Mererangi Paul scored a hat-trick in 11 first-half minutes as New Zealand put on a clinical display of finishing to kick off their Pacific Four series challenge with a nine-try 57-5 win over USA at FMG Stadium.

But it was very much a game of two halves in Hamilton, as a building USA made life difficult for the hosts in the second period, after conceding 36 unanswered points in the first half.

Player of the Match Paul, on her first start at full-back after five matches on the wing, opened her account in the fifth minute, collecting an inside offload from Ruby Tui to dot down in the corner. 

Five minutes later, she did all the hard work for her second, collecting her own chip and chase to score, before completing her hat-trick in the 16th minute with a simple touch down from debut nine Maia Joseph’s pinpoint crossfield kick.

She warned that there was more to come from the Black Ferns after their first home outing in 2024. “We spoke about unleashing our outside, we spoke about holding our depth and I think once we had our depth we were able to get the ball out there and play footie,” she said immediately after the match.

“There’s definitely plenty for us to work on. We’ll go back and look at our defence.”

Centre Amy Du Plessis had opened the scoring for the Black Ferns, finishing off a sweeping multi-pass strike move that started off the first scrum of the match on their own 22. 

Winger Katelyn Vahaakolo ran the first 30 of her 153 first-half metres with ball in hand to set up the chance, before Kennedy Simon and Ruahei Demant combined to set Du Plessis clear.

Vahaakolo added New Zealand’s third with a brilliant weaving solo effort, in the eighth minute.

Even after Paul scored her third, New Zealand’s fifth, she and her Black Ferns’ team-mates refused to let-up. Former volleyball international Maama Mo’onia Vaipulu powered over from close range after 26 minutes to score the home side’s sixth try on her debut. Dement converted to take the score to 36-0. 

USA’s effort and endeavour had gone unrewarded in the first half. They kept working, and had periods of pressure, but repeatedly ran into a New Zealand defence that was as solid as their attack was incisive.

But they had the upper hand in the second half's opening exchanges – and came close to scoring, but Hope Rogers lost the ball centimetres short of the line after USA had hammered away at New Zealand’s defence over several phases. 

They would go over for a deserved 14-phase gut-buster of a score shortly after the hour as back-row Freda Tafuna crashed over for her second against the Black Ferns in as many internationals. It would be the hard-working Tafuna’s last act of the match. She picked up a leg injury in the act of scoring and limped off.

Tui had earlier broken the second-half deadlock 15 minutes in, accepting Paul’s favour-returning inside pass after New Zealand had eaten metres with ball in hand. 

After Tafuna had broken USA’s duck, New Zealand’s Layla Sae then scored her first international try, bumping off Autumn Czaplicki and slicing through two more tackles en route to the line with six minutes left. Hannah King converted to take New Zealand up to 50 points. 

There was still time for Patrica Maliepo to round off the scoring with a late try.

USA had come into the match on the back of a 50-7 defeat to neighbours Canada in Los Angeles, and on a 14-match losing streak against New Zealand dating back more than 30 years.

But captain Rachel Johnson believes there were plenty of positives from their second outing of the competition. “We’re a building nation,” she said, pitchside. “We knew playing the second-best team in the world would be a challenge. 

“I’m really, really proud of my team. We’re starting to put phases together, starting to show the physical fast rugby that we want to play. We just need to keep building.”

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