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Time for New Zealand to invest in the Black Ferns or accept the consequences

By Stella Mills
Black Ferns (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

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New Zealand and England are regarded as two of the most competitive women’s teams in the world.

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Yesterday’s match at Franklin’s Gardens was sold as a head-to-head clash, yet the rugby on show could scarcely have been further from that.

After the Black Ferns’ 56 -15 defeat to England, we are seeing the world order of women’s rugby changing and hearing some serious questions as to why this is happening.

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Siya Kolisi
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Siya Kolisi

To give perspective, the Black Ferns have an 87 per cent success rate in test match rugby; they are consistent winners of the World Cup and usually a highly feared team so what changed?

The first port of call is COVID-19 related since the visitors last played 26 months ago. Compared to the 14 matches the Red Roses have played and won, this goes some way to explain their monumental defeat.

But delving deeper it seems investment, or lack of, is also a big contributing factor. Speaking after their first test defeat, women’s rugby advocate Alice Soper said: “If New Zealand Rugby are serious about defending their World Cup at home, they need to be backing those girls to do another Northern tour before then because if they think this is going to do it, it won’t.”

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Is it the case that the Black Ferns have simply played too little rugby together? Or are we seeing a need for systematic change in the way New Zealand rugby invests in the Black Ferns?

Next March New Zealand welcomes a new national club competition, Super Rugby Aupiki, which sees teams face off during a four-week window. This competition has been described by some as the stepping-stone between the Farah Palmer Cup and the Black Ferns.

While short in nature, it will provide more playing opportunities, which can only be positive. In addition, the Red Roses were awarded 30 full-time contracts in 2019, meaning the bulk of the squad, including newly-appointed captain Poppy Cleall, are able to train together consistently.

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By contrast, the Black Ferns do have contracts in place, but they are less than full-time. The contracts follow a hybrid model, similar to those recently offered to Wales’ women’s squad.

While the final result was shocking, it is important to direct attention to the end product. Across two test matches we have seen what real investment in the women’s game can deliver since this England squad has been building and galvanizing for years.

Even a blow as big as losing the team’s key play-maker to injury seemingly made little difference to England’s preparations. The squad understands the game and each other in ways that other teams can only dream of.

It is also clear to see how the quality of play in the Allianz Premier 15’s has helped mould world-class international players. Prior to the match, head coach Simon Middleton said he “wasn’t worried” about putting uncapped players up against the Black Ferns, explaining that the standard of play in the Premier 15’s has “well prepared” them for anything New Zealand had to offer.

The effect of the Allianz Premier 15’s on the standard of play is undeniable. The league has this year attracted a significant number of overseas’ players, and can you really blame them? Competition at domestic level is fierce – players run on to the pitch expecting a challenge in each match they play. These women have been taught to expect high standards, it’s been drilled into them from a club perspective, so are we really that surprised that England are dominating the Autumn Internationals?

The Red Roses aren’t yet done, they still have a depth of world-class players in the wings waiting to show what they are made of. It must also be worrying for opponents to see uncapped players such as Holly Aitchison and Maud Muir seamlessly slip into the international set up, as if they have been there for years.

However, it must also be acknowledged that there is still plenty of rugby to be played before the next World Cup. In New Zealand, we are seeing a team that has only just, after two years, come together. Writing them off would be foolish, they still have 11 months in which to pull this out of the bag, and if anyone can do it, the Black Ferns can. That said, much will depend on how much investment is available prior to the World Cup. Hopefully this loss will serve as a wake-up call to those in power and finally generate some long-term investment in women’s rugby.

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