By Katie Field
THE WORLD champions of women’s rugby, New Zealand’s Black Ferns, are taking on England three times in the next eight days with the aim of avenging the two consecutive Test series defeats they have suffered in England in the last two years.
It is eight years since England Women last toured New Zealand and 12 years since they won a Test there, so this is a monumental test of their mettle ahead of next year’s Women’s World Cup. Add to that the fact that this Saturday’s first Test of the series is the 1,000th women’s rugby International since the first one was contested by the Netherlands and France 31 years ago, and there’s no doubt this is a massive day for women’s rugby.
The first Test of the series, played at New Zealand’s iconic Eden Park, will be televised live on Sky Sports 1 on Saturday, 13 July. Kick-off is at 6.05am and early risers are sure to be rewarded with a compelling contest.
Why England Can Win
1 Experience – the England team features six players with more than 50 caps to their names: prop Rochelle Clark (78 caps); fly-half and former skipper Katy McLean (59); captain and No 8 Sarah Hunter (51); lock Tamara Taylor (64); lock Joanna McGilchrist (51) and prop Sophie Hemming (57).
England play far more Tests each year than New Zealand, so all their players are more battle-hardened on the international stage.
2 Fittest and fastest – England coach Gary Street has worked with plenty of talented players in his six years at the helm, so when he talks superlatives, it means something. “We are the fittest, fastest set of backs I have ever had,” he says of this current squad. Full-back Emily Scarratt, wing Katherine Merchant and centre Rachael Burford are all back after playing international sevens for the bulk of this year, so they are in excellent condition.
3 Wounded pride – Street used the 2013 Six Nations to blood a host of new players and England, so often the winners, finished third after losing to Ireland and France. Skipper Hunter was left disappointed, but said the team’s reaction to the set-back has stood them in good stead for the challenge they face in New Zealand.
“As soon as we lost to France we knew the Six Nations was gone, which was difficult, but how the squad picked themselves up to win the final two games was brilliant. We really progressed with the way we played. We started bouncing back right then.”
4 No fear – England have started to make a habit of beating New Zealand, most recently whitewashing the Black Ferns by three Tests to nil last November (16-13, 17-8 and 32-23). The Kiwis beat England in the 2010 World Cup final, but since their aura of invincibility has been well and truly busted by England and this current squad will relish the Haka, not fear it.
Street says: “Although many players here have never played in New Zealand before, the vast majority of them have beaten the Black Ferns over the last two years and having that experience under their belts is going to give us confidence. Our ambition for this series is certainly to perform to our potential, and when we do that we know we can be a handful for any team in the world.”
Why New Zealand can win
1 Home advantage – England skipper Hunter sums it up well: “When New Zealand have come over here in the past two years to play in November they have been the ones that have had to adapt to the jet-lag and being away from home and playing in the off-season. We are now the ones in that position.”
These will be the Black Ferns’ first home Tests since 2007, so they will be going all out to give their own fans something to cheer.
2 Fit and in form – Like England, New Zealand have included several players who were involved in the World Cup Sevens last month. Kelly Brazier, Renee Wickliffe, Selica Winiata and Player of the Tournament in Moscow Portia Woodman are all in the squad for the Test series, full of confidence and in form after winning the sevens title.
Black Ferns coach Brian Evans says the players who have been on the losing side against England for the last two years have learned some valuable lessons from that. “There has been a lot more work gone on, a lot of players have done a lot of soul searching about the level of fitness and conditioning they now need to combat England. They are in better nick.”
3 Returning star – Veteran Black Fern Victoria Grant is returning to the team after a year out with injury. The 31-year-old full-back/wing was the captain for their 2011 tour of England but missed last year’s trip and so will bring back important leadership skills to the squad. “I’m really excited about this year and to be playing at home,” she says. “It’s a huge honour to wear the black fern and you just put everything on the line when you are out there playing.”
Coach Evans says: “It’s great to have Victoria’s cool, and calm experience back on the field. She will be an important anchor for the team.”
England are missing some of their biggest names due to injury – the likes of Maggie Alphonsi, Danielle Waterman, Hannah Gallagher, Georgina Gulliver, Amy Turner, Fiona Pocock and a trio who were all injured playing sevens last month – Alice Richardson, Heather Fisher and Joanne Watmore.
4 Revenge mission – New Zealanders don’t like to lose at rugby, ever, which means this team, which has won the last four Women’s World Cups, will be itching to avenge their recent losses to England. Hunter says: “New Zealand are a massive rugby nation and they will be hurting a lot from the last two tours here.”
Street adds: “They will have a point to prove and they’ll want to get a good footing before the World Cup as well. I’m sure they’ll throw the kitchen sink at us. We respect them hugely but we don’t fear anybody.”
New Zealand (v England, Saturday, 13 July): Victoria Grant; Portia Woodman, Claire Richardson, Amiria Rule, Renee Wickliffe; Kelly Brazier, Kendra Cocksedge; Ruth McKay, Fiao’o Faamausili (capt), Melodie Bosman, Rawinia Everitt, Vita Dryden, Aroha Savage, Justine Lavea, Casey Robertson. Reps: Karina Stowers, Kathleen Wilton, Stephanie Te Ohaere – Fox, Jackie Patea, Charmaine McMenamin, Emma Jensen, Chelsea Alley, Selica Winiata.
England: Emily Scarratt; Katherine Merchant, Amber Reed, Rachael Burford, Kay Wilson; Katy McLean, La Toya Mason; Rochelle Clark, Emma Croker, Sophie Hemming, Tamara Taylor, Joanne McGilchrist, Alexandra Matthews, Marlie Packer, Sarah Hunter (capt). Reps: Victoria Fleetwood, Laura Keates, Kate Newton, Emily Braund, Isabelle Noel-Smith, Natasha Hunt, Ceri Large, Michaela Staniford.
New Zealand v England, Saturday 13 July (6.05am BST) Eden Park, Auckland – live on Sky Sports 1
New Zealand v England, Tuesday 16 July (8am BST) Waikato Stadium
New Zealand v England, Saturday 20 July 20 (3.35am BST) ECOLight Stadium, Pukekohe.