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Photos: Getty Images / Design: Archi Banal
Photos: Getty Images / Design: Archi Banal

SportsOctober 15, 2022

Remembering the Black Ferns’ 1998 Rugby World Cup strike weapons

Photos: Getty Images / Design: Archi Banal
Photos: Getty Images / Design: Archi Banal

Watching Portia Woodman and Ruby Tui light up the Black Ferns’ World Cup opener last weekend reminded Melodie Robinson of how great the team’s attacking talent has always been.

This story first appeared on The Bounce, a Substack newsletter by Dylan Cleaver.

Portia Woodman went past Vanessa Cootes as our leading World Cup try scorer at Rugby World Cups with 16 tries. Our wings have been a huge part of why the Black Ferns have the best record of any team – male or female – in international rugby. In 1998 we had outside backs who would have given Woodman and Ruby Tui a run for their money!

Cootes’ name comes up every time Portia scores, because she set try-scoring records from the time she debuted in 1995 through to her retirement after the Rugby World Cup in Barcelona in 2002.

Her try-scoring average was an unbelievable 2.69 tries every test she played. She still sits on top of the Black Ferns try leaderboard and holds the single-game record – nine against France back in 1996. She scored four in the World Cup final against the USA in 1998. My role in that team as a loose-running number 6 was often “just pass the bloody ball to Vanessa”.

She was an age-grade soccer and touch star, and actually played in one of the New Zealand women’s touch team’s rare victories against the tog-wearing Australians back in 2001 – in a team loaded with Black Ferns stars. Another fantastic Black Ferns wing, Mere Kingi – currently on the Māori Rugby board – also featured.

Cootes is not the type to put herself out there. I know she lives in Hamilton, but I haven’t seen her since she received her Black Ferns cap in 2018. She has put a lot of time into social work since her retirement but I’m hopeful that she gets to some of the matches over the next month.

Vanessa Cootes at the 1998 Rugby World Cup (Photo: David Rogers/Allsport)

If she was a former All Black she’d no doubt be reaping in the corporate-gig dollars, or be featured on a rugby show. I’d love to give her a hug and say “you are awesome”, something we didn’t get told back in the day because the prevailing thought was that we only scored that many tries because the opposition was so poor.

Well, no – we scored so many tries because we were so good.

Also on the list is our fullback Tammi Wilson, whose strike rate was 1.31 tries every time she pulled on the black jersey. Tammi was somewhat of an enigma back in the day because she was so bloody skinny – a bit like Glen Osborne actually – but had an awesome boot on her.

In fact, the story was she got her first taste in rugby while in standard three at St Joseph’s, Kaikōura. She was waiting for her mum to pick her up and kicked a stray ball back to the practicing boys’ team, and the coach was so impressed he got her involved that afternoon. Unfortunately, it was a short-lived debut as a school nun saw her play and gave her the strap the next day because girls weren’t allowed to play rugby!

Wilson got plenty of press on our way to the 1998 World Cup, too, because she ended up playing touch and league for New Zealand. Another example of our coach Darryl Suasua finding talent from other sports.

These days Tammi is on the board of the Players’ Association; she’s a mum, a physio and is finishing a PhD in something I wouldn’t have a clue about. She was a key part of the Black Ferns review team and continues to be outstanding.

Tammi Wilson at the 1998 Rugby World Cup (Photo: Dave Rogers/Allsport)

Finally, our ultimate over-achiever, Louisa Wall – the Jonah to Cootes’ Jeff Wilson.

At 1.75m and 80kgs she was big – there were no power wingers in the women’s game at that point, and no one person could bring her down. She’d usually tie up three defenders at a time. She would often hog the ball off the ruck, too, and make more ground than all of us forwards.

Typical of a Black Fern, Louisa was more than a rugby player. She would often practice her politics on the girls in the team. Inadvertently, I, the Richards sisters (Anna and Fiona) and Monalisa Codling would often end up getting in trouble.

For instance, in 1997 on the bus we sang the “mini haka” – “Give them the axe!” – from my Wellington club. We got our first lesson in cultural misappropriation – I’d never bloody heard of that before!

When she started studying social policy she was a walking, talking advertisement for academic theory. It was probably the first time many of us youngsters had learnt about social justice, and to be honest I’m grateful she opened my mind.

Louisa Wall at the 1998 Rugby World Cup (Photo: David Rogers/Allsport)

One of my favourite Louisa incidents was in 1999 when she was slightly injured and out of form. Coach Suasua decided to bench her and went to her room to let her know. I was in the room next door along with the Richards sisters, Annaleah Rush and Hannah Porter, and we had a glass up to the wall to listen to the two-hour debate that ensued.

Darryl was an amazing coach but also a very dominant personality – there was no such thing as player power back then – and our code word for him was Max. But Louisa took on Max! We loved it. Even if she didn’t get the start, it was a great insight into why she had the personality to get through significant policy as a member of parliament.

She was a natural born fighter and it’s a pity that the Labour government couldn’t keep her in the system considering her success, most notably the marriage equality law change. She is an amazing, diverse, strong woman – a bit much for some I guess!

I love watching today’s athletes, but I’d also like to acknowledge how great these players were. All three of them scored seven tries each at the 1998 World Cup – an astonishing achievement.

Keep going!