On Saturday the two heavyweights of women’s rugby will clash in a blockbuster decider at a sold-out Eden Park in Auckland.
The Black Ferns have never lost a Rugby World Cup final, but England have won a world record 30 Tests in a row.
The first World Cup final took place on April 14, 1991, in front of almost 3,000 people at Cardiff Arms Park, the spiritual home of Welsh rugby. The USA beat England 19-6. England led in the first half 6-3 after flanker Gill Burns (World Rugby Hall of Fame) converted a penalty try conceded by flanker Claire Godwin of Florida State.
The second half belonged to the Americans as their strong forward pack began to dictate terms and scored 16 unanswered points with two tries from Godwin and a try to halfback Patty Connell. Chris Harju (A Hollywood stunt woman) successfully converted two conversions and kicked a penalty.
The USA captain was No.8 Barbara Bond who played the World Cup in 1994 and 1998. The USA had made the 1994 final by beating New Zealand 7-0 in the semifinals. World Rugby Hall of Fame 2022 inductee Patty Jervey scored the USA's only try in the game.
In 1994 England gained their revenge by beating USA 38–23 in the final at Raeburn Place, Scotland, site of the first ever rugby international between England and Scotland men in 1871. English captain Karen Almond kicked 13 points with Gill Burns, centre Jacquie Edwards and fullback Jane Mitchell scoring a try each.
The only other final not to feature the Black Ferns was in 2014 when England edged Canada 21-9 in front of a crowd of 20,000 at Stade Jean-Bouin, Paris.
Magali Harvey (IRB World Women’s Player of the Year 2014) kicked three penalties for Canada, but England’s forwards were marginally better. In the 74th minute centre Emily Scarratt (player of the match) scored the winning try to finish with a personal haul of 16 points.
Black Ferns World Cup Wins
May 16, 1998, Amsterdam - Black Ferns: 44 v USA: 12
USA were no match for the rampant New Zealand side (officially named Black Ferns after the tournament) who led from start to finish in a match many players deemed less intense than the semifinal against the much-vaunted English. Wing Vanessa Coutts scored an incredible five tries and reflected with modesty on her achievement.
"My job was to score tries; plain and simple. All the credit for my tries goes to the team who did the lead up work. I don't want to look greedy by claiming I was something I wasn't. Playing with Anna Richards was unbelievable. She would skip-pass the entire backline and suddenly I had the ball in a wide open space."
Prop Regina Sheck whose mother tragically passed before the tournament and was buried with her daughters’ first Test jersey battled through that adversity to start every match and saved her best for last. NZPA reported:
“Regina Sheck epitomised the outstanding all-round skill of the New Zealanders. She had a hand in two of Cootes' tries and saved a certain American try with a come from behind ankle tap on one of their speedsters.”
Centre Jen Crawford, a 1991 World Cup winner, was captain of America but was overshadowed by Annaleah Rush who won player of the tournament.
“We were at a function after the final and my name got called out. I didn’t even know there was a player of the tournament award. It’s a plate with my name engraved on it. I’ve still got the thing in the attic. I should hang it on the wall but with three kids in the house they might smash it,” Rush said in 2022.
“For months the World Cup trophy ended up in my student flat in Dunedin. It was our main drinking vessel. Everyone who came over had to drink from it. During the week we used to store vegetables in it. It sat proudly on the mantelpiece above the fire. We didn’t lock our flats, thankfully no one stole it,”
England’s Ed Morrison refereed the final. He also officiated the 1995 male World Cup final between the All Blacks and the Springboks.
May 25, 2002, Barcelona - Black Ferns: 19 v England: 9
A tense decider at the Olympic Stadium once again saw the Black Ferns incur the wrath of the officials. The poise of 36-year-old halfback Monique Hirovana playing her 24th and final Test was instrumental. The Rugby News reported:
“Hirovana pulled all the strings in a star performance, scoring one slick try when she scampered 25 metres down the side-line from a ruck and then set up another for Cheryl Waaka after slicing through on a 20m run from a lineout. Hirovana also kept England pinned on defence with clever, well-placed high kicks and she directed the forwards in several stinging, lengthy rolling mauls.”
Hirovana was modest about her colossal effort.
“It was a lucky try to be honest, the ball came out from the back of the scrum and the way my head was I pulled it out to the left and there was a huge blind.
“I was so nervous in that game. The fear of losing was enormous. I knew I was going to retire afterwards, and I wasn’t going to retire losing. We had a great team and I got opportunities and took them which was lucky.”
A year earlier England had beaten the Black Ferns for the first time at North Harbour Stadium. The hosts were 17-15 ahead when a costly fumble by Hirovana led to defeat.
Shelley Rae, who scored a try in that Test, was responsible for all the Red Roses' points in the World Cup final with two penalties and a drop goal.
The build-up to the 2002 World Cup reached a whole new level of intensity. Fullback Tammi Wilson revealed.
“At the first camp, we walked into a dimly lit room with red roses on each chair. It was like a scene from The Bachelor. England wears red roses and Darryl Suasua stressed every rose has its thorn. Every rose was in the bin by the end of his speech.
“Our theme for the campaign was BTB, which meant better than before. We had shirts printed with that slogan and had to do an assignment on why we should be on the team. My inner geek came out and I did a PowerPoint presentation with some serious images explaining what the Black Ferns meant to me. It was intense stuff.”
The Black Ferns didn’t concede a try in winning the tournament.
September: 17, 2006, Edmonton – Black Ferns: 25 v England: 17
When asked to identify the best game of her two-decade career, World Rugby Hall of Fame first-five Anna Richards emphatically answered the 2006 World Cup final against England. The New Zealand Herald reported.
“In a showpiece final which featured several classic tries, New Zealand led England 10-3 at halftime, before England hit back in the second half…The Black Ferns' victory came on the back of a tireless defence and a greater skill level with ball in hand.”
With only minutes to spare the Black Ferns anxiously clinging to a 20-17 lead. What happened next was the ultimate climax to the career of three-time World Cup winning captain Farah Palmer.
“The English winger got the ball and I felt like I was the last line of defence. I don’t know what I was doing on the wing, but I tried to talk her into running towards me and it must have worked,” Palmer recalled.
“Instead of trying to step me, where she would have scored, she tried to run over the top of me and I managed to get in the road. I was at the bottom of a ruck with Monalisa Codling on top screaming, ‘get up, get up.’ When I got up Amiria Marsh (fullback) was running down the other side of the field and smashed their fullback out the way to score. I was winded and watching from a distance thinking, “Yes, we won, I can retire.”
September 5, 2010, London - Black Ferns: 13 v England: 10
The odds were stacked against the Black Ferns winning a fourth consecutive World Cup. In front of a sold out and partisan crowd of 15,000 people at the Stoop, New Zealand’s task was made harder through ill-discipline, with the team conceding three yellow cards. Prop Mel Ngati recalled.
“At halftime it was a tense dressing room. Our captain Melissa Ruscoe scorned me ‘discipline,’ ‘discipline.’ Early in the second-half Mel got carded and we were shocked. As she was leaving the field, I yelled back at her ‘discipline, ‘discipline.’ We all laughed. It was an ice breaker.”
Wing Carla Hohepa scored a cracking 25-metre individual try while her team was down to 14 players and Kelly Brazier wobbled over a penalty to break a 10-10 stalemate in the 61st minute.
England had been unbeaten for 23 games in a row. They would better that record between 2011 and 2013 with 27 games unbeaten, including five wins against the Black Ferns
Ruscoe said after the game: "After our game against them last year we had lost the physical battle and we knew we had to come out here today and front them if we were going to win it and our forward pack definitely did that, it's just fantastic."
Ruscoe was 22-0 in her Black Ferns career and has helped Canterbury win five of the last six Farah Palmer Cup Premiership titles as an Assistant Coach.
August: 26, 2017, Belfast – Black Ferns: 41 v England: 32
The odds were stacked against the Black Ferns at a packed Ravenhill Stadium. Against a team of professionals, New Zealand had 17 amateurs and only six contracted Sevens players.
Down 17-10 at halftime a change of game plan was required, and it happened producing a most unlikely hero, prop Toka Natua scored three tries.
“They got their first penalty because of me and then a penalty try from a scrum because of me so it wasn’t a good start,” Natua’ reflected.
“We noticed England weren’t committing great numbers to the ruck and there was space up the middle. At halftime we decided to take them on up the guts and that suited me.”
Natua’s third try where she burst 20-meters, was partially tackled, but rose again to drive over was especially memorable and the explanation mark on a legendary performance. Retaining the ball in an isolated position was something Natua had rehearsed.
“I was taught by my dad at high school how to retain the ball after falling over when you’re on your own. I was watching a clip the night before the final where I had done a similar thing for Waikato and thought it would be a good trick for the final.”
The BBC reported:
“Pace, power and class were evident on both sides, but in the end it was the individual superiority of the Black Ferns that combined to overrun England…Although England's pack looked the more cohesive unit for the first half hour, the longer the game went on the more the relentless physicality of the big New Zealand runners knocked them back, with Aroha Savage and the rest of the pack joining Natua in delivering big performances.
“Alongside them carrying hard into the England defensive line was mighty fly-half Victoria Subritzky-Nafatali, who combined the size and power of a front rower with fine footwork, crisp distribution and a measured kicking game to help guide the Black Ferns to victory.”
Fullback Selica Winiata (2), Kendra Cocksedge and lock Charmaine Smith were the other Black Ferns try scorers. Wing Lydia Thompson was outstanding for England scoring two tries.
The win was the catalyst for professional contracts to become a Black Ferns reality. A group of 28 players were selected for the inaugural contracts in May 2018.
The Rugby World Cup final at Eden Park on Saturday 12 November is sold out. Fans can watch live on Three New Zealand or Spark Sport from 7pm.