The Black Ferns only resurfaced as title contenders after the Wallaroos stunning upset of France, who beat New Zealand (18-17) in Wellington in the opening round. As expected, the Black Ferns overpowered Wales 70-7 in round two.
England have won all nine Tests in 2023 and have prevailed in 57 of their last 60 internationals. Their lineout drive is kryptonite. Hooker Lark Atkin-Davies scored a world record four tries in a 45-12 hammering of Canada on Friday. That followed a 42-7 mauling of Australia.
Saturday is the first meeting between the Black Ferns and England since the transformational World Cup final won by the Black Ferns 34-31 at Eden Park last year. The Red Roses unprecedented 30-match winning streak was broken.
There are 11 survivors in the Black Ferns roster from the momentous night. England has 10 but with 818 combined caps the Red Roses boast 525 more Tests of experience than the hosts.
This will be the 11th time they have played each other on New Zealand soil, the Black Ferns winning nine of them. England were the only team to beat the Black Ferns on home soil - 22-17 in North Harbour in 2001 and 29-21 in Rotorua in 2017 - until France’s win snapped the Black Ferns 16-match win streak a fortnight ago. England were not ahead at half-time in either match, recovering from 12-8 down in 2001 and going on to win in 2017 having been locked at 14-14 at the break.
New Zealand leads the overall head-to-head record 19-10 but each team has won three matches apiece in the last six meetings. The Black Ferns are 14-0 in Tests in Auckland.
Who: Blacks Ferns v England
Where: Go Media Stadium, Auckland.
When: Saturday, November 7:00m, Live on Sky Sport and Sky Open
Tickets: Click HERE to get your WXV 1 tickets
Referee: Aimee Barrett-Theron (South Africa)
Assistant Referee 1: Hollie Davidson (Scotland)
Assistant Referee 2: Amber McLachlan (Australia)
TMO: Andrew McMenemy (Scotland)
Referee Milestone: Aimee Barrett-Theron will edge clear of England’s Sara Cox as the most-capped female referee in Test history by taking charge of her 37th Test this weekend.
Balance, Discipline, Goal Kicking
The Black Ferns dominate all the attacking stats in WXVI and are ranked first in the match averages for carries (186.5), metres run (1,135), passes (227), offloads (20.5), line-breaks (15) and tackle breaks (46).
However, against France, they made 15 handling errors and needed to strike a better balance between attack and restraint. Liana Mikaele-Tu’u conceded it was the first time the Black Ferns pack had been “really challenged” and they needed to show “greater trust in each other” and “tried to do too much different stuff.”
Hooker Georgia Ponsonby believed throughout the tournament the Black Ferns had learned to “understand momentum better” and make better judgments on when to kick, carry or offload. England has kicked the ball more than twice the number of times the Black Ferns have.
The Black Ferns discipline has been good in WXV1 averaging the fewest penalties. However, in their last six Tests against the Red Roses they’ve had eight yellow cards.
“We’ve planned for a lot of ‘what ifs.’ We know what playing with 14 or 13 looks like. We trust our process and each other,” Co-Captain Ruahei Demant said.
The Black Ferns goal-kicking success rate of 53.3% is the worst in the competition with half of their 14 conversions missed. However, all those conversions came from out wide - five within five metres of the touchline and two within 10 metres. New Zealand’s only penalty attempt was successful.
Fullback Renee Holmes has 110 Test points, Demant 89. England’s goal kicking has been more accurate converting 11 of 13 tries.
Stop The Maul
Eleven of the 13 tries England have scored have originated from a lineout. England has the best lineout in the competition with 93.5% accuracy. In the World Cup final England scored four tries from lineout drive, a feat they repeated in their win against Canada last Friday.
Black Ferns Director of Rugby Allan Bunting was asked about his side’s preparation on how to counter the England drive.
“Backwards flips, handstands, a kick here and there. No, we’ve got some things that we’ve been working really hard at, but we don’t want that to be our whole focus,” Bunting said.
“To not get down there is the first thing, but if we do it’s not the end. We want to deflate that. We did that at the World Cup at the biggest moment, so for me, it’s a really exciting challenge for us.”
England makes no apology for employing the allegedly boring tactic without abandon. “Set piece is a really important part of this team’s identity,” hooker Lark Atkin-Davies (21 Test tries) said. “Everyone has to be doing their role and nailing their role. Luckily, I get to fall over the line at the end of it, but it takes every single forward to get to that moment.”
English lock Zoe Aldcroft was World Rugby Player of the Year in 2021. Sale Sharks blindside Morwenna Talling has considerable experience at lock and Rosie Galligan has won two English Premier 15’s titles.
Black Ferns locks Maia Roos and Chelsea Bremner started the Rugby World Cup final while the return of Canterbury captain Alana Bremner will strengthen the Black Ferns lineout. Bunting explained the omission of Layla Sae, the only change from the starting XV against Wales.
“Layla did well. That was her second test match, and she was physical. She’ll come off the bench and bring that again.
“Alana is an awesome part of our leadership group. She has some real input in our lineouts and some other stuff around the field, and leadership off the field. It’ll be good to bring that experience back in for this game, and she’s played England before.”
Not Just A Maul
England has built a reputation for their physicality and feared lineout drive but it’s worth noting the Red Roses had the best attack in the Six Nations with some clinical finishers out wide. Abby Dow has 33 tries in 39 Tests, Ellie Kildunne 22 in 37 and reserve Jess Breach 36 in 32.
England has made five changes from the side that crushed Canada. Second-five Tatyana Heard and lock Rosie Galligan come in to start while hooker Amy Cokayne, lock Sarah Beckett and first-five Megan Jones are brought into the squad as replacements. Cokayne has scored six tries in her last two Tests against the Black Ferns.
Of concern for England is the concession of 24 penalties in two games. Furthermore, they’ll be hoping to avoid a repeat of the red card in the World Cup final. Lydia Thompson became only the second Englishwoman to be sent off in an international when she received her marching orders in the 17th minute following a head clash that knocked out opposite Portia Woodman. World Cup-winning captain in 2014 Katy Daley-McLean (116 Tests) was the first Englishwomen sent off in 2017.
Teams (Caps in Brackets)
Black Ferns: 15. Renee Holmes (15), 14. Ruby Tui (12), 13. Amy du Plessis (13), 12. Logo-I-Pulotu Lemapu Atai'i (Sylvia) Brunt (12), 11. Mererangi Paul (4), 10. Ruahei Demant (32, Co-Captain), 9. Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu (18) 8. Liana Mikaele-Tu’u (17), 7. Kennedy Simon (19, Co-Captain), 6. Alana Bremner (18), 5. Chelsea Bremner (17), 4. Maiakawanakaulani Roos (20), 3. Amy Rule (18), 2. Georgia Ponsonby (19), 1. Kate Henwood (3)
Reserves: 16. Luka Connor (19), 17. Krystal Murray (13), 18. Sophie Fisher (1), 19. Layla Sae (2) 20. Lucy Jenkins (5), 21. Iritana Hohaia (5), 22. Patricia Maliepo (6), 23. Katelyn Vahaakolo (5)
England: 15. Ellie Kildunne (37), 14. Abby Dow (39), 13. Helena Rowland (27), 12. Tatyana Heard (17), 11. Claudia MacDonald (31), 10. Holly Aitchison (24), 9. Natasha Hunt (66), 8. Alex Matthews (61), 7. Marlie Packer (98, c), 6. Morwenna Talling (10), 5. Rosie Galligan (13), 4. Zoe Aldcroft (47), 3. Sarah Bern (60), 2. Lark Atkin-Davies (53), 1. Mackenzie Carson (9)
Reserves: 16. Amy Cokayne (72), 17. Hannah Botterman (41), 18. Maud Muir (24), 19. Sarah Beckett (33), 20. Maisy Allen (4), 21. Ella Wyrwas (5), 22. Megan Jones (15), 23 Jess Breach (32)