Black Ferns shock the world
Seldom, if ever, would the words ‘New Zealand shocks the world’ be applied to a victory by one of this country’s rugby union teams. That is, though, exactly what happened Sunday morning as the Blacks Ferns rolled England to claim the women’s Rugby World Cup in Northern Ireland.
Having toppled the Black Ferns in Rotorua in June to underscore their superiority, reigning world champions England were the strong favourites heading into the final at Belfast’s Kingspan Stadium.
Both teams had cruised through pool play and a semi-final without being seriously challenged, however England’s unrelenting forward play had seemed particularly impregnable. Pre-match conjecture had focused on whether the New Zealanders could attain parity in the forwards, acquiring enough quality ball for their backs – and star wing Portia Woodman in particular – to make a game of it.
After 40 minutes of the final, the answer that appeared to be an unequivocal: ‘no’. England dominated possession, territory and the scoreboard 17-10. Not only had the English forwards demonstrated their expected edge, their backs were unexpectedly sharp, scoring a terrific try through wing Lydia Thompson.
If there was hope for the Black Ferns, it existed in the shape of prop Toka Natua’s rampaging runs across the advantage line.
Natua’s score from a rolling maul penalty drive just before half time cut a 12-point deficit to seven, and her second four minutes in to the second half levelled things up.
It wasn’t immediately obvious, but the game had already turned on its head. Playing tight, controlled pick-and-go rugby, the New Zealanders were overpowering the much-vaunted English pack.
England chipped ahead with a penalty goal but the lead was short-lived as prop Charmaine Smith crossed for the Black Ferns, containing the field day for the Kiwi front rowers.
With rolls now fully reversed, England’s Thompson scored her second sizzling try – beating Woodman all ends up in the process – to put England back on top by a point.
The Black Ferns’ pack, though, was not going to be denied. Natua smashed through the brittle English defensive line, released the ball then swiftly regathered to scuttle over for her hat-trick.
That was the breaking point for England, as it dawned upon them they had no answer for a furious forward assault they had never seen coming.
Playing with precision and control, the Black Ferns crossed twice more to seal the contest, with halfback Kendra Cocksedge sneaking over from close range and Selica Winiata finishing off out wide after a pinpoint cross-kick from first five-eighths Victoria Subritzky-Nafatali.
For the New Zealanders – once the undisputed powerhouse of the women’s game – the victory erased the pain of 2013’s horror campaign, when a shock loss to Ireland saw them fail to qualify from pool play.
The triumph is the country’s fifth title from eight tournaments dating back to 1991. That first Cup was claimed by the United States, with England finishing runners-up, as they have now on five occasions.
New Zealand, by contrast, has never lost a final, winning four-straight between 1998 and 2010 and then again on Sunday.
Making the latest triumph even more meritorious is the fact that England’s players are now fully professional, while many of the Black Ferns are semi-pro at best.
English rugby has invested plenty in a bid to achieve the ultimate success in the women’s game, and the pain of the failure to do so was evident, with at least two players refusing to don their runner up medals.
It’s not often a New Zealand rugby team will head into a contest comparatively under-resourced, under-rated and a clear underdog. So it’s not often we will shock the world. Sunday was a rare day indeed.
"We dug deep," Black Ferns captain Fiao'o Fa'amausili said.
"[England] really gave it to us in that first 15-20 minutes. But our girls showed the character in our team, the culture in our team and I could not be any prouder."