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Feature · 3 min read
We caught up with columnist and Women in Rugby Aotearoa trustee, Alice Soper to discuss an incredible year for New Zealand that ended with the Black Ferns securing a sixth women’s Rugby World Cup title.
What a difference a year can make. On 20 November, 2021, New Zealand’s players sat dejected in their Castres changing room following a 29-7 test defeat to France.
The four-try loss at Stade Pierre Antoine rounded off what had been a disappointing return to the international stage for the Black Ferns.
England had beaten New Zealand by record scores in Exeter and Northampton before the team travelled to Pau and then Castres, where Les Bleues also proved too strong.
It was a wake-up call for those involved as they prepared for Rugby World Cup 2021, their home tournament due to kick off in less than 11 months’ time.
However, fast forward 357 days and despair had turned to unbridled delight. Eleven of the 23-player squad that suffered that painful tour-ending defeat were involved on 12 November as the Black Ferns beat England in the RWC 2021 final.
Scenes in the home changing room at a sold-out Eden Park were anything but sombre as the triumphant players donned novelty sunglasses to celebrate the team’s sixth Rugby World Cup title.
“It’s been really challenging,” Black Ferns co-captain Ruahei Demant said moments after leading her side to glory in Auckland.
“We’ve sacrificed so much to get one chance in a lifetime to win a World Cup at home – and we did it!"
Demant had played all four matches on the ill-fated tour of Europe the previous November and arguably no Black Fern personified the journey the team went on more than the RWC 2021 final Mastercard Player of the Match.
The heartbeat of the @blackferns 💓— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) November 15, 2022
Ruahei Demant was an unstoppable force throughout #RWC2021 pic.twitter.com/UqRlUXCZEw
But how were Demant and her team-mates able to turn their form around to become Rugby World Cup winners, beating both France and England along the way?
According to player-turned-columnist, Alice Soper, events in England and France at the end of 2021 highlighted that continuing with the direction of travel was “not going to cut the mustard”.
“People actually acknowledged that, hey, in particular England had moved and had set a standard there,” Soper told World Rugby.
“So, it was going to be a case of us having to make changes and make them quickly if we wanted to be in our best shape to be really competitive [at RWC 2021].”
Change arrived in the form of two-time men’s Rugby World Cup-winning coach Wayne Smith, who was appointed, initially as a technical coach, at the start of April.
Smith was no stranger to the women’s national team having helped in an informal capacity in the 1990s, during Daryl Suasua’s reign as coach.
On his appointment, meanwhile, he stated that his desire to get involved with the Black Ferns “started as a tribute” to his late friend Laurie O’Reilly, the first person to coach New Zealand at a women’s Rugby World Cup.
“I indicated to him before he passed away that I would help women’s rugby in whatever way I could and now I get the chance,” he added at the time.
That link to the past helped Smith’s assimilation into the role, and also enabled him to call on the nous of several friends from his time with the All Blacks.
“It’s interesting because Graham Henry had already been about, but I think he was more widely embraced when Wayne was opening the door and that's because he had that relationship with the women's game,” Soper said.
“He had a bit of a feeling of what people were like and knowing the differences as well, you know. But with those differences come opportunities too.
“When you've got all the old girls who can say, ‘oh yeah, we remember Wayne’ and that he was a good guy… these women all talk to each other and all the old kids as well as the young ones and so you know that you've got the passing on that he can be trusted as well.
“And then, of course, all these women are more than aware of his accolades in the men's game, too.
“So, we're always keen to be learning. If we're given the opportunity to be able to learn off the best, why would you look twice at that opportunity?”
For the players, working under Smith took them out of their comfort zone and made them think about the game differently.
“I remember the first camp Smithy came to, and the first night of the first camp we had a kicking session, and it was the complete opposite to what I had been told and I was like ‘oh…’,” Demant admitted.
“He said he’s never followed the herd and always does things differently. That’s exactly the type of coach he is.
“I think the hardest challenge for us as players wasn’t the skills stuff, it was the mindset stuff. He challenged us.”
The first signs of Smith’s impact on the team came during the World Rugby Pacific Four Series in June 2022 in which the Black Ferns beat Australia, Canada and USA to win the title.
New Zealand were not yet the finished article though, and there was a warning of things to come in the opening match as the Wallaroos raced into a 10-0 lead in Tauranga before falling to a 23-10 defeat.
“If anybody told you that they watched Pac Four and thought, oh this is the team that's going to win the World Cup, they're lying,” Soper said. “Because it was very much having to trust the process.
“Yeah, we won but some of those games were pretty scrappy… the key to all that confidence play, etc., it's all timing, right? And so, it takes a while to get that timing to click.”
Ruby Tui made her test debut during the Pacific Four Series but what arguably took the team to the next level was the addition to the squad of a number of her Olympic team-mates.
Sarah Hirini, Portia Woodman-Wickliffe, Theresa Fitzpatrick and Stacey Fluhler each played a huge part in the Black Ferns’ success, as did Tui, and their return to 15s was aided by a familiar face in their former sevens coach Allan Bunting.
Woodman-Wickliffe, on her way to becoming the top try-scorer in Rugby World Cup history, scored a hat-trick in their opening RWC 2021 match against Australia to help the Black Ferns recover from going 17-0 behind to win 41-17.
Tui also touched down twice at a packed Eden Park and crossed the whitewash in each of her subsequent appearances before the final, including a pivotal score in the nail-biting semi-final defeat of France.
The smiling assassin strikes again 😁#RWC2021 | #NZLvENG | @staceyfluhler pic.twitter.com/pHVfo2fQLO— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) November 13, 2022
Her try against Les Bleues was sandwiched between efforts from Fluhler and Fitzpatrick and the two sevens team-mates formed a formidable centre partnership at RWC 2021.
It was Fluhler who turned the tide in New Zealand’s favour in the final against England, scoring a wonderful try at the beginning of the second half. When injury struck in the final 10 minutes, she limped off to a deserved standing ovation from the majority of the 42,579 fans in attendance.
“They came in and provided the confidence but also the professionalism,” Soper said.
“These are full-time athletes, they have been now for about 10 years and so they can come in and bridge a lot of that gap and can role model how to do things.
“But they have also now been on the world stage, in high pressure matches, have been in the Commonwealth Games, Olympic finals, so have built up that play-off resilience to hold their nerve in those really tough positions.
“And I think again, you saw that with Stacey Fluhler. I know that Ruahei got the Player of the Match in the final, but I think that Stacey played one of the best games I've ever seen her play in 15s.
“They have been taught to relish those high-pressure situations. And so, they get to bring that in and when you've got that core contingent of starters where you've got them sprinkled around the field, it's hard not to get that lift from those people coming in.”
Two months on from that magical night at Eden Park, what legacy does Soper hope Demant, Fluhler and their Rugby World Cup-winning team-mates will leave behind in New Zealand?
“There’s been a growing wave for women's sport in New Zealand that's been coming for a while, and what this was, was kind of the moment where it broke over and just crashed down on everyone,” she said. “You can't ignore it anymore.
“This win has positioned our team in a different place, not just in consciousness, but in hearts.
“People love our team now in a way that they didn't before. So, we're not going to let something we love be mistreated or not be invested in or supported like we had previously.
“So, I think it's raised it to a level, like our Black Ferns Sevens team has been for a while, where people love this team, they want to back them, and they want to see them level up.
“I think it’s the accountability that’s come from the visibility, that will be the legacy for years to come.”