RWC 2021 winner Ruahei Demant on inspiring a nation – “none of us really expected this”
Images of New Zealand’s players celebrating their Rugby World Cup triumph at Eden Park have already become iconic.
Joanah Ngan-Woo’s last-minute leap to disrupt the England lineout, and the subsequent knock-on that ended the match, ignited wild scenes among the Black Ferns and the majority of the 42,579 packed into the famous stadium.
Footage of the players performing a celebratory Haka, signing autographs and celebrating in sunglasses would soon go viral amid scenes that co-captain Ruahei Demant didn’t dare believe would be possible before the tournament kicked off.
Fly-half Demant turned in a Mastercard Player of the Match performance at Eden Park and she hopes the team’s success can have a lasting impact on the women’s game in New Zealand.
“The level of support we’ve received from our country has been really overwhelming. As players none of us really expected this,” she admitted.
“It’s still quite surreal to turn up to Eden Park – we’ve been here three times now, and it’s been sold out two times – to walk out of the tunnel and you can’t even think because it’s so loud. The crowd is so loud.
“I never ever would have thought when the World Cup was announced here in New Zealand that we would get this level of fan engagement, because we’re not really that type of country.
“In the past when we’ve had the opportunity to travel abroad and play teams like England or France in their countries, their fans are next level.
“I was quite worried when they announced we had a home World Cup but the way the country’s turned out, you couldn’t have scripted it. It’s been unreal.
“As a team, we spoke about wanting to inspire the nation. I think that’s what we’ve done and it’s still quite funny saying that because we’ve achieved that and it’s quite a hard thing to do. It’s just unreal.”
Demant possessed perhaps the coolest head in Eden Park as the match ticked into the final 10 minutes and the hosts continued to trail 14-player England.
In spite of the pressure emanating from the scoreboard and the stands, the fly-half retained the utmost confidence that her team would come through to win a sixth Rugby World Cup title, even when Kennedy Simon was sent to the sin-bin.
“It’s funny, even though we were actually down for most of the game, I didn’t think we were under the pump, like we were going to lose,” Demant said.
“I don’t say that based on the opposition but on the calmness that our 15 players out there on the field showed.
"We knew where the space was – we just had to get the ball there. We knew their lineout drive was killing us, so we tried to keep the ball in and not concede any penalties.
“It took 80 minutes, and it took 23 players. It didn’t matter that we had a yellow card. I guess I’m just really proud of all 32 of us [in the wider squad], really.”
Asked about the source of that self-assuredness, Demat added: “The trust that we have in each other, but also the freedom that we have to play.
“One of the great things about our semi-final was we won but we didn’t get to play our game. We knew that [in the final] we would be able to play our game.
“We play our best rugby when our minds are free, and we play with joy. I guess that’s where the calmness came from.”
It is all a stark turnaround from the Black Ferns’ tour of Europe last November, during which they suffered record defeats to both England and France.
Demant featured in all four matches and in the immediate aftermath of the final praised the way in which the players had “turned themselves around” following what was a difficult experience for those involved.
That improvement has been aided by a change in coaching staff, as two-time men’s Rugby World Cup winner Wayne Smith came on board as director of rugby and with the help of some famous friends set about changing the way the Black Ferns approached the game.
“I remember [when] Smithy introduced himself to us, he said he’s never followed the herd and always does things differently. That’s exactly the type of coach he is,” Demant said.
“I think the hardest challenge for us as players wasn’t the skills stuff, it was the mindset stuff. He challenged us, when the opposition presented certain pictures, he said ‘how can we score off this?’.
“It’s hard when you’re not used to thinking like that, he definitely doesn’t do things by the book. That’s the greatest influence Smithy’s had on our team.
“The players they selected throughout all our campaigns have shown that courage – the courage to play different.
“That’s what’s so exciting about the style of game that we play. It’s definitely not the norm. It’s exciting for the viewers and it’s fun to play.”