France held on to secure a first-ever win against the Black Ferns in New Zealand at the end of a thrilling second day of WXV 1 action at Sky Stadium that also included a hard-fought victory for Canada against Wales.
Les Bleues scored two early tries in Wellington but were required to dig deep to secure an 18-17 win as the Black Ferns pressed for a winning score despite being reduced to 14 players in the second half.
Earlier, Canada were grateful to second-half tries from McKinley Hunt, Gillian Boag and Sarah-Maude Lachance as they pulled away from Wales to record a bonus-point 42-22 victory.
It means Canada end the first round second in the WXV 1 2023 standings on five points, behind England on points difference, with France a point further back in third.
France 18 - 17 New Zealand
Despite being on the wrong end of the possession and territory stakes, France have dug deep to defeat New Zealand 18-17 in a thrilling WXV 1 match. In a rematch of last year’s Rugby World Cup 2021 semi-final, the breathtaking encounter saw a couple of classic French tries and a red card to New Zealand replacement prop Chryss Viliko.
France showed just how dangerous they were when they get even the slightest opportunity, firstly running 80 metres to score a stunning opener. Black Ferns captain Ruahei Demant’s pass went into the hands of Gabrielle Vernier.
The French star midfielder popped a pass to the flying Emilie Boulard, who set off on an outstanding run to beat Black Ferns full-back Renee Holmes and score in the corner.
New Zealand went straight back into the French 22, utilising their well-drilled forwards, answering back with try to powerful number eight Liana Mikaele-Tu’u. She barged over under the posts, which locked up the scores at 7-7.
It didn’t stay that way for long, though. France scored the try of the match off a scrum on halfway, a beautiful move that went from Charlotte Escudero and Alexandra Chambon to land perfectly in the hands of a flying Cyrielle Banet. The French winger streaked away down the sideline to score and put her side up 12-7.
Morgane Bourgeois added a penalty just before the break to give her side a handy two-score lead. The full-back was on target again early in the second half to extend the lead, and it was at that point the world champions seemed to tighten up their play and hang onto the ball for longer periods of time.
New Zealand maintained their attack along the French 22 but the defence from the visitors held firm until they conceded a penalty at the scrum. Holmes sent the kick through with a nice strike, which was just reward for the dominance the Black Ferns’ scrum was maintaining.
The Black Ferns dominated possession and territory for the next 10 minutes, before Viliko was red carded for making head contact with Vernier. Crucially, it reversed a kickable penalty that the Black Ferns had been awarded for another dominant scrum.
But the Black Ferns weren’t done, after pressing the attack Ruby Tui put through a perfect kick that bounced into the hands of Katelyn Vahaakolo to score in the corner. Demant nervelessly slotted the conversion to set up a tense final five minutes.
Again France’s defence stood up to the challenge, forcing a turnover and coolly playing out the final seconds to record their first-ever test win over the Black Ferns on New Zealand soil.
CANADA 42 - 22 WALES
A committed second half saw Canada score an entertaining 42-22 victory over Wales in their opening WXV 1 match.
Canada’s influential captain and number eight Sophie de Goede wasted no time stamping her mark on the game, a strong carry into the 22 set up a series of patient phases near the Welsh try-line. De Goede waited for the perfect opportunity to pounce, spotting a gap in close to dive over.
However, it only took a matter of minutes for Wales to strike back through a well-worked lineout move. Carys Phillips was the beneficiary of a good fake jump and a flat throw to Alisha Butchers, receiving the ball back to touch down in the corner. Keira Bevan nailed the sideline conversion to lock the scores up at 7-7.
From then on the game became more attritional, often hugging the touchlines as both sides kicked from first phase to try and gain a territorial advantage. Bevan nudged her side in front after Wales managed to manoeuvre into the 22, by that stage it was clear that every scoring opportunity would be crucial.
Jasmine Joyce underlined her class with a stunning try-saving tackle on Florence Symonds, tracking back and thumping the Canadian winger into touch five metres out from the Welsh line.
Things burst into life on the half-hour mark, firstly Canada reverted to their quick ruck ball that overwhelmed the defence and saw Sara Svoboda driven over. Symonds then showed her class, scything into the line and setting up Madison Grant to score.
De Goede knocked over both conversions and it looked as though Canada had established a substantial lead at the break.
However, no one told Georgia Evans. The Welsh second-row took advantage of Canada trying to run it out of their own 22 and picked off an errant pass, racing away to score under the posts and cutting the deficit to 21-17.
Canada piled the pressure back on to start the second half, spending the first 10 minutes camped in the Welsh 22. Symonds again went close and was shut down, but McKinley Hunt couldn’t be denied shortly after with a well taken pick and go.
From there, efficient work at the breakdown saw Canada rewarded with a run of penalties and field position. Despite some tenacious Welsh defence, they were eventually rewarded with a lineout drive that was perfectly executed for Gillian Boag to dive over.
Wales weren’t done, Alex Callender diving over for a popular try to cut the margin to 35-22. But Canada were happy to soak up the rest of the remaining time and take the win, tacking on a well-taken try to Sarah-Maude Lachance right on full time.