The result was the Black Ferns’ worst defeat in 100 Test matches and was the ninth time they have suffered a reverse to the Red Roses – though the first since Rotorua in 2017 – who brought muscle and set-piece efficiency to their pack work and a ruthless ability to punish mistakes.
The tourists blooded nine new caps and competed gamely, given their lack of game time, but you do not have to be a rocket scientist to know that set-piece will be a major work-on during the week. At least seven lineouts were lost and two tightheads in the scrum, though they were more from big shunts from the seasoned England pack.
After the preliminaries, which included remembering the tragic passing of Sean Wainui, the Black Ferns seized the early initiative on a windy day in front of a tremendous crowd of around 10,000 at the home of Premiership club, the Exeter Chiefs. They used a short kicking game to vary their play and pressured the home side with good intensity. But the points did not come.
Instead, England lock Abbie Ward administered the gut punch with two tries in the space of six minutes. Fullback Ellie Kildunne who scored the third try, was dangerous from the back. The Black Ferns scrambled on defence, but could gain no traction on attack against England’s front-foot ball and swift line speed. Left wing Ayesha Leti I’iga was busy and looked likely almost every time she was in possession, but centre Stacey Fluhler received almost no ball in space.
At 17-0 down at the half, the Black Ferns rallied, a chip by No 12 Chelsea Alley sitting up fortuitously for blindside flanker Alan Bremner to score on debut between the uprights. Alas, Bremner was yellow carded soon afterwards for cynical play, heaping more pressure on the beleaguered Black Ferns forwards.
There was impact from the bench, in the form of hooker Grace Houpapa-Barrett, who shored up the lineout throwing, prop Krystal Murray and halfback Ariana Bayler, but England, deadly on the lineout drive and with a more cutting edge to its backline, was not to be denied, running in three tries in the last quarter. Fluhler was the sole late try for the Black Ferns from two slick passes on the right flank.
England No 10 Zoe Harrison was adjudged player of the match for her haul of 13 points, which included the last try. She admitted the Red Roses had “exceeded expectations.”
The second Test of the series will kick off at 3.45am next Monday morning (NZT) from Northampton’s Franklin’s Gardens. There will be surely be changes – Portia Woodman and Kelly Brazier are expected back from minor niggles – and one would expect a concerted response from the bruised Black Ferns.
England 43 (Abbie Ward 2, Ellie Kildunne, Holly Aitchison, Lark Davies, Abby Dow, Zoe Harrison tries; Harrison 4 con) Black Ferns 12 (Alana Bremner, Stacey Fluhler tries; Kendra Cocksedge con) HT: 17-0 England