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The Black Ferns ever-changing pack the biggest question mark ahead of France

By Adam Julian
(Photo by MARTY MELVILLE/AFP via Getty Images)

Typically, affable Black Ferns Director of Rugby Wayne Smith was furious shortly after the 56-12 World Cup group victory against Wales on October 16.

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Despite outscoring the scarlets ten tries to two in Waitakere the erudite rugby authority complained.

“Really disappointing. A lot of them [penalties] are avoidable. It really annoys me when I see it. You do so much work during the week from staying up, hitting low, and we go out and do that. It’s disappointing because a lot of them are just stupid, avoidable penalties,” he said.

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Five times the Black Ferns were pinged at the scrum and Wales had double the number of lineouts extracting four penalties and two tries from rolling mauls.

Scotland suffered the rebuke down 0-45 at halftime in the Black Ferns last group match in Whangarei on October 22.

Tellingly the forward display was clinical and of the starting pack against Scotland only Joanah Ngan-Woo was regulated to the bench for the Welsh quarter-final on Saturday.

The Black Ferns forward pack has been changed consistently in 2022 and has been the subject of earnest examination after the pathetic lack of resistance in 2021.

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Three questions remain ahead of the semi-final against France on Saturday at Eden Park. Who will start at hooker? Will exceptional Wellington lock Joanah Ngan-Woo return to the starting XV and how does the availability of previously injured by Kennedy Simon possibly alter the back row?

Canterbury hooker Georgia Ponsonby has been preferred ahead of Luka Connor in three of four matches at the tournament. A precise player, Ponsonby has taken her opportunities with solid improvement, but does she bring the bustling energy of Connor who has also has a happy knack of scoring tries?

Ponsonby is marginally better on the throw, holds her own in the scrum but wouldn’t provide the impact Connor could off the bench so expect Ponsonby to stay.

Joanah Ngan-Woo has started seven of the ten Tests in the Wayne Smith era. A damaging ball carrier she is also busy on defence but not the workhorse that Chelsea Bremner is.

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Bremner topped the tackle count against Australia, working feverishly to try and surpress a rampant start by the Wallaroos.

However, it was a muscular try by Ngan-Woo that sparked the revival against Australia. Ngan-Woo is surely too good to be overlooked so does Bremner go? Remarkably Mia Ross maybe scarified. The youngster has been phenomenal making 20 tackles and 23 ball carries in the last two games but to dent France, Ngan-Woo offers compelling attributes.

Alongside Valerie Adams and Lisa Carrington, Sarah Hirini is arguably the most influential Kiwi sportswomen this Millennium. How then could her starting position be under threat? Kennedy Simon, that’s why.

Hirini is present in the tackle, a proven leader and link player in the mould of Josh Kronfeld, scoring two good tries this tournament. However, is she bundled off the ball at the breakdown too often?

Hirini hasn’t been a prolific poacher in contrast to Simon who was named Black Fern of the Year in 2021, one of the few players that stood up against France and England. Simon might be undercooked with only 29 minutes under her belt at this tournament but is she worth the gamble ahead of Hirini or the bigger body of Liana Mikaele-Tu’u?

The backline is settled. Halfback Kendra Cocksedge was at her sprightly and calculated best against Wales. Ruahei Demant has been the biggest benefactor of a full-time professional contract. Almost non-existent at second-five on the disastrous tour last year she has emerged as a world class first-five and captain with a personality not dissimilar to past heavyweights Farah Palmer and Fiao’o Fa’amausili.

Theresa Fitzpatrick has been named player of the match twice at second-five and has flourished alongside Stacey Fluhler, doing enough to resist strong challenges from Sylvia Brunt and Amy du Plessis for the 12-jersey.

Ayesha Leti-l’iga, Portia Woodman and Ruby Tui comprise an electrifying back three that have scored 56 tries in 47 Tests combined. Renee Holmes might be the best long distance goal kicker on the roster, but Tui has the charisma of Martin Luther-King within the team and has played out her skin since debuting against Australia in June so won’t be discarded.

France made 227 tackles against England and only conceded one try, an honourable rearguard against a team on a world record 29-game winning streak. Otherwise, they’ve been hard to read this tournament, devastating at their best, and sleepy at their worst.

If the Black Ferns get the forward balance right, then perhaps their vibrant ambition combined with the weight of an enthusiastic home crowd will be enough to see them over the line.

On another note, how brutally efficient is England’s lineout? They have won 66 of their own 70 lineout throws, stolen a dozen of the oppositions and scored a bundle of tries from an imperious resource. When the Springboks won the World Cup in 2019, they won 69 of 70 lineouts and stole at least one opposition throw in every game, a serious weapon that disguised other glaring limitations.

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