Silverware is a welcome barometer of success in sport but for two senior Black Ferns preparing for the two-test series against Australia, their recent trip to San Diego was as much of a triumph off the pitch as it was on it.
New Zealand warmed up for the Laurie O’Reilly Memorial Trophy 2019 against Australia by winning the Women’s Rugby Super Series last month as a Renee Wickliffe hat-trick secured victory in a winner-takes-all encounter with England.
Having gone into that match on the back of a second defeat to France in as many meetings, and with top spot in the World Rugby Women’s Rankings at stake, it was a timely statement from an inexperienced squad.
Of the 23 Black Ferns selected for last year’s second test against the Wallaroos at Eden Park only 13 were named in head coach Glenn Moore’s 28-player squad for this year’s series. That group contains three uncapped players, 15 with less than 10 tests and a captain, Les Elder, in her first season with the armband.
“In the US we had some new girls come in, we had to readjust a few things and get them on the same level with the culture on and off the field,” Wickliffe told World Rugby.
Culture at heart
“Culture’s a big part of our team. Obviously with the girls who have led this legacy for us, it has continued and with the girls that are coming through now we’ve tried to, obviously, breed the new girls in with the culture that the past players have left for us.”
Scrum-half Kendra Cocksedge added: “It’s important for us senior girls and the leadership group to really drive that culture.
“It’s been a big part of the Black Ferns for ever now and for all the girls that have gone past and gone through the Black Ferns, we want to be able to show that that culture’s still there and it’s something that’s really, really important to the team.”
On the pitch, younger players such as Pia Tapsell, Ayesha Leti-I’iga and Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu got valuable game time as the Super Series title was claimed, but it was not all plain sailing.
Cocksedge believes that France played with more passion than the Black Ferns as Les Bleues followed up their 30-27 victory in November with an equally impressive 25-16 win at the Chula Vista Training Center.
A special moment
Defeat was also a dampener on a personal level for the 31-year-old scrum-half, who had led the Black Ferns out in San Diego on the occasion of her 50th cap.
“It was a huge honour to lead the side out, especially in my 50th test,” she said. “It was definitely a special moment for me and my family.
“The result didn’t go the way that we wanted it to but we’ve learned a lot from that game and obviously it helped us go out on that fourth test against England and perform really well.”
The Black Ferns will be keen to take that momentum into this weekend’s first test against the Wallaroos in Perth.
“We know that we can’t take this team lightly, and Aussie have progressed with their series that they’ve been playing [against Japan],” Wickliffe said.
Ready for the challenge
🎥 WATCH | After leading the #BlackFerns in her 50th Test in San Diego, halfback @kenj0119 reflects on her half century and talks through her adversities and highlights. #TryAndStopUs pic.twitter.com/FjaZI64env— Black Ferns (@BlackFerns) July 8, 2019
“They are a top-quality side as well, and I’m sure they’re going to bring it to us on Saturday so we have just got to do our homework here, make sure everyone’s on the same page, and obviously a win would be nice.
“But we know it’s going to be a hard, physical game and I know with playing Aussie here in Australia they’re going to put on a good match. So, we’re looking forward to that.”
Playing at Optus Stadium in a double header with the men’s Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup match will bring its own challenges for a side that is likely to include a number of players who are yet to sample a big stadium atmosphere.
Cocksedge is confident, though, that those players can pick up where they left off in San Diego as they look to maintain their unbeaten record against the Wallaroos.
“We’ve got some new ones in the team, so as long as we keep calm and look after them and get around them [they will be fine],” she said.
“It might be pretty overwhelming, I remember my first game in a big stadium but it’s really special and we hope that we get a lot of support down there early to watch us.
“The good thing is we have our captain’s run out on the field on Friday and that’s probably what’s important, that the girls can kind of soak that up then and understand that it’s a big stadium and there are going to be a few people supporting us hopefully.”
Women’s rugby has made significant progress since Cocksedge made her test debut back in 2007, and she is hopeful that if it continues at its current rate then the Black Ferns will soon feature at big stadiums as the main event.
“The good thing is at the moment we’re having all these double headers and it’s been fantastic,” she said.
“But I believe in the future with the game growing so much, and the support and exposure we’re getting, is that we’ll be able to be standalone and sell out crowds.”