Improving Wallaroos downed by impressive Black Ferns

Photo: Karen Watson

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The Black Ferns have continued to show why they are the benchmark in women’s 15-a-side rugby, putting in a clinical performance to down the Wallaroos 47-10, in front of a record crowd for a women’s international of over 30,000 at Optus Stadium in Perth on Saturday.

Having seen off Japan in impressive style in the recent two-test series, hopes were high of this Australian side pushing the best team in the world all the way. But despite some genuine signs of improvement compared to the corresponding fixture last year, the end result was of a very similar one-sided nature, as New Zealand made it 18 wins from 18 against their trans-Tasman rivals.

The visitor’s played a controlled game in the first half, pouncing on every mistake to open up a 22-0 lead at the break. And despite a couple of tries in response from winger Lori Cramer in the second half, the Black Ferns were simply too good, running in eight tries in total to ensure the Laurie O’Reilly Cup will stay on the other side of the ditch for another year.

“We didn’t stick to our structures and how we want to play the game, we kind of played into their hands,” conceded captain Grace Hamilton. “To keep our dominance we need to keep that ball in hand, and some loose errors cost us that game, and defensive errors in midfield. We couldn’t really set the platform in the forwards. But I thought our scrum was dominant, and that’s a positive we can take out of this game. We’ve just got to stay composed and work hard this week.”

There were indeed rays of hope for the home side. Hamilton led by example with her customary workrate and as she said, the scrum stood up very well across the 80 minutes, while inside centre Alysia Lefau-Fakaosilea further illustrated the immense potential she has at just eighteen-years-old. But they will know that they need plenty of improvement across the board if they are to avoid a similar fate this weekend, when the two sides meet again in Auckland.

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It was Hamilton, so dominant in both tests against Japan a few weeks ago, who was a heavy presence in the opening exchanges, with a couple of trademark fiery carries into contact alongside a hard-earned turnover. But it was a penalty for not rolling away conceded by the influential skipper in the 7th minute, that gifted the Black Ferns their first concerted visit to the 22.

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Grace Hamilton put in a captain’s knock in vain with another all-action 80 minutes – Photo: Karen Watson

In the two meetings between the sides last year the Wallaroos had struggled to contain their opponent’s lineout maul, and it was an obvious go-to avenue for them to explore again this time out. And while the first surge for the line was just about quelled, albeit at the expense of another penalty, a second black wave was too well-drilled, and no.8 Charmaine McMenamin was driven over.

A kick out on the full from flyhalf Trilleen Pomare had the Wallaroos back under pressure in the 13th minute, silly mistakes gifting the visitor’s a leg-up they hardly need. But the way the Black Ferns punished the error was impressive, punching straight up the middle through scrumhalf Kendra Cocksedge, before recycling it wide for a lovely cut-out pass from inside centre Chelsea Alley to send Renee Wickliffe over in the corner.

Hamilton tried to get her side into the game with a strong carry that drew a penalty. But unfortunately, Lori Cramer’s attempt sailed wide of the uprights. And a couple of minutes later a quick-tap penalty inside the 22 looked to be their best chance of opening their account, only for the ball to be turned over in the tackle and cleared. As the game entered the second quarter the Wallaroos were yet to trouble the scoreboard, or their opponents.

What New Zealand were doing well was their ability to consistently get over the gainline, particularly through their forwards, in both attack and defence. They have a pack who all have the power to break a tackle, but also the technique to keep the ball alive in the process, and that was proving to be a hard machine to put the brakes on.

It needed a desperate lunging tackle from Cramer, and some brilliant work over the ball from Mahalia Murphy, to stop Wickliffe grabbing her second of the match on the half hour, as the visitor’s continued to look dangerous from open play as well. But if you keep giving them opportunities, they are going to take them, and that was the case for their third five-pointer on 33 minutes.

A clearing kick from Cramer didn’t find the distance or accuracy it required, and Renee Wickliffe pounced, carving a path back through the advancing green and gold line and inside the 22. She had lock Eloise Blackwell off her shoulder to carry into traffic, and when Cocksedge arrived to clear, the halfback had numbers out wide for them to go through the hands and provide McMenamin with her second of the match.

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18-year-old sensation Alysia Lefau-Fakaosilea was a standout in the Wallaroos midfield – Photo: Karen Watson

The Wallaroos were visibly fatiguing from the defensive effort and needed to get to the break with no further damage, regroup, and get some air back in the lungs. But their situation took a turn for the worse when they conceded a fourth just before half-time.

There didn’t appear to be much on when Ruahei Demant received the ball just inside the Australian half. But the kiwi pivot danced straight through the middle of a soft effort from Liz Patu and Alisha Hewett, before blasting a path to the chalk when the last line of defence – fullback Murphy – went too high and was swatted aside. Kicker Cocksedge added her first extras from in front, and the visitor’s took a formidable 22-0 advantage to the sheds.

The Aussie girls needed something tangible to hang their hat on if they still harboured thoughts of a comeback, and they got it five minutes after the restart.

With the Black Ferns camped on the edge of their 22, it looked more likely that any scoreboard change would go in favour of the visitor’s. But a terrific effort over the ball from Alysia Lefau-Fakaosilea spoilt an attack out wide, and sent the pill spinning out sideways and into the path of Lori Cramer. Looking up she found only a New Zealand forward in between herself and an open path upfield, and duly swerved her way past and pinned back the ears to go 70-odd metres and dive home, much to the delight of her team mates.

What Australia needed to do next was hold firm for a while, keep the kiwis out, and take any chance that came their way. But against the world no.1 side that is easier said than done, and New Zealand cancelled out their hosts score within three minutes.

The catalyst was another faulty lineout from the Wallaroos, an issue for them all game, and an overthrow that gifted the Black Ferns possession. They amassed in numbers on one flank, trying to break through with a succession of pick and drives from their eager forwards. But having sucked in a bevy of gold jerseys, they cleverly switched the point of attack, Cocksedge finding halves partner Demant, who put up a crossfield kick for Ayesha Leti-I’iga to send fullback Selica Winiata over for her 39th try in 39 tests.

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Sam Treherne runs back hard at the Black Fern defence – Photo: Karen Watson

They rubbed salt into the wounds with another three points from a penalty, Cocksedge with her second successful kick of the day just before the hour. But a lovely line break from Millie Boyle and a high shot on skipper Hamilton, drew a penalty in response that gave the Wallaroos another chance to strike.

Lefau-Fakaosilea had been one of Australia’s best on show, with her defensive efforts across the park a real standout. But anyone who has watched Super W would know that she can be just as damaging with ball in hand, and when she received possession off the back of a splintered ruck as the Aussie forwards tried to rumble towards the line, she weighed up the situation brilliantly, and executed perfectly. Targeting two Black Fern forwards, she dissected them while keeping her arms free to offload around the back for the unmarked Cramer to claim a second. Fantastic stuff.

The try provided a fresh injection of confidence to the home side, just as head coach Dwayne Nestor injected some fresh legs into the fray, and the Wallaroos built up a good head of steam for the next few minutes. But just as they looked to work another opportunity, disaster struck, replacement halfback Ili Batibasaga’s looping pass infield somewhat telegraphed and gleefully intercepted by New Zealand captain Lesley Elder, who strode away and just about held off a gallant last-ditch attempt from Sam Treherne to find the line.

It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, the Black Ferns going in again shortly after when explosive winger Leti-I’iga was on the end of the line to power her way through a gap and away for her side’s seventh. And the victory was rubber-stamped in the final minute, multiple phases tiring the home defence and replacement lock Joanah Ngan-Woo smashing over from a metre to record an imposing 47-10 victory.

For all the positivity around the women’s game in Australia – the undoubted progress made in XV’s by the national side off the back of the Super W competition, and the recent successes over Japan. This game clearly showed that there is some way to go before they can genuinely challenge the best team in the world. But there is a concerted effort both on and off the field to try, and that in itself by comparison to years gone by, is hugely encouraging.

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NEW ZEALAND BLACK FERNS 47 (Charmaine McMenamin 2, Renee Wickliffe, Ruahei Demant, Selica Winiata, Lesley Elder, Ayesha Leti-I’iga, Joanah Ngan-Woo tries; Kendra Cocksedge con, pen, Ruahei Demant con) defeated AUSTRALIA WALLAROOS 10 (Lori Cramer 2 tries) at Optus Stadium, Perth. HT 22-0

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