Analysis: Why Woodman is a big problem for Black Ferns' RWC rivals

Patrick McKendry
Source: 1News

As the Black Ferns put their finishing touches on their preparations for the World Cup, which starts for them at Eden Park a week on Saturday, players from the other gathered nations may be asking themselves: How do we solve a problem like Portia Woodman?

Portia Woodman fends off Japan fullback Ai Hirayama on her way to scoring one of her seven tries at Eden Park.

In scoring seven tries in her team’s 95-12 thrashing of Japan last Saturday, Woodman, the fastest player on the pitch, highlighted not only her extreme pace but also her handling and evasion skills and, perhaps above all, her game awareness.

She is clearly in excellent form as the Black Ferns seek to win the World Cup on home soil and getting the ball to her in space on the left wing would appear to be a priority for Wayne Smith’s team, who haven’t lost a Test since he took over as director of rugby this year.

Momentum and confidence is building for the Black Ferns, and Woodman, the former world sevens player of the year, will hold a hugely important role for her nation at the upcoming tournament.

After the lows of late last year and the replacement of previous coach Glenn Moore, the Black Ferns won the Pacific Four competition also featuring Australia, the USA and Canada, beat the Wallaroos again home and away and now have accounted for Japan in their first Test against a nation ranked 13th in the world to New Zealand’s No.2.

As the final score suggests, Japan, who beat the Wallaroos in Australia this year, were not at their best. They were passive on defence and at the breakdown and, putting it politely, some of their one-on-one tackling was insufficient.

Read more: Portia Woodman scores seven tries as Black Ferns demolish Japan

However, the finishing ability of the 31-year-old Woodman was in a class of its own and in scoring seven tries she has reached a special milestone.

No All Black has scored that many in a Test; the closest is Marc Ellis, who scored six in his team’s win over Japan at the World Cup in 1995. Will Jordan deserves an honourable mention for scoring five against Tonga at Mt Smart Stadium last year.

So it goes without saying that Woodman will be a handful and should be targeted as a matter of urgency by the other nations at this World Cup, starting with Australia and continuing with Wales at Waitakere Stadium on October 16 and Scotland in their final pool game in Whangarei on October 22 before the Black Ferns presumably hit the knock-out stages.

A delighted Portia Woodman celebrates with Renee Holmes and Amy du Plessis, right.

Woodman, who had a hat-trick in the first half, beat multiple players on the outside. The Japanese just couldn’t handle her sidestep or pace. Her finest try was probably her fifth when, from a scrum 60m out, she received an inside ball from halfback Kendra Cocksedge and brushed off two defenders on her way to the line.

Afterwards, a delighted Smith was left critiquing his players' body positions on the ground as they cut loose while on their feet, but really he couldn’t have hoped for much more.

And while it appeared to be a training run at times, the Black Ferns’ passing and offloading accuracy was such that they wouldn’t expect to catch so many in an actual training session.

“You could go through a training run and drop all those balls,” Smith said.

And here’s the thing about having an attacking threat like Woodman in your team; the Black Ferns’ strike power is such that if teams focus too much on covering her, time and space will open up for players such as fullback Renee Holmes, midfielder Amy du Plessis or fellow wings Ruby Tui and Ayesha Leti-I'iga.

It’s a problem for the opposition but mostly a delight for the Black Ferns – lung-bursting efforts as her teammates struggling to stay in support excepted.

“It was very tiring trying to keep up with her,” co-captain Ruahei Demant said. “To know that when she has the ball in hand she’s probably going to break the line makes things so much easier because we’re always going forward. We have those opportunities to keep the ball alive and then play on top [of the opposition]. It’s tiring but it’s a lot of fun.”

England, the world's No.1 ranked nation, will arrive in New Zealand on a 25-match unbeaten run, so clearly they will be favourites to win the tournament.

But with Woodman on the field the Black Ferns will always be problematic. She presents a clear and present danger and New Zealand need to make the most of it.