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Ferns strewn and history made: A re-watch of the Red Roses WXV 1 triumph

By Claire Thomas
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - NOVEMBER 04: Captain Marlie Packer of England leads the team out for the WXV1 match between New Zealand Silver Ferns and England at Go Media Stadium Mt Smart on November 04, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

So they huffed, and they puffed, and they blew the house in – storming the land of the long white cloud, and leaving ferns strewn across the lawn as they departed – the WXV 1 trophy stashed beneath one muscular arm.

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The Red Roses – twelve months on from the hand that stole the final lineout, the heroics, and the heartbreak – trampled and scorched their way to the inaugural title, making the world champions look eminently mortal in the process.

For UK viewers, those 80 minutes were watched through initially bleary – but soon, awestruck – eyes on the sofa, as England racked up 33 points and permitted New Zealand just eleven minutes of scoreboard access of their own.

It was their tenth straight bonus point victory, and capped off an undefeated season. It was mightily impressive in all sorts of ways, and culminated in a history-making pot lift. It deserves, a few days on, a bit of a revisit.

Rikki Swannell sets out a stall as well as anyone, and calls this fixture with trademark passion and dexterity, but the disconnect between her promise of ‘the one everyone’s been waiting for’ and the swathes of empty seats is immediate. She’s dead right – this is a titanic headline fight – but the crowd is reminiscent of the Six Nations a decade ago.

This has been a soft launch for a tournament with huge potential, but you can only hope this is the last time the best two teams on the planet do battle in front of stands which are more abandoned than occupied.

A few moments stand out before kick-off. Marlie Packer wins the toss, expressionless – she’s always been one to snap the visor down early – but a beaming Ruahei Demant lets the smile slip off her face just as the captains leave the tunnel. Even the world’s best player gets nervous, it seems.

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Perhaps, on some level, Demant knew that the Red Roses were the ones in form – and that the Player of the Year trophy would soon be stashed in an overhead locker, en route to Yeovil.

The New Zealand anthem is accompanied by a virtuosic electric guitar line – which proves a real vibe. Krystal Murray leads an anticipation-cranking, hackles-raising haka – watched on by a gently smiling Maud Muir, who’s made for occasions like these. Sky Sports emblazon ‘It’s Only Live Once’ across billboards, and they’re right, but there’s still – somehow – a sense of jeopardy, watching this back.

Holly Aitchison sends it long: so long that you assume it’s incontestable. Mo Hunt – opportunity-fuelled – hurtles into shot and gets the charge down. It’s immediately knocked on, and the sting’s taken out of that particular passage, but the gauntlet’s been thrown – and it’s red, rosy, and thorny.

The world’s best don’t need any time to make their mark on a test match, and that’s the case here. Sylvia Brunt’s soon carrying white jerseys along with her, like a tiny, jet-propelled clothes horse.

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Claudia MacDonald gets her ‘defenders beaten’ stat ticking along within moments, and seems intent all evening on pushing it above the number of tickets sold. Sarah Bern is havoc-wreaking and blockbuster.

The Roses are playing out of their skins. Morwenna Talling fires off a five-metre offload. Alex Matthews is virtually omnipresent. Zoe Aldcroft displays a superhuman ability to hoover up metres each and every time she carries. After 17 phases, Georgia Ponsonby turns them over, but she’s a solitary sandbag in the face of a vengeful flood – and the hosts’ number is up off the back of the ensuing scrum.

A penalty’s drawn immediately, and Matthews’ control at the base is masterful. Over she goes, and so too does the conversion. Zoe Harrison will be back soon, which is fabulous, but it’s getting hard to imagine that number ten jersey without Aitchison in it. As the extras cleave the posts, she’s not missed a kick all competition.

Mererangi Paul on the left wing is as eye-catching as ever, but these initial exchanges are – ultimately – about as one-sided as an open sandwich. Demant drops a pass and Mackenzie Carson pounces. Abby Dow is hauled into touch as she attempts to counter, but the New Zealand lineout misfires spectacularly.

As Hunt feeds a ravenous white and red scrum, the Roses have had 90% possession. Dow goes again – her ability to decelerate, withdraw, and then surge onwards Mark Telea-esque – and every collision seems to tumble in their favour. It’s like every England player is one size bigger than their opposition number, and two notches angrier. Perhaps they are.

 

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Lark Atkin-Davies, launching an attacking line out in Auckland for the first time since that seismic final, is pinpoint, and soon has her fifth WXV 1 try. Sarah Hunter, watching on powerless in Auckland for the first time since the toughest day of her storied career, claps her hands and beams from the coaches’ box.

As Renee Holmes misses touch with an over-ambitious penalty, the Kiwis have had eight carries to England’s 38. They just can’t get or keep hold of the ball: their passes aren’t anything as clean as usual, or are placed so that their recipients are forced to check their runs to gather them.

A graphic pops up, titled ‘Dominance: World Cup titles’, reminding us that the side who’re yet to break a tackle have won the big dance six times, whilst England – up 14-0 – have triumphed just twice. If this were your first-ever experience of women’s rugby – you’d never believe it.

England are back in the Kiwi 22, and Aitchison is grinning behind their scrum. Eight phases later, Bern hurtles over. She’s unstoppable on days like these, but is helped no end by the chasm in the Black Ferns’ defence to the side of the ruck. The world champions lose more lineouts and cough up more possession, whilst the Roses keep the pedal flat to the floor. If it’s not Dow on the prowl – it’s MacDonald.

If it’s not MacDonald – it’s Kildunne. The fullback’s denied an absolute pearler by a few petulant blades of painted grass. England hustle and hustle in defence – leaping straight back up to their feet so New Zealand have nowhere to go, ball-in-hand.

Finally, in the 38th minute, the famed passes stick. Ruby Tui is unleashed down the right, and they’re up the other end – where Alana Bremner recycles a bouncing ball, and Dow can’t cover all three options. Kennedy Simon dummies and scythes through. It’s 19-7, and the hooter soon sounds.

Packer, Aldcroft, Matthews, and Aitchison wander towards the sheds – unhurried – the latter animated in her analysis, and flourishing as their playmaker.

Whatever Allan Bunting says at half-time has an effect. New Zealand are still being starved of the quantity of ball they’re used to, but they begin to make some hay through contact. Amy Rule, Chelsea Bremner, and Simon produce a few hefty carries – right as Packer has a few minutes off being utterly world-class.

A pair of penalties and a knock-on from the skipper gifts the Kiwis the territory they need to launch a devastatingly slick strike move, and Katelyn Vahaakolo is over. They’ve scored the last twelve points, and you wonder if the chase might just be on.

As it turns out, the door – having creaked open for all of ten tantalising minutes – is slammed shut again. The Red Roses put their shoulders back to the wheel, and exemplary service from Hunt allows every single carry to bring them closer to a fourth. Talling grounds it. Aitchison does the honours. 26-12.

Some coaches distil winning down to stringing together positive involvements – and this matchup exhibits that perfectly. One team repeatedly layers power with accuracy, and then sprinkles on some stardust – whilst the other can only follow a break with a knock-on or penalty.

Staying power counts, too, and England look incredibly well-conditioned: the clock claims we’re at 70 minutes, and yet Matthews is still puncturing the frayed black fabric of Kiwi defence, and they’re still routinely ripping possession from their hosts.

The talismanic Aldcroft gets a thoroughly deserved score to bring up 33-12. The poi whirl in the stands, but all the on-field dynamism is from the visitors – as Kildunne has yet another chalked off, and smiles wryly. She can afford to: they’re away and clear.

Appropriately, it’s a scrum penalty which concludes a contest in which England’s power game was world-beating. The on-field celebrations are wonderful, but not a patch on the magnificent shot we’re offered from the rubbish little camera in the coaches’ box. Hunter wiping away tears says it all: the Red Roses had returned to the scene of their great heartbreak, and swatted aside its ghosts en route to an emphatic, title-clinching victor

Post-match, Packer describes 2025 as ‘Everest’, and she’s right: it’s the pinnacle overshadowing all of this. England dominated the last cycle before being thwarted in the match which mattered most. You suspect they’d happily miss out on WXVs and Six Nations, if it meant they were the ones to triumph at a sold-out Twickenham in two years’ time.

That earlier on-screen graphic felt ill-timed, but its point stands: can they do it at a World Cup? Only time will tell, but what’s inarguable is that the newly-crowned WXV 1 champions are seriously, seriously good – and are only getting better.

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