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'If we're going to match them and be better, the work needs to go in between now and the World Cup'

DUNEDIN, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 28: New Zealand players line up prior to the WXV1 match between New Zealand Black Ferns and Wales at Forsyth Barr Stadium on October 28, 2023 in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

The sprint to Rugby World Cup 2025 is on and for the woman charged with planning and preparing every step of the Black Ferns road to England and beyond, the year ahead comes with a feeling of urgency.

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Hannah Porter knows what it takes to win World Cups. As an astute utility back she helped the Black Ferns to the trophy in 2002 and 2006 and oversaw the campaign in 2017. She stepped away from rugby for a spell to work for High Performance Sport New Zealand where she looked after a variety of sports, before answering an SOS to help with the 2022 World Cup.

She returned full-time to New Zealand Rugby early last year to take up her current role as head of women’s high performance, overseeing the Black Ferns, Black Ferns Sevens and overall shape of the women’s game.

After defeats to France and England in WXV last year New Zealand were left in no uncertain terms about just how they stack up against the Northern Hemisphere powerhouses. As well as knowing her away around an RWC campaign, Porter also knows a bit of a kick in the pants when she sees one.

“Walking into the changing room, certainly after England it was a little bit of a sobering moment. A lot of those players wouldn’t have lost a lot in their career, and to be fair that was a bloody good England team that put on a really great performance. But to understand if we’re going to match them and be better, the work needs to go in between now and the World Cup.”

With a handful of World Cup winners returning back to the sevens programme, the retirement of legendary halfback Kendra Cocksedge and a couple of injuries, it meant a big step up for some players and a lot of new combinations; World Cup winners like Amy du Plessis and Sylvia Brunt had never played France or England before.

“It was the first time playing the best in the world for half of the group that we bought in last year and certainly fronting up against England and France in your first or second test match is always a bit daunting,” Porter says reflectively. “They would have taken a lot from it and I think it was a really good test for our management team as well who were six months into the role at that point and had had some games in the Pac Four but it was a step up when you’re playing the best in the world.”

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A step up yes, a wake-up call certainly, but there wasn’t anything that Porter says can’t be rectified on or off the field.

“If I look at the on-field stuff there probably was a bit too many options, so simplifying it and making sure it’s really clear for people, especially with the youth of the side that we had, just providing a little bit more clarity. As we work through to the World Cup, we’ll be adding some more things into the arsenal but this year I think you’ll see a much simpler and refined game plan.”

Porter believes players like Liana Mikaele-Tu’u and Maiakawanakaulani Roos, who stepped up into the leadership group for the first time, will be all the better for the experience.

“Just their confidence firstly to talk on the field, but also, how do they get the best out of the team off the field and how do we get that leadership group to really work hard for 12 months of the year,” she says. “I know certainly the results in that competition [WXV] has provided more motivation coming into this year just to do the things they need to do to make sure that they’re ready to go up against the best teams in the world.”

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That work is underway. It’s hoped an expanded Super Rugby Aupiki competition will start to provide the stepping stone to international rugby it was originally tasked with doing and that players step up to that challenge with Black Ferns contracts available. 41 women will be on full-time contracts this year, although as Porter points out that doesn’t come with the guarantee of a place in the Black Ferns squad and they will go outside of those 41 if form warrants it.

Some of the current squad are already on deals which take them through to the next World Cup. Porter says the Black Ferns coaches have been around the squads during pre-season and will monitor and keep in touch with players, but will be “hands-off’ until the squad comes together to prepare for Pacific Four.

New Zealand’s international season is starting to take shape. They will host the USA, Canada and Australia on consecutive weekends in May in the World Rugby Pacific Four Series, then play Australia in Brisbane in mid-July for the Laurie O’Reilly Cup. There’ll be three matches in WXV 1, confirmed to start in Vancouver in late September and, with a test at Twickenham against England already being floated Porter says it’s fair to surmise there are further matches to be announced.

Porter is happy with how the overall schedule is shaping up and the adjustments in timing for Pac Four.

“For the last couple of years, it’s been June-July which meant there was breathing space after Aupiki and we had various camps to fill the gap, but the new model looks really good. There’ll be a three-week break from the final of Aupiki to the start of Pac Four which is tight for the coaches with selection but they’re really good from our kind of performance lens in regards to coming out of our high-performing domestic competition and into what will be a really good Pac Four.”

With the dates and location of WXV 1 now locked in Porter is hopeful of being able to share a full schedule in the very near future. She believes there’ll only be about three to four weeks between each test match window, marking a massive shift for the Black Ferns who, prior to 2023 had never played more than six test matches in a non-World Cup year.

It marks the start of significant change ahead. There are huge expectations for next year’s World Cup in England in terms of both the on and off-field product but Porter says in a way everyone is also keen to get beyond the tournament so that a global women’s calendar can be achieved and more advanced plans can be put in place.

“It’ll be the biggest shift in women’s rugby certainly for as long as I’ve known. Having surety on what the calendar looks like, what our schedules look like, what we’re telling the players and the staff they’re committed to and how we commercialize it.” That commercial piece is vital if rugby is to keep pace with the explosion of women’s sport globally. “It will give the product the ability to breathe and grow as we’re very much year to year at the moment, but the ability for that long-term planning is going to make such a difference to the programme and how we can sell it into the market,” Porter says.

New Zealand Rugby has a huge chance to start making commercial gains by hosting those Pac Four matches. Poor crowds blighted WXV 1 last year, a massive comedown from the highs of the Rugby World Cup in 2022, and while there’s increasing familiarity with the players Porter sees the competition as a massive opportunity to sell the matches as actual Black Ferns tests.

“These matches are the first ones we’ve been able to sell as actual Black Ferns tests. Even though it’s supported by World Rugby it’s not a complete WR product, so they will be branded and feel like Black Ferns tests.” She continues: “At the moment it’s really hard to commercialise and get our sponsors a really good deal because we only play in World Rugby events, so having home games that we can take around the country to Hamilton, Christchurch and North Harbour, and really promote is hugely important to how we grow that out.”

It feels like a bit of a sprint to the World Cup. The COVID-19 delay of World Cup 2021 is now starting to come home to roost for teams planning and preparing for RWC 2025. For the Black Ferns and New Zealand Rugby, the wake-up call of WXV came at the right time giving them a very clear-eyed focus on what’s ahead. The race to Twickenham is on.

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Poorfour 11 hours ago
The AI advantage: How the next two Rugby World Cups will be won

AI models are really just larger and less transparent variants of the statistical models that have been in use since Moneyball was invented. And a big difference between the Icahn centre’s results and AI today is that ChatGPT-like Large Language Models can explain (to some degree) how they reached their conclusions. In terms of what impact they will have, I suspect it will have two primary impacts: 1) It will place a premium on coaching creativity 2) It will lead to more selections that baffle fans and pundits. Analysts will be able to run the models both ways: they will see their own team’s and players’ weaknesses and strengths as well as the opposition’s. So they will have a good idea at what the other team will be targeting and the decisive difference may well be which coaches are smart enough to think of a gameplan that the other side didn’t identify and prepare for. For players, it places a premium on three key things: 1) Having a relatively complete game with no major weaknesses (or the dedication to work on eliminating them) 2) Having the tactical flexibility to play a different game every week 3) Having a point of difference that is so compelling that there isn’t a defence for it. (3) is relatively rare even among pro players. There have been only a handful of players over the years where you knew what they were going to do and the problem was stopping it - Lomu would be the classic example. And even when someone does have that, it’s hard to sustain. Billy Vunipola in his prime was very hard to stop, but fell away quite badly when the toll on his body began to accumulate. So coaches will look for (1) - a lack of exploitable weaknesses - and (2) - the ability to exploit others’ weaknesses - ahead of hoping for (3), at least for the majority of the pack. Which is likely to mean that, as with the original Moneyball, competent, unshowy players who do the stuff that wins matches will win out over outrageous talents who can’t adapt to cover their own weaknesses. Which will leave a lot of people on the sidelines sputtering over the non-inclusion of players whose highlights reels are spectacular, but whose lowlight reels have been uncovered by AI… at least until the point where every fan has access to a sporting analysis AI.

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