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FEATURE Cutting-edge coaching underlines Red Roses' supremacy

Cutting-edge coaching underlines Red Roses' supremacy
6 months ago

Was it the hand, or the foot of fate that intervened not once, but twice in the knockout stages of the Women’s World Cup 2022?

In the semi-final, France had the Black Ferns at their mercy in the final minute of the match. Les Tricolores were awarded a penalty in midfield, 30 metres out, and their usually-reliable goalkicker Caroline Drouin stepped up to take it. She hooked the shot left and New Zealand won by a single point. That was the foot of providence.

Seven days later, a 14-woman England side established a five-metre lineout position on the final play of the game, having already converted four other tries from the same starter play during the game. This time, it was the hand of destiny that intervened – specifically, the hand of Black Ferns second-row Joanah Ngan-Woo.

The fingertips of Ngan-Woo were enough to claw the championship away from the Red Roses when the trophy was agonisingly within touching, or even lifting, distance. It was England’s first defeat in 30 matches and it was the Black Ferns’ sixth world crown.

On such ground dynasties are built – or so you would think. Head coach Wayne Smith could scarcely believe the depth and richness of the experience after his success in the men’s tournament. He was quite unable to disguise the mixture of astonishment and gratitude in his voice.

“This will go down as one of the great experiences of my life. I love these women, I love what they’ve had to do to get there.

“Whether we’re up or down they keep being true to what we’re trying to do. It’s not just me, I’ve got great coaches, I’ve got great girls.

“This is one of the great experiences of my life.”

That World Cup was a truly momentous advertisement for the burgeoning strength and allure of the women’s game. But if anything, it is developing far more quickly in the north than it is in the south, and that World Cup triumph by the Black Ferns is already looking more like an outlier or an anomaly, rather than reflective of the true powerbase in the female version of the game.

The presence of ‘The Professor’ made most of the difference between winning and losing in 2022, but his predictions for the future of omen’s rugby in New Zealand were not supported by results in the ‘WXV tournament one calendar year after the World Cup.

“I’m not going to stay involved but I’ll be following these women for the rest of their careers. It’s not just the 23 that ended up on the field today, we have some I think global superstars in the other nine [squad members].

“Honestly there are so many good kids coming through in women’s rugby that it’s unbelievable, and I just think the future is great. I am going to be following them, but from a different position.”

Despite the foundation of Super Rugby Aupiki in 2022, with four teams from the north and south islands of New Zealand, progression has been even more obvious in England. The multi-year broadcast deal struck between TNT Sports (recently rebranded from BT Sport) and Allianz Premiership Women’s Rugby (PWR) will mean one match per week is broadcast until the end of June 2024, with live streaming and highlights, interviews and discussion programmes extending to the BBC iPlayer and Discovery Plus.

If anything, the world of women’s rugby is delivering a mirror image of the progression in the men’s game. While the traditional southern hemisphere giants New Zealand and South Africa proved once again they have what it takes to win in the clutch of a cutthroat knockout tournament with no tomorrows, the underlying dynamic increasingly resembles an island of southern success lapped by an ocean of northern growth.

Aupiki translates as ‘the ascent to the uppermost realm’ but it is England who are getting there more quickly than anyone else. Without the elite coaching mind of Smith to guide them through the swirls and eddies of WXV held in the three major cities of Wellington, Dunedin and Auckland, the Black Ferns foundered on the not-so-hidden reefs of Red Rose power.

On this occasion they lost to France by a single point in round one, and they were beaten comprehensively by England, 33-12, in a reprise of the World Cup final. England dominated throughout the competition, winning their three games by an average margin of 40-10. The coaching IP favoured the women in white, with ex-Leicester and England lock Louis Deacon joined by ex-All Blacks and England men’s coach John Mitchell.

The key note to England’s improvement was balance. As Deacon hinted, “we’re not just relying on set-piece and maul. We do have that in our game, and at times we can show a bit more, but it’s about understanding that balance.”

A big part of that balance was provided by a sharp increase in the number of offloads issued by the Red Rose forwards, alternating between hard power-carries and short passes in contact. That contributed heavily to England early 19-0 lead, an advantage they never relinquished.


In the build-up to the first try, there are a couple of back-of-the-hand offloads which sustain attacking momentum and enable the England playmaker-in-chief Holly Aitchison to creep up right on the advantage line – the first between the two props Sarah Bern and MacKenzie Carson, the second between the two flankers Morwenna Talling and Marlie Packer.

By only the 11th minute, English forwards had already made seven offloads – more than you might see in an entire match.


The ball shuttles between number four Zoe Aldcroft, tight-head prop Bern and inside centre Tatyana Heard before circling back into the hands of Aldcroft only a couple of feet from the New Zealand try line. That was the preface to England’s second try, padding their lead to 14 points.

The combination of deft offloading allied to Red Rose maul power gave the Black Ferns defence far too much variety to deal with.


This is coaching at the cutting edge, with number five Rosie Galligan reaching over to peel away no fewer than four Kiwi forwards from the inside channel at which the drive is targeted.

At the heart of it all was Bern, who had a whale of a game in all areas. More than any other Red Rose forward, she epitomised the variety of run and pass on the carry, and power in the tight which caused the Black Ferns so many problems in defence.



By way of contrast, Black Ferns’ attempts to exercise their super-strength in the offload looked unusually hurried and lacking in poise for a side representing New Zealand, male or female.



It is quite possible both the most recent World Cups, in 2022 for the women and 2023 for the men, gave accurate representations of the traditional power of the southern hemisphere in the present, but false readings for the future.

Any idea the triumph of Smith’s Black Ferns in that coruscating final would mean a long-term return to power for New Zealand was rudely squashed in WXV.

The professional development and connectivity of the game below international level is being driven more fiercely in the north than it is in the south – and in both versions. It is hard to know where that leaves New Zealand as one of the two greatest rugby nations on the planet. The other, South Africa, has already thrown in its lot with Europe, but New Zealand is running the risk of isolation.

With Australia at an all-time low in the men’s game and Super Rugby Aupiki only featuring teams from New Zealand in the women’s, the danger is both clear and very present. Even nine World Cup wins and the Professor’s unquenchable optimism cannot deny that new reality.


Mzilikazi 209 days ago

England are clearly the best female team in the world right now in the fifteens game. I must admit to not having watched any of the recent games, so can’t comment. I need to catch up !

Where do girls begin their rugby careers in England, Nic ? I ask, because here in Australia I would say most start with touch football, which is very big in Qld and NSW at least. So a very good handling skills base is there, along with spatial awareness.

Then the next step would often be sevens, so tackling comes in there. And then on to fifteens for some, others go to League.

Australia have for many years produced world class women’s sevens teams, but not yet a great fifteens team. The money and the support is just never there from RA, which is a shame.

There are two girls who were brought up within 10 kms of where we live here on the Darling Downs who are Australian players. Georgie Friedrichs, and Dominique du Toit. Interestingly both were born in Zimbabwe, and we know the Friedrichs family well. However I have not seen Georgie since she was about ten, apart from watching her play in the Sevens at the Gold Coast Comm. games.

Georgie moved from sevens to 15’s. Dominique has to my knowledge always been a sevens player, and went from school straight into the elite sevens programme.

An interesting piece of trivia. Dominique is the great niece of one of your great Welsh wingers of yesteryear, Nic. Stuart Watkins, of Newport, from memory ? If I meet her one day, that would be an interesting story to explore !

Jon 209 days ago

You discredit the Black Ferns, they were no where near as bad as the men. They look silky here be comparison.

I only really follow the womens game at NPC level but can say Aupiki is just the branded NZ conference name. Aussie have a different name for their SR competition. Both will meet for a round following that, much like the Nations Cup idea is how you can think of the comp. Theres just not enough money in the game to have the round robin travel I suspect.

There is much more growth in NZ womens rugby than in the north, I suspect largely because it has already had its period of boom. I think your probably getting confused with professionalism and the amount each union has to spend from the mens game. Certainly good to hear that one English team can throw off those old cobwebs and entertain though.

Otagoman II 209 days ago

There is something refreshing about watching the women’s test matches compared to the men’s. Even the the English rolling maul seems to be over and done quicker. Maybe because there is less risk aversion? The NZ game is suffering from relative isolation.

Ben 209 days ago

Hi Nick, Stayer from over the wall here.

So much of the women’s game in that comp showed what I want the men’s game to look like.

Do you know if ball in play time is greater?

Joe 210 days ago

I agree the pessimistic about the development in New Zealand men's rugby. Guess a very black future for the All Blacks. When it comes to women, i disagree with the author. England has to change their unsightly game system, otherwise they will be outplaying again in 2025 when the Black Ferns unpack their big guns and become world champions for the seventh time at Twickenham. And they will be getting also stronger which so much talents. See France closer than England. English Rugby going down.

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