27 May 2024

Black Ferns' Pacific Four campaign: What we learned

6:33 pm on 27 May 2024

Two big wins and one big loss: That's the return for the Black Ferns after the annual Pacific Four series. The world champions are now looking forward to a showdown with England at Twickenham in September, so how are they tracking?

The answer is complicated because when the Black Ferns are good, they're unstoppable. But when they're not, it's incredibly frustrating to watch. Although the 67-19 win over the Wallaroos over the weekend was a good start, a fair bit needs to happen between now and their date with England.

"I think our coaches are preparing us really well and we know where we need to get to, but it's taking that week by week at this stage," Black Ferns co-captain Ruahei Demant said after the win at North Harbour Stadium.

"We're still trying to grow as a team and as individuals, and fortunately for us, we've got coaching staff that can help us get there. There's been a lot of lessons learned over the last five weeks, and we know we'll continue to build on these lessons as we build towards Twickenham."

Coach Allan Bunting was happy that the boxes were ticked in terms of what the Black Ferns needed from the Wallaroos fixture.

"It was definitely a lot better than last week, and good to see some of our players that haven't played much get out there and play well. It's pleasing to see our growth from last week," he said.

Because really, it's the Canada loss that bears the most scrutiny and will have the most bearing on the Black Ferns' season ultimately being successful. Despite being part-timers, the Canadians managed to play the game at their own pace, make the most of their penalty count and ultimately manage the game all the way to its conclusion.

Dejected Ruby Tui of the Black Ferns.

Dejected Ruby Tui of the Black Ferns. Photo: John Davidson/Photosport

The Canadians played a professional game because that's what they had to do to beat a professional team. It's what England will do because that's what they've always done.

So, what needs to happen? Simply put, Bunting and his staff need to firstly come up with a plan B when an opposing team hangs on to the ball for longer than a few phases.

Even the Wallaroos managed to set up a couple of decent tries, one coming early in the game before the Black Ferns onslaught began on Saturday afternoon.

Secondly, the importance of discipline cannot be understated. It feels like a broken record, but penalties are quickly becoming far more costly in the women's game, at least far more than they were when the Black Ferns were going around flogging everyone. The English and French teams have players whose main duties are to carve off territory, backed up by well drilled set piece.

The Black Ferns talk a great deal about running the ball being in their DNA, which is all well and good until you don't actually get the ball in your hands.

It was telling that Bunting did make an offhand word of praise to referee Aimee Barrett-Theron, generally regarded as the best in the women's game. The game was certainly free flowing, which suited the Black Ferns perfectly, but they can't rely on that happening every test match.

Vahaakolo is in under the sticks.

Vahaakolo is in under the sticks. Photo: Photosport

The good news? Kaipo Olsen-Baker had a very strong series and her combination with Liana Mikaele-Tu'u and Kennedy Simon gives Bunting a very powerful loose forward unit on both sides of the ball. The Black Ferns' strike power out wide is just as potent as ever, Mererangi Paul's raw pace is something special, while Katelyn Vaha'akolo has that plus the strength and confidence to cut back in and take on cover tacklers.

Both found themselves on the scoresheet on Saturday afternoon, Vaha'akolo in such spectacular fashion she seemed to surprise even herself.

The Black Ferns have a return match against the Wallaroos on 14 July in Brisbane, before regrouping and heading north for the showdown at Twickenham in September. It's not the best of arrangements - Bunting indicated there will be a series of camps, which will need to be maximised fully to even come close to replicating an actual test week - but until some stronger opposition starts developing in this part of the world, that's the way it's going to be.