Stage set for epic Kiwi Ferns-Jillaroos showdown
It’s shaping up to be a clash of the ages: the buoyant Kiwi Ferns taking on the hurting Jillaroos in the transTasman double header in Wollongong on Friday night. Here are five reasons why you should watch (live on Sky Sport 4, 7.30pm).
1. Honey Hireme-Smiler.
Clearly one of the best players rugby of any kind has seen, Kiwi Ferns captain Honey Hireme-Smiler will lead her team into battle at WIN Stadium set on collecting a second trophy in a week.
A pioneer of women’s league, Hireme-Smiler has a new determination in her step after missing the NRLW this season - poised to line up for the Warriors for the first time, she instead focused on caring for her terminally ill mum.
But in her return, she was a star of the Kiwi Ferns’ inaugural World Cup 9s upset victory in Sydney last weekend, dedicating it to mum Caryn, who passed away a month ago.
At 38, the cross-code superstar won’t be playing forever, so take every opportunity you can to watch this legend of the game tearing up the field.
The recently married Hireme-Smiler was one of four Kiwis chosen in the women’s tournament team at the 9s, alongside Warriors captain Georgia Hale, playmaker Raecene McGregor and winger Kiana Takairangi.
2. They’re fresh from winning a world title.
The shock 17-15 final win over the Jillaroos in the World Cup 9s still has the Kiwi Ferns camp buzzing. Fifteen of that world champion team will suit up to play in this one-off test.
The Jillaroos were hot favourites going into the 9s final after winning all three of their pool games, including a defeat of New Zealand on day one. Shutting down menacing Australian captain Ali Brigginshaw in the final was key to the Kiwi Ferns’ victory. The Kiwi Ferns' skills and fitness have obviously been honed from their time playing in the NRLW.
As in all good transTasman rivalries, there’s no love lost between these two nations – apparently there was very little hand-shaking going on after the final.
3. The game will be close.
Like their netball cousins, most clashes between these two league nations are neck and neck these days.
Although it’s been three years since the Kiwi Ferns notched up a test victory over the Jillaroos (a 26-16 drubbing in the 2016 Anzac test), they came oh-so close in their last encounter in Auckland last year. The Jillaroos were forced to chase the rampant Kiwis, but a try in the 75th minute from Australian centre Isabelle Kelly sealed their 26-24 win – and broke New Zealand hearts.
It may be a see-saw battle for supremacy these days, but once upon a time the Kiwi Ferns completely dominated the Jillaroos. The Aussies notched up their first win over New Zealand in the 2013 World Cup final, ending the Kiwis’ 13-year reign as world champions.
Expect the Kiwi Ferns' forward pack to be the dominant force in this test. "We're setting up our game plan around them to really steamroll the Jillaroos to get us on the front foot, so that we can use the talent skill and ability of the players out wide," Hireme-Smiler says.
4. There's tension between the two camps.
When Kiwi Ferns’ rookie Jules Newman called the Jillaroos ‘cocky’ after the 9s final, it got the rival team all hot and bothered.
Kiwi Ferns coach Justin Morgan had to defend Newman’s comment, saying she wasn’t intentionally disrespectful of the Australians, and it was a line that hadn’t come out of “the vanilla textbook” that some league players turn to in interviews these days. But this little off-field friction will no doubt add to the passion in this test.
As Hireme-Smiler sees it: "Let’s let the game do the talking during the 80 minutes - that’s what matters most."
Newman will now be out to prove that on the field, starting at centre in her test debut. The gritty 30-year-old is something of a discovery for the Kiwi Ferns this season – a year ago, she didn’t know the rules of the game (she was a rugby union star - North Harbour’s player of the year in the Farah Palmer Cup last season).
5. The Kiwi in the green and gold.
Botille Vette-Welsh was born in Kaitaia and grew up playing rugby in New Zealand. She was a Kiwi touch player, and even turned out for the NZ Maori All Stars league side earlier this year. But the 23-year-old has chosen to switch allegiances to her adopted country of Australia for league internationals.
The fullback for the Dragons had to make the choice after the NRLW grand final, when the Australians offered her a spot in their squad.
"I love New Zealand and I am a proud Maori woman, so choosing Australia is a bit hard when you have been raised in New Zealand and taught that Australia is the enemy. But I give so much credit to Australia for the opportunities they have given me, so if that means representing Australia, then I am very proud to do so," she told nrl.com.