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'I'm really concerned': Why the Black Ferns may struggle to replace Wayne Smith

By Finn Morton
Portia Woodman, Wayne Smith and Sarah Hirini celebrate following the Black Ferns' World Cup win. Photo by Hannah Peters - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images

Super coach Wayne Smith was able to accomplish something truly incredible with the Black Ferns last year, as he led them to World Cup glory in front of a sold out Eden Park crowd.

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Rugby fans of all ages packed the stands at the famous venue, and watched on as the hosts recorded an epic 34-31 upset win over World No. 1 England.

The Black Ferns had defied the odds.

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New Zealand had lost two test matches against both England and France during their end-of-season tour the November before – and they lost these four matches by empathic margins as well.

Change was needed. The Black Ferns needed the best.

And that’s exactly what they got.

Two-time men’s World Cup winner Wayne Smith was appointed as a technical coach in April, but later became the head coach after Glenn Moore resigned.

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Smith was now in charge of a talented group of professional athletes who dared to dream of World Cup glory on home soil.

The Black Ferns were able to both unite and inspire a nation throughout their incredible World Cup run as they performed passionately on the field.

Records were broken throughout the ground-breaking tournament as sold out crowds attended tests at Eden Park, and spurred the Black Ferns onto the sports ultimate glory.

But after etching their names into New Zealand sporting folklore, there are some unanswered questions facing the Black Ferns as we usher in a new year.

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Wayne Smith has retired as a three-time world champion, but his replacement is yet to be announced.

Speaking on Weekend Sport with Jason Pine, New Zealand Herald columnist Alice Soper explained why she is “really concerned” about the Black Ferns’ next coach.

“I’m really concerned about who’s our next coach,” Soper said on Newstalk ZB on New Year’s Eve. “I think that lays bare a lot of structural issues that we have.

“If you like Aupiki for example, we’ve had two women who have just been put in charge of teams. So now my Hurricanes Poua have (Victoria) Grant and the Chiefs Manawa have Crystal Kuau.

“That’s great but if you look at the total numbers across the coaching setup, we have no more women coaching this year than we did last year. We have a reconfiguration, but the same numbers involved.

“That’s an issue if we talk in terms of pathways up to the top. We don’t have a structure where we have been investing in specialists in women’s rugby for a long time.

“We’ve got a really small handful of people that they will be looking at and that’s a challenge because we’ve got people who have been around for quite a while; been through the good and the bad.

“It’s a case of are we ready really to have someone as good to replace Wayne? I don’t know if we do.”

While the Black Ferns were officially crowned champions for their success on the field, they were equally as deserving of that moniker for their actions off it.

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Stars including Ruby Tui, Sarah Hirini and Stacey Fluhler were among a talented, and now legendary, group of players who changed women’s rugby in Aotearoa forever.

Whether it was smiling during the national anthems or spending seemingly endless periods of time with supporters, this team was different.

Comparing the Black Ferns to the All Blacks, Soper said the difference was the “reconnection back to who they” are.

“I think it’s a reconnection back to who they were. I’ve talked to a lot of people and it feels like it’s that nostalgia of the early 90s where players were still people as well,” Soper added.

“We’ve got this whole production line where we’re pulling kids out of school and putting them into ‘this is how you become an All Black’ at 16, and there’s no opportunity for them to figure out who they are.

“That’s what people loved. When they’re talking to Ruby Tui, it’s the whole of herself… I love her and every poster put her on there, put her on the mic.

“Allowing people to have personalities, allowing us to have connection back to community. That’s the other reason people turn up first and foremost is because they know them.”

Super Rugby Aupiki kicks off with two exciting matches on Saturday, February 25.

Hurricanes Poua are set to host Chiefs Manawa at Levin Domain, while Matatu will face Blues Women at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

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