The Black Ferns have maintained their unbeaten record against Australia but there will be plenty for head coach Wayne Smith to mull over as October’s World Cup approaches.
A week after thrashing the Wallaroos 52-5 in Christchurch, the Black Ferns won 22-14 at Adelaide Oval but the home side put up a far fiercer fight. New Zealand's tally of wins against Australia now stands at 22.
In perfect attacking conditions – the best the Black Ferns have enjoyed all year – the yellow and gold defence was far better than last weekend but, in the absence of the pivotal Kendra Cocksedge, there may be questions about the visitors’ attack.
Smith wants to try several combinations before the World Cup and this may have presented an ideal opportunity with the Laurie O’Reilly Cup retained for another year but given the clunky performance it may have raised more questions than answers.
After going behind early, the Black Ferns scored an unanswered 22 points, but led only 10-7 at halftime despite a huge advantage in terms of set piece superiority, territory and possession.
The Black Ferns’ best were hooker Luka Connor, a first-half try scorer, flanker Kendra Reynolds, who also scored, lock Joanah Ngan Woo and centre Sylvia Brunt. Right wing Ruby Tui also had her moments on attack and defence.
The visitors got good value from their scrum – they won several penalties from it in the second half, including two in a row – and their pick and go as the Wallaroos attempted to bring defensive line speed.
In many ways they succeeded, although they were often offside and punished for it by referee Amber McLachlan.
Another issue for Smith and company is the Black Ferns’ defence. So impressive in Christchurch, it was occasionally manipulated too easily by the Australians, and the big threats at the World Cup, England and France, will expect to take full advantage if it continues.
The Black Ferns, after a start in which they pushed the Wallaroos’ pack back almost at will, encountered adversity within the first quarter.
Australia wing Bienne Terita, minutes after dropping the ball cold in front of an open line, didn’t make the same mistake twice, and in the build-up to the try Black Ferns’ midfielder Chelsea Semple appeared to be knocked unconscious in the act of making a tackle.
Semple had held her ground but was far too upright when run into by a Wallaroos prop, and she caught her opponent’s head directly to her jaw. Down she went, a worrying incident made worse by the yellow card she was shown as she was led from the field.
Semple was replaced by Hazel Tubic and gradually the Black Ferns made amends for their untidy start.
First, Ruahei Demant knocked over a penalty from straight in front and then Connor burrowed over for a converted try which allowed the Black Ferns to take a 10-7 lead to halftime.
However, at least one try went begging as they continued to enjoy the lion’s share of possession and territory and they would have been disappointed not to take advantage of the yellow card shown to Wallaroos lock Atasi Lafai, adjudged offside and paying the price for her team’s continued transgression in that area.
Another blow was the sight of No.8 and co-captain Kennedy Simon leaving the field injured.
Ngan Woo's try from a pick and go after an excellent carry by debutant prop Santo Taumata gave the Black Ferns scoreboard superiority, with openside flanker Reynolds scoring a deserved try soon after.
Like they did a week ago, the Wallaroos also had the last word, this time via debutant wing Terita, who scored her second try in the final moments.
New Zealand 22 (Luka Connor, Joanah Ngan Woo, Kendra Reynolds tries; Demant pen, 2 cons)
Australia 14 (Bienne Terita 2 tries; Arabella McKenzie 2 cons)