If sporting drama, political intrigue, uplifting storylines and career-threatening losses was your thing, New Zealand’s top men’s and women’s rugby teams provided it and more in 2022.
History will be the judge but, with the help of the Black Ferns, it appeared to be a defining year for the women’s game worldwide. It was definitely a year in which Ian Foster’s team broke various records for (them anyway) the wrong reasons.
The Black Ferns’ narrative arc was redemptive, compelling, and, when the dust settled on their final victory over England at Eden Park in early November, impossible to top, as (spoiler alert) you will see below. Come on, it shouldn’t be considered a surprise.
They were broken at the end of 2021 after their four defeats on their Northern tour, but not beyond repair, and the first step to their rebuilding job was New Zealand Rugby’s decision to appoint Wayne Smith as their director of rugby (effectively head coach).
On one level it sent a (possibly overdue) message that the Black Ferns players (and brand itself) were valued by the organisation, and on another, Smith, a former teacher, was the perfect choice because of not only his knowledge in helping lead the All Blacks to World Cup victories in 2011 and 2015 but his qualities as a person: self-awareness, empathy and willingness to embrace change.
He is also, evidently, a fine rugby coach.
Among some of the visiting journalists at the recent Rugby World Cup there was a hope that England would win – not only because of their national loyalties, but because of the investment (in terms of time and money), that the RFU has made in the Red Roses since the last one.
By contrast, there was a feeling that NZ Rugby, after winning the rights to host it in 2021 (postponed due to Covid and held in 2022), had belatedly thrown some resources at the Black Ferns after years of relative neglect and that a win for New Zealand would send the wrong message.
It was a sentiment not held solely by the visitors either but it was one that ignored the impact Ruby Tui, Stacey Fluhler, Ruahei Demant, Renee Holmes, Joanah Ngan-Woo, the Bremner sisters Chelsea and Alana and Kendra Cocksedge and Theresa Fitzpatrick (to name a few), had not only on followers of the game here but also non-followers.
The personalities, commitment and on-field excellence of the Black Ferns literally converted new fans to the game and opened up new possibilities not only for women’s rugby players here but female athletes in general. It was remarkable.
There was some commentary recently after the recent FIFA World Cup final between Argentina and France in Qatar – by general consensus the finest one ever - that the best games require the most frantic re-writes by those news reporters lucky enough to cover them, and that rings true with the recent rugby one, too.
We had the hand of Joanah in the final and Caroline Drouin’s penalty miss in the final seconds of the semifinal.
Before that with the All Blacks, we had an extraordinary finish at Marvel Stadium with Jordie Barrett, one of the few in his side to significantly enhance his reputation in 2022, scoring the winning try against the Wallabies with the last play of the game.
We had David Havili and Scott Barrett scoring two converted tries in the final six minutes to beat the world champion Springboks at Ellis Park and effectively save Foster from following his previous assistants John Plumtree and Brad Mooar out the door.
We had the All Blacks losing to Ireland in a home series for the first time (which did for the above pair), and also losing to Argentina at home for the first time.
We had an ordinary performance in Tokyo, a better one in Cardiff, a scare against Scotland, and a draw against England after they played the English off the Twickenham pitch for the first 70-odd minutes.
It was a strange old year for rugby in New Zealand, which is why my favourite top five moments are portrayed in the following order:
* The Crusaders deserve an honourable mention for the way in which they demolished the Blues 21-7 in June’s Super Rugby Pacific final, but so efficient were they that the game was effectively over at halftime (13-0) and so they don’t qualify under the dramatic re-write clause.
5. Black Ferns 41 Australia 17, Eden Park, October
Neither does, really, the Black Ferns opening game of the World Cup – a big victory over Australia. But my list, my rules, and this match was hugely important for the home side and they appeared to know it only too well – conceding three tries as the Wallaroos raced to a 17-0 lead in almost as many minutes after an extraordinary haka before kick-off. It was nervy stuff and threatened to spoil the party which was attended – noticeably – by a much younger crowd than would normally come to an All Blacks’ Test. The Black Ferns responded by scoring 41 unanswered points.
4. Australia 37 All Blacks 39, Marvel Stadium, September
The All Blacks had to win their Test in Melbourne in September to retain the Bledisloe Cup for yet another year and they were cruising with an 18-point lead at one point, only for the Wallabies to come back and take the lead and, almost assure themselves of a remarkable comeback win when they were awarded a penalty in the final minute. Enter Monsieur Rayal and Jordie Barrett. Extraordinary.
3. South Africa 23 All Blacks 35, Ellis Park, August
Far more deserved was the All Blacks’ victory at Ellis Park, a Test held one week after they bumbled their way to defeat against the Boks at Mbombele Stadium in a match in which they hardly fired a shot. Foster infamously called it one of their best efforts of the year. Another loss at the world champions’ supposed fortress would surely have done for him after he had overseen the Irish series defeat, but the All Blacks responded with one of their finest performances of the year. A couple of weeks later they lost to the Pumas in Christchurch in one of their worst.
2. Black Ferns 25 France 24, Eden Park, November
When France first-five Caroline Drouin, one of the best No.10s in the world, lined up her penalty in the final seconds of the World Cup semifinal against the Black Ferns, yours truly had cobbled together about four paragraphs which included the words “loss”, “heart-breaking”, “dramatic” and others that I’ve long since forgotten. “Brave” may have been in there too. Her miss – and in hindsight she did appear to snatch at it too quickly with her right foot – effectively meant New Zealand were in the final against England. It was unexpected to say the least. Wayne Smith and his assistants could hardly look.
1. Black Ferns 34 England 31, Eden Park, November
And then there was this – another crazy Test won by the Black Ferns in front of a capacity crowd. In fairness, England should not have had a serious chance after losing wing Lydia Thompson to a red card for a high tackle – head-on-head – on opposite Portia Woodman at the end of the first quarter. That they hung in there and probably should have won it was a testament to their self belief and quality in front of a partisan crowd. For the Black Ferns, down at halftime and who showed an incredible clear-minded resilience and energy in attacking England in the second half, the win was only sealed via Joanah Ngan-Woo’s final-second lineout steal as the visitors set up for what would have been their fifth try from a driving maul. As mentioned in the story – it created a celebratory chaos at Eden Park even before the final whistle sounded. Incredible.