was destined to play rugby from a young age,” Saili says.
If she was lucky, she’d get to stay up late and watch perhaps the region’s most famous Samoan, Mils Muliaina, shred defences for the All Blacks.
“I can remember my parents putting the TV on late at night for us to fall asleep watching the rugby,” she says.
There will certainly be no snoozing on Saturday night, as Saili joins four other debutants in a Black Ferns side that will defend the country’s unbeaten record against Australia.
In truth, contests between the nations’ women’s rugby teams have not historically been close. The Black Ferns have won all 14 matches between the sides dating back to 1994, and the margins of victory have typically been wide.
To put that in context, only three nations have ever defeated the Black Ferns – England (seven times in 24 attempts), Ireland once and the United States once.
So, Australia is hardly the Lone Ranger when it comes to struggling against the Black Ferns. Australia, though, is the reigning Olympic champion in women’s rugby sevens, and has this year introduced a fully-fledged women’s competition based around its Super Rugby franchises. They are improving – and improving fast.
“[The undefeated record] is something we have actually talked about,” Black Ferns coach Glenn Moore says. “I’ve spent a bit of time in Australia over the last year and got to see them play in their Super Rugby competition here, and it is fair to say they have improved a lot. They’ve got new coaches and new players.
“They will be different opposition to what we have played in the past.”
The Wallaroos squad for the home and away two-test series boasts 13 uncapped players, so there will be debutants aplenty in the battle for the Laurie O’Reilly Memorial Trophy.
Saili, at least, has the comfort of having already played for her country in sevens. She became a contracted Black Ferns Sevens squad member last year - just a year after leading the Southland Girls’ First XV to the national title with a hat-trick in the final against St Mary’s.
In sevens, she plays as a blockbusting prop, but she has the skill, raw pace and evasion to play wing in the 15-a-side game.
“She probably hasn’t played a lot of 15s over the last couple of years, but she has been on the sevens circuit and she has impressed us in the camps we have brought her into,” says Moore.
“She is powerful and has the pace and ability to beat people and score tries. The thing that impresses me most is that for a young athlete, she is also a very good communicator. She reads the game well and is able to communicate that to the front line also.”
The call-up to the Black Ferns 15s was particularly welcome after Saili missed out on selection for last month's Rugby World Cup Sevens.
“After all the training that I’ve done, it's pretty cool to get out there on the pitch, especially with this team. That makes it even cooler," she says.
“Growing up I always watched the 15s teams play, so to come into it and see it all… it’s just pretty buzzy for me to be a part of this group and a part of this team.”
The team, she confirmed, is well aware they are defending an unbeaten record against a traditional Kiwi sporting foe.
“There is a bit of pressure there, but hopefully we’ll be able to overcome it. Hopefully we can get out there and just go hard from the start. They could do anything, so we just have to be prepared and be ready for whatever they bring at us.”
The team is without sevens stars Portia Woodman, Sarah Goss and Kelly Brazier, who have decided to concentrate on their World Cup recovery and preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
First five-eighths Ruahei Demant debuts alongside Saili in the Black Ferns’ starting line-up, while Cristo Tofa, Leilani Perese and Krysten Cottrell could make their first appearances from the bench.
The match is the first of five tests the Black Ferns are scheduled to play this season. They face the Wallaroos again at Eden Park next Saturday night, and will play three more tests on a Northern Hemisphere tour in November. That tour begins with a match against USA in Chicago, followed by two tests against France.
About the Laurie O’Reilly Memorial Trophy
The trophy is named in honour of the first Black Ferns selector, coach and stalwart of women’s rugby, Laurie O’Reilly, who, in 1989, selected and coached New Zealand’s first national female team.
The trophy was commissioned following O’Reilly’s death in 1998, and has been on the line in matches between the Black Ferns and Wallaroos ever since.
New Zealand and Australia’s women’s teams first met in 1994 and played annually until 1998, with the Black Ferns winning all of the matches by a large margin.