The weather at North Harbour Stadium on Wednesday afternoon was almost as bleak as the Wallaroos’ first performance against the Black Ferns at Eden Park – a 67-3 hammering that would have sent a lesser team packing. But a four-day break makes a massive difference it seems, and the home side were made to work for their 29-3 win in the second test, reports Scotty Stevenson.
Watching the first play of this trans-Tasman test – a Sarah Goss turnover inside the Australian 22 – you could have been forgiven for thinking this was going to be another romp. Instead it became a tortuous and disjointed affair in which the Black Ferns were starved of possession for long periods of the match, and played with all the cohesion of dry sand when they got their hands on the ball.
It shouldn’t have been so hard. Australian winger Cobie Jane Morgan was yellow carded in the 95th second of the game – which must be some kind of record in women’s test match rugby – and the Black Ferns eventually scored a couple of plays later, when Goss snapped up a line out, threw a nasty fend into the face of Grace Hamilton and sprinted over for a try.
Mistakes were made by the Black Ferns – dropped balls, laboured passes, small knock-ons in close quarters (these would continue throughout the match) – and despite being camped in the Australian red zone for the first six minutes, they were unable to take further advantage of their extra player.
Instead Australia made it into the New Zealand half, an Eloise Blackwell knock on providing them with a centre field scrum and their first real attacking chance. Their scrum was duly taken apart but referee Helen O’Reilly penalised the Black Ferns front row and Aussie captain Ash Hewson kicked the penalty to bring the score to 7-3.
The Black Ferns continued to push the play, and to gift Australia scrum ball which, given the Black Ferns dominance in that department, was as much of a gift as a punch in the guts. When the Ferns went left, and Selica Winiata hit the line, they looked as good as ever. A high shot from Chloe Leuapepe on Renee Wickcliffe led to another red zone penalty and from the resulting line out prop forward Toka Natua crashed over for the Black Ferns’ second try.
Despite the lack of execution, there were still admirable performers all over the park for the Black Ferns. Aroha Savage was a woman possessed. When she wasn’t flattening Wallaroos with dominant tackles, she was lining up for endless hit-ups. The Black Ferns were well and truly on top in the contact, and able to strip the ball at will. At one stage tireless Wallaroo Chloe Butler took an inside ball and was met by Goss, Savage and McMenimin, which ended as you would expect: with Butler being buried in the Harbour turf.
Still the Black Ferns couldn’t capitalise. And still the mistakes came. Australia desperately wanted a try to show for their early efforts in the match and fought hard inside the New Zealand 22 to get one, even taking a scrum option five metres out, which was as close to living in denial as you are likely to see in a test.
For all the Wallaroo intent, the Black Ferns goal line defence stayed staunch and eventually the attack was repelled. Portia Woodman carried strongly out of the red zone in a routine that included a fend, a bump off, and a pirouette, but then Charmaine Smith knocked on and the Black Ferns returned to tackle practice.
It wasn’t until the 32nd minute when the Black Ferns were able to flick the switch. Fearsome captain Fiao’o Faamausili won the breakdown turnover deep in Australian territory and from that play the Black Ferns used their size and organisation to punch holes in the Australian defence. Prop forwards Aleisha Nelson and Natua both hit up strongly, and Kelly Brazier threw a wonderful cut out ball for Portia Woodman, who in turn offloaded for Kendra Cocksedge. Cocksedge did everything right, up until she dropped the ball over the line.
It mattered not. The third try came moments later, after the Black Ferns had destroyed another Australian scrum. Renee Wickcliffe came off the left, and held two defenders in midfield leaving a catch-pass play to set up Honey Hireme in the right hand corner. It was a thing of beauty, simplicity itself.
Halftime couldn’t come quickly for either team as the dropped balls kept coming, and eventually referee Helen O’Reilly took pity on the fans and blew for the break. At 17-3 ahead, Lord knows Coach Growler Moore had plenty to say in the sheds.
However, whatever it was he did say was pretty much ignored for the entirety of the third quarter, during which no points were scored by either team. Australia genuinely had the best of the home side for most of that period of the match. Captain Ash Hewson was a constant menace, the Ferns consistently infringed in the ruck, and the Wallaroos threw themselves at the line.
Chloe Butler, who spent most of the match being crushed by either two or three of the Black Ferns forwards only enhanced her reputation as a complete tough nut. Every time she touched the ball the crowd drew its collective breath just before hers was knocked out of her.
The Wallaroos had gone seven plus phases on attack six times in the match, and all six times they were undone either by there own error, or a defensive turnover. They spent five straight minutes on the New Zealand 22-metre line and couldn’t make another yard. Helen O’Reilly soon ran out of patience with Ferns captain Fiao’o Faamausili and she went to the sideline for ten. Charmaine McMenimin left too, with Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate entering the game for her tenth test cap.
At the 56th minute mark there was an injury break. It was the first one of the match. No one had a chance to see who it was because whoever it was got back to her feet and carried on playing before a medic could get on the ground.
Meanwhile, the Black ferns continued to play as if they had been introduced to each other in the carpark before the game – a situation best summed up by replacement Hazel Tubic throwing a bullet pass at replacement Carla Hohepa’s head at the end of the third quarter.
Things finally started looking up from a Black Ferns point of view as the game lurched into the final quarter. Halfback Kendra Cocksedge, one of the most competitive players you’d ever hope to watch found Tubic with a ripper and Kelly Brazier then took the pass and bounced out around the back of the dummy running Carla Hohepa before hurling a rainbow ball wide for Portia Woodman to score on the left. Cocksedge converted to take the Ferns out to 24-3.
As if the shackles had been removed, the Black Ferns started to ball. Hazel Tubic brought energy into the middle of the park, and Carla Hohepa, Honey Hireme and Portia Woodman all started seeing more of the ball. While they still lacked fluency, they had all but ended the Australian resistance by this stage and with nine minutes to go Selica Winiata scored her fifth try of the series, hitting the backline, flying into a massive hole and sprinting 55 metres to score against an exhausted Australian defence.
Replacement hooker Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate looked to have scored off a sneaky front of the line out move late in the game, but the throw was adjudged not to have traveled the obligatory five metres and the play was called back. It kind of summed up the day for the Black Ferns: plenty of effort and a tonne of energy but none of the ruthlessness that underpinned their win last Saturday.
To the Wallaroos credit, they were much better defensively. But then again, for the second straight match the Black Ferns kept a clean line so they can hardly be upset with their own tackling effort. That will be the most pleasing thing of all as they head off on a big northern tour. They were tested today for sure, but much bigger challenges lie ahead.