New Zealand’s victory in the women’s World Cup rugby union competition on Sunday — held in their own country — should be welcomed if only because it signals a triumph for the way the game should be played: fast, running rugby, which showcases the players’ skills and is attractive to watch.
The Black Ferns, as the team is known, were up against England, a team of huge players, whose main skill harks back to the 1960s: rolling mauls and a slow grinding down of their opponents. It is the worst way to try and win.
And it is the last style that will inspire anyone to watch the game. It is a defeatist attitude to a game that requires the skills of a soccer player and also those of a track athlete. It is a poor tribute to a game where communication between players, most of the time without a word spoken, is simply surprising.
New Zealand’s women should be lauded for attracting a record crowd of 42,579 to the final (indeed, for any women’s rugby game) in Auckland. One must bear in mind that these women have been paid as professionals for just a year; England, on the other hand, went professional three years ago and have registered 30 victories, including two over New Zealand last year, after that.
Predictably, England coach Simon Middleton tried to blame the defeat partly on the referee, Scotswoman Hollie Davidson, who made a 17th minute decision to send off England winger Lydia Thompson after a sickening head clash with her opposite number, Portia Woodman.
Middleton claimed that a similar penalty should have been given to New Zealand’s Kennedy Simon for a 65th minute head clash with England winger, Abby Dow. Simon was given a yellow card by Davidson.
England coaches are known for their whinging when they lose and nothing could be further from the truth. The Thompson-Woodman head clash was at the same level for both, straight on. In Simon’s case, the initial contact was with Dow’s shoulder and it then slid up to the head.
In any case, even if Middleton was speaking the truth, Simon would have been off the field only for 15 minutes while Dow was out for 63 minutes. Anyone with the IQ of a common cockroach could work out which ban would have greater effect.
As though to rub in the fact that they were a better team, the Black Ferns scored two of their tries through the only tactic that England have: rolling mauls. Their other four tries were scored after expansive running and passing.
On one occasion when England tried to ape New Zealand’s running game, the ball was picked off by New Zealand fullback Renee Holmes who ran 70 metres and scored. The try was not awarded due to an earlier infringement by the Ferns.
No story about this victory would be complete without a word of praise for Wayne Smith, surely one of the most celebrated coaches. He took over the team about seven months before the tournament, following a disastrous northern tour when the Ferns were hammered twice by France and then a similar number of times by England. Players complained about being criticised to the extent where they developed self-doubts about their playing ability.
Smith is no stranger to World Cup wins, having been in the coaching team when the All Blacks won the cup in 2011 and 2015. But even he ranks the Ferns’ win much higher, given the state of the team when he took over.
Black Ferns 34 (Ayesha Leti-I’iga 2, Georgia Ponsonby, Amy Rule, Stacey Fluhler, Krystal Murray tries; Renee Holmes 2 cons)
England 31 (Amy Cokayne 3, Ellie Kildunne, Marlie Packer tries; Emily Scarratt 3 cons)