The Black Ferns’ squad of 32 will assemble in Auckland on Monday as they prepare to defend their World Cup title, but several of their players will be unavailable for their final build-up match against Japan at Eden Park the following Saturday.
Wayne Smith’s side will play their first ever Test against Japan in the curtain-raiser to the All Blacks v Wallabies Bledisloe Cup Test but last weekend’s Farah Palmer Cup premiership final between Canterbury and Auckland won by the red and blacks has taken its toll in terms of injuries and several players will be out.
The changes made by Smith and his management team for the Black Ferns’ scratchy 22-14 win over Australia in Adelaide, and changed game plan, were reflected in the clunky attacking performance - something Smith admitted to 1News after the World Cup squad announcement at Auckland’s College Rifles club on Tuesday.
Smith said he took responsibility for the below-par performance. A week earlier, the Black Ferns thrashed the Wallaroos 52-5 in Christchurch to retain the Laurie O'Reilly Trophy. Australia have never beaten the Black Ferns.
Smith felt there was also a need to change his side's attack slightly in order to keep a few things secret for their World Cup tilt which begins with a blockbuster match against Australia at Eden Park on October 8. And more – mostly forced – adjustments will be required for the Japan match.
He has spoken before about the importance of the Black Ferns playing a free-spirited, high-energy running game to challenge the more powerful physiques of the French and English women and it was something he reiterated on Tuesday.
“We’re going to try to reflect our population and play a really exciting game – reinvent the game a bit – and see how it goes,” Smith said when asked how prepared the squad was.
“I’m a coach so you always want more time… we’ve had a few games together and a few camps. We’re changing the game because we don’t think we can play a traditional game and be successful. We don’t want to follow what other teams are doing.
“We’re brought up on a No.8 wire [mentality], we can fix a broken fanbelt with a stocking – that’s us. I want us to be that sort of team and make the people really excited but also proud of what we’re trying to do out there.”
The inclusion of New Zealand sevens captain and loose forward Sarah Hirini was one of the bigger surprises, along with the non-selection of midfielder Chelsea Semple – who incidentally was yellow carded for a high tackle in the Wallaroos match.
Tyla Nathan-Wong, Eloise Blackwell, Les Elder and Grace Steinmetz are other notable omissions.
“Of course it was difficult – they’re all difficult conversations… it’s not a pleasant thing, that’s for sure,” Smith said of breaking the bad news.
“I won’t name any names but I would like to say we’ve got a big heap of women who have given a lot to the Black Ferns and women’s rugby in general in the past who haven’t been selected and I just want to give my appreciation for what they’ve done for the game – and don’t give up because there might be a Stephen Donald World Cup moment – you never know.”
Smith, the Black Ferns’ director of rugby after the resignation of Glenn Moore this year, was an important part of New Zealand’s last World Cup on home soil when the All Blacks won in 2011 after the trauma of losing to France in the quarter-final in Cardiff four years earlier.
Lessons? There are a few that can be applied to this campaign.
“Clearly we learned a lot from 2011 but it was prior to that when we learned the most. 2007 was traumatic – coming home from France after the quarter-final, landing in Tokyo in transit and seeing all the supporters coming over for the semifinal – that was pretty traumatic,” Smith said.
“So 2011 was the culmination of taking the mental skills stuff we did from the classroom and putting it on the track and that’s what we’re trying to do with these ladies. It’s all very well knowing how calm yourself and stay in the present in the classroom but you have to do it under pressure, so that’s what we’re working at.”
Black Ferns assistant coach Whitney Hansen, the daughter of Sir Steve who worked alongside Smith with the All Blacks in 2007 and 2011, was asked about the theme driving her side.
“It’s at home so that’s important,” she said. “If you think about being at home and the whare that is us - we’re going to do really good job to defend that.”
Black Ferns RWC Squad
Hookers: Luka Connor, Natalie Delamere, Georgia Ponsonby
Props: Tanya Kalounivale, Phillipa Love, Krystal Murray, Amy Rule, Awhina Tangen-Wainohu, Santo Taumata
Locks: Chelsea Bremner, Joanah Ngan-Woo , Maiakawanakaulani Roos
Loose Forwards: Alana Bremner, Sarah Hirini, Charmaine McMenamin, Liana Mikaele-Tu’u, Kendra Reynolds, Kennedy Simon
Halfbacks: Ariana Bayler, Kendra Cocksedge, Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu
First Five-Eighths: Ruahei Demant, Hazel Tubic
Midfielders: Sylvia Brunt, Amy du Plessis, Theresa Fitzpatrick
Outside Backs: Stacey Fluhler, Renee Holmes, Ayesha Leti-I’iga, Ruby Tui, Renee Wickliffe, Portia Woodman
Unavailable due to injury: Grace Brooker, Kaipo Olsen-Baker, Aleisha Pearl Nelson