The Hand belonging to Joanah Ngan-Woo
The Hand belonging to Joanah Ngan-Woo

Summer 2022January 3, 2023

I can’t stop thinking about The Hand

The Hand belonging to Joanah Ngan-Woo
The Hand belonging to Joanah Ngan-Woo

Summer read: Joanah Ngan-Woo’s hand sealed a World Cup victory for the Black Ferns. Madeleine Chapman celebrates it.

First published November 14, 2022.

I can’t stop thinking about The Hand. The Hand is on my mind whenever I reach out to grasp something or someone waves at me. When I successfully pick up a mug, I remember The Hand. When I scratch my head, I remember The Hand. As I type these words, The Hand is there. 

The Hand belongs to Joanah Ngan-Woo, a 26-year old Wellingtonian playing in her first Rugby World Cup. During the tournament, Ngan-Woo was on a break from her day job working as a policy analyst for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. She will likely return to that job and use her hand(s) to type emails and staple papers but on the night of Saturday, November 12, 2022, Ngan-Woo single handedly sealed a World Cup win for the Black Ferns. 

Look at it. Yes, it looks kind of funny because any fast action looks funny when reduced to a single frame, but this single frame perfectly captures the Black Ferns’ entire World Cup campaign. That is Ngan-Woo’s left hand. In this frame, the final play of the match, Ngan-Woo has played 15 minutes total. She subbed on in the 65th minute as a reserve lock. I know this because I searched “Ngan-Woo” in one of the final live blogs and there was exactly one result, which was to note that she had subbed in. There was no mention of The Hand.

Ngan-Woo was the starting lock for the Black Ferns’ opening day match against Australia and also a pool match against Scotland. Otherwise she was a replacement lock. 

In this frame, the Black Ferns had conceded four tries from lineout drives. And in the 80th minute, being five metres out from a your own tryline with an England lineout on the way is about the last thing anyone wanted. In this frame, New Zealand had resorted to not even contesting the lineouts in favour of preparing for the maul. 

For the last play of the game, the team decided that Ngan-Woo would contest the throw. If England won the lineout, it was almost inevitable that they would score and take home the World Cup. They’d won nearly all their lineouts to this point so the odds were still very much in their favour.

Look at this. That is as high as Ngan-Woo was lifted. Look at the England player. Now look at the ball. There is nothing in this frame that suggests any outcome other than a clean England lineout followed by a clean maul followed by a clean try followed by England as champions. Except for The Hand.

I’m still not sure (physically) how this happened. The ball was right there for England. It was a good throw and a good lift. But Ngan-Woo had The Hand. The Hand with fingers stretched more than I knew was possible in a hand. Stretched so much that in any other situation it would be roundly mocked at family gatherings. The square footage in that hand is huge. That hand could catch two rugby balls at once.

The England player is all squared up, two hands at the ready. There’s only one hand from Ngan-Woo, a literal last-minute act of desperation. Much like the Black Ferns’ World Cup campaign, the odds are against it and it’s a messy lead-up but that scrappy claw doesn’t care. All it needs is one chance.

The Hand is heavily bandaged – Ngan-Woo herself is heavily bandaged with both legs and both wrists strapped every game. The Hand has done this before. The Hand is clearly a known menace to every rugby team on the other side of it. In this moment, The Hand does exactly what it has always done: it gets in the way and swats the ball back to the other great hands of Krystal Murray. The game is won and The Hand’s job is done.

Those of us privileged enough to have been at Eden Park when it happened didn’t get to see The Hand in all its glory. We were too distracting by winning that we didn’t stop to think about what had just been created: a five-fingered legend.

There are a thousand moments in every sports match that decide the final result. Every missed tackle or kick or try could be the thing that changes the outcome. But when it all comes down to it, the final play is the final play. And on Saturday night, the final play was Ngan-Woo’s hand, coming up like the hand of God to gift victory to the Black Ferns. I love The Hand, even as a photo of a TV because Spark Sport doesn’t allow screenshots. 

Diego Maradona’s hand caused controversy, heartache and anger for decades after the 1986 Football World Cup. Joanah Ngan-Woo’s hand brings nothing but joy.

Put The Hand in Te Papa. Or at the very least, frame the shot and hang it at Eden Park forever.

Keep going!