The Northland Age

Black Ferns greatest story of redemption

- Jamie Wall for RNZ

Congratula­tions to the Black Ferns, who not only won yet another World Cup title, but did so on the back of perhaps the most tumultuous year any national side has ever had to endure.

At the back end of 2021, it was looking unlikely that the team would even make the semifinals, let alone pack out Eden Park. But here we are, once again celebratin­g the on and off field triumphs of a team that has written maybe the greatest story of redemption in New Zealand rugby history.

While it was the main event, the Black Ferns’ 34-31 win over England in the final was just part of a unique Rugby World Cup experience that gave us a lot to think about.

The public bought in — credit should be squarely heaped on the marketing department for the tournament. Focusing on the first and last days meant that everything in between was a bonus, with plenty showing up in Whangā rei for the Black Ferns’ pool games and quarterfin­al. They brought with them a special kind of atmosphere too, which can be built on to not just sell the women’s game day experience, but rugby in general.

Both semifinals were instant classics, with Canada showing just enough cracks in the English armour to suggest that they wouldn’t quite be the unstoppabl­e force everyone had presumed them to be.

Meanwhile, the Black Ferns played a mixture of sublime and ridiculous rugby to get over France, doing everything you shouldn’t while leading by one point in the final five minutes.

The final was even better — two very good teams at their absolute best, on the biggest stage and in front of a sold-out crowd.

The final had 11 tries, drama, lead changes, before being decided by a thrilling goal line stand. In short, everything you could ask for in a showpiece, which topped the last RWC final in 2017.

The Black Ferns stuck to their principles. It would have been tempting for the overhauled coaching set-up to wipe the slate clean and encourage a risk-free strategy, but that’s just not what the Black Ferns are about.

An entire season of tinkering by Wayne Smith saw the best side only really unveiled in the semifinal, which was a masterstro­ke as it gave the likes of England and France nothing to really work with going in.

NZ Rugby had copped it hard — the governing body is an easy target most of the time because they often seem to invite criticism by simply not thinking things through. But aside from a scheduling clash with the All Blacks in Japan and lack of games south of Auckland, they can hold their heads up around the fact that the World Cup was in New Zealand at all.

NZR were the ones who bid for it back in 2018, setting the goal of creating record attendance­s and changing the way women’s rugby is perceived here.

Whatever else you might think of them, they’ve achieved that.

Superstars — you could make a pretty strong case for Ruby Tui being New Zealand’s most popular rugby player right now, a status she’s achieved through incredibly astute handling of her media engagement­s and on-field heroics. But really, this was a collective effort by the intensely likeable Black Ferns and their charismati­c coach.

Wayne Smith showed that he truly was the right man for the job, one that he’ll now presumably leave in the hands of his staff.

What now? Challenges remain for women’s rugby in New Zealand. The world is still very much the same shape, so the Black Ferns will once again have to travel far and wide to

have meaningful games.

Australian women’s rugby is still well off the pace, so it’s likely that England, France and Canada will stand as the toughest opposition for a while yet.

At a grassroots level, this win will encourage more playing numbers,

but that needs to be matches with suitable coaches — which is a trickier propositio­n.

Like the Black Ferns’ campaign though, it’s a challenge that can be overcome with the right amount of effort and resources.

 ?? Photo / Dean Purcell ?? Kaitaia’s Krystal Murray was straight off the bench and on to the scoresheet for the Black Ferns on Saturday.
Photo / Dean Purcell Kaitaia’s Krystal Murray was straight off the bench and on to the scoresheet for the Black Ferns on Saturday.

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