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Analysis: What made the Black Ferns attack so dangerous in Pacific Four Series?

By Will Owen
BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 29: Sylvia Brunt and Ruahei Demant of New Zealand walk onto the field for the second half during the Pacific Four Series & O'Reilly Cup match between the Australian Wallaroos and New Zealand Black Ferns at Kayo Stadium on June 29, 2023 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Matt Roberts - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Doesn’t it feel like such a long time since Jonah Ngan-Woo stole the ball from Abbie Ward at the lineout in the World Cup final, securing rugby’s grandest trophy for the Black Ferns? On one hand, so much has changed since then; players have retired, squads have been rotated, and above all, we’ve had to go six months without watching the Black Ferns play attacking rugby. What’s that all about? Time’s always going to move slowly without such entertainment in your life.

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Well, that’s until they reappeared on our screens a month ago. Even without Kendra Cocksedge, Theresa Fitzpatrick, Stacey Waaka and Ruby Tui, they’re still just as exciting. As the Black Ferns romped to the 2023 Pacific Four title, let’s take a look at their various methods of attack in each game, starting with their opening rout against Australia – more specifically with Sylvia Brunt’s second try in the 33rd minute.

As the Black Ferns attempt a series of pick-and-gos, Australia put up some resistance. In response, Maia Roos pops a short ball to Alana Bremner, who, instead of trying to get a dominant carry, immediately drops to the floor. Her intention is to solely generate quick ball, sacrificing go-forward. This is a risky tactic as it opens up the opportunity for Australia to get a turnover, but as long as Georgia Ponsonby gets a good, quick clear-out – which she does – New Zealand are in a dominant position to attack Australia.

Roos gets straight back to her feet and picks the ball up as soon as Bremner places it. Suddenly, the Wallaroos have to work twice as hard to get into position to defend. Additionally, they have to pile more numbers into the contact area. If they don’t either slow the ball down or get a dominant two-woman shot, the Black Ferns are almost certainly driving over.

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With zero hesitation, as soon as Australia concentrate the breakdown area, the Black Ferns spin the ball to Brunt in midfield. Brunt jumps to take the ball, and seemingly changes her direction of running whilst mid-air – because she is a freak. However, Brunt can also thank the rest of her midfield for the dominant carry she’s about to make.

If you watch this try back, you’ll notice Amy Du Plessis, wearing 13, begins from a wide position, and runs a threatening line to hold Georgie Fredrichs, the furthest out Wallaroos defender on-screen. As she gets close to Brunt, she stutters, then straightens her line, so Fredrichs doesn’t get too close to her inside woman, Cecelia Smith. With fly-half Ruahei Demant also animated in the boot, the wider Australian backline can’t afford to jam in and help Smith with the tackle, otherwise the Black Ferns are bound to score out wide. Brunt bowls Smith over in a 1v1 carry and scores.

Everyone from the second row to the outside centre is on the same page here, and it allows the Ferns to bash over. Next, let’s look at a more subtle approach to breaking down the Canadian defence, for Mererangi Paul’s 18th minute score.

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As New Zealand look to play wide, Canada look to apply lots of linespeed and shut down the space for Renee Holmes and Brunt before the Ferns can play wide. If they persist with their plan to spread the ball, Canada are more likely to force an error or even get an intercept. As Brunt calls for the ball in Holmes’ boot, Du Plessis notices the one frailty in Canada’s defence.

Du Plessis calls for Brunt to chip the ball in behind, and Brunt obliges. With Canada defending so aggressively, it makes more sense to let their line advance further and therefore expand the amount of space behind the line. If Holmes tried the kick herself as first receiver, it is more likely that Justine Pelletier or Alysha Corrigan can successfully turn and cover it in time.

As soon as Du Plessis advances towards the ball, Brunt’s support line is extremely smart. She accelerates to her centre partner’s outside, knowing she is more likely to have faster support there. She receives the offload from Du Plessis, and in turn links up with Kennedy Simon, who gives Paul the assist.

And finally, let’s look at a segment of their final game against the USA. But first, let’s briefly talk about it. I mean, what a game, right? The USA had the Black Ferns rattled in the first half like we didn’t know they could be. For New Zealand to hit the panic button and bring on skipper Demant at 33 minutes – and the rest of the cavalry within five minutes of half-time – is a victory for the Eagles in itself.

It’s not unfair to say all Kiwi panic was alleviated once Demant took the field. Their attacking game looked infinitely sharper for the remaining 47 minutes. Let’s look at one last clip.

As the USA are beginning to tire, Demant flashes from the openside to the blindside, running at full tilt. In theory, this isn’t a threatening attacking shape, but by running so flat to the line, Demant has made sure the USA have to mark her.

Demant clearly has no intention to run herself. She’s already drawn her opposite woman, Erica Jarrell, before catching the ball. She flicks the ball to Tanya Kalounivale outside her. Not only has she given a front-rower a 1v1 carry in space, but she has stayed on her feet by making her decision to pass so early and so quickly.

Demant works around the corner quickly, alongside winger Kelsey Teneti. Teneti’s angle, so close to the ruck, is fantastic. Much like Demant earlier in the movement, it looks like she’s running up a blind alley, but she’s running with such conviction that she’s worth marking.

USA’s McKenzie Hawkins tightens up to mark Teneti, but Demant continues to run an overs line and receives the ball. Chelsea Bremner holds both her width and the attention of winger Grace Steinmetz superbly.

At this stage, it’s essentially a footrace between Demant and Hawkins. Demant has manufactured just enough space that she can take the outside, make a clean break and score herself to solidify her team’s win.

The moral of the story? Well, there’s a couple. One is that New Zealand are stacked in the centre position. Another is that Ruahei Demant is utterly world-class, no matter what situation you chuck her into. But the biggest learning of all is that we should never take the entertainment provided by the Black Ferns for granted. Roll on the ludicrous viral tries they’ll be scoring in the inaugural WXV tournament.

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1 Comment
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Wiremu 357 days ago

Just an honest assessment of the Black Ferns style they have evolved to make that their own and still finding more neds to be fine tuned as they get more quality competition to ensure that whatever the situation or team they have a game plan that revolves around the whole team concept of adding value to the wholenteam concept as these talented first class players have demonstrated it's the sisterhood and what that ensues going forward towards a near perfect display of attacking and defensive rugby they are committed to. Entertainment is why they perform at the highest level with skill and finesse that the audience would gladly part with money to watch a performance worth paying for. Kia Kaha!

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