Over the next three weeks, the Black Ferns will play 2021 Rugby World Cup final opponents France, Wales, and England - the leading three countries in the 2023 Europe Women’s Six Nations. It all kicks off with France in the Capital city this Saturday night.
Who: Blacks Ferns v France
Where: Sky Stadium, Wellington
When: Saturday, October 21, 7:05pm, Live on Sky Sport and Sky Open
Tickets: Click HERE to get your WXV 1 tickets
Referee: Hollie Davidson (Scotland)
Assistant Referee 1: Aimee Barrett-Theron (South Africa)
Assistant Referee 2: Amber McLachlan (Australia)
TMO: Ian Tempest (England)
The world champions have won 16 consecutive Test matches with the nearest to defeat in that streak the Rugby World Cup semifinal against France at Eden Park last year. French first-five Caroline Drouin missed a late penalty attempt as the Black Ferns hung on for a 25-24 victory.
On Saturday night at Sky Stadium in Wellington, France will be hellbent on revenge and enter with the knowledge they’ve defeated the hosts four times in their last five internationals since 2018.
However, since their first home Test in 1995, the Black Ferns have only lost twice on home soil to England in 2001 and 2017.
The Black Ferns have played twice previously in the capital. In 2007 they beat Australia 29-12 at Porirua Park with Carla Hohepa scoring three tries. Their only previous Test at Sky Stadium was a 28-16 victory over Canada in 2017. Kendra Cocksedge scored 18 points, including two tries.
The Black Ferns have 13 players back from the World Cup semifinal, and France has just seven starters. The Black Ferns and France have played 10 times with New Zealand winning six and France four.
After successfully defending the O’Reilly Cup against Australia the Black Ferns starting fifteen sees only two changes, with the injection of experienced playmaker Ruby Tui on the right wing, in her first start in the Black Ferns jersey this season. Notable fullback Renee Holmes returns after recovering from a shoulder injury. Holmes was the Black Ferns leading points scorer at the Rugby World Cup. Tui scored a try in the semifinal.
The Black Ferns have won 102 of 119 Tests, and France has won 183 of 267 Tests.
In the Rugby World Cup semifinal last year France was ahead at halftime and there were three big lead changes. Resisting the threat of the French at the breakdown was a major part of the narrative.
Charlotte Escudero made 19 tackles and won three turnovers. Romane Menager scored two tries. Unfortunately for France, Menager is not touring but Gaëlle Hermet who’s captained France in all four wins against the Black Ferns is present.
Alan Bunting acknowledged the French strength at the ruck when he said, “They love the breakdown and contact area. We need to be quick around that space because they like to play running rugby too. We need to get our game right first, but we know their threats.”
Black Ferns co-captain Kennedy Simon concurred.
“We are under no illusion of the challenge we are up against. We know they are fit, fast and are a menace over the ball. However, we also know that as a team we have the talent to exploit space, ability to pressure their attacking systems and trust in our teammates to work tirelessly for one another.”
Simon, Liana Mikaele-Tu’u and Alana Bremner all featured in the World Cup semifinal. Chelsea Bremner, unblemished in 15 Tests, and prolific tackling Cantabrian Lucy Jenkins provide loose forward cover on the bench.
Helped by having the fastest average ruck speed (2.91 secs), New Zealand were top try-scorers (22), top points-scorers (141) and made the most carries, metres, offloads and tackle breaks in the Pacific Four Series.
Referee Hollie Davidson officiated the Rugby World Cup final against England last year and was relatively liberal at the breakdown. Davidson has 28 Tests (24 women’s, four men’s) of experience under her belt. She oversaw France’s 29-7 victory over New Zealand in November 2021 otherwise New Zealand is 4-1 under Davidson’s whistle, and France is 4-3.
Both sides have made no secret of their desire to play attacking, expansive rugby and the performance of their quality midfielders will go some way towards deciding the contest.
The French pair of Marine Ménager and Gabrielle Vernier were exceptional in the Six Nations. Vernier played every minute, scoring five tries, and being named player of the tournament. Ménager is the most experienced starting back for France.
France’s offloading game was out in force in the Europe Women’s Six Nations with 69 in their five matches – 25 more than England, the team with the next-highest total. France scored nearly half of their tries 14 of 32 from lineout drives or set plays in midfield.
Amy du Plessis and Sylvia Brunt have only combined four times in a Test match but each of those ended in victory for the Black Ferns. Brunt was a powerhouse for Farah Palmer Cup Premiership winners Auckland while du Plessis was MVP in the Black Ferns 100th Test win against Canada in the Pacific Four Series.
The Black Ferns are averaging 46 points per match for the year, their highest average since they managed 49 points per game in 2017.
With 62 Tests Audrey Forlani has more experience than the entire Black Ferns bench combined (57 Tests). France can also summon outstanding halfback Pauline Bourdon Sansus who Kendra Cocksedge (the Black Ferns most capped player) described as one of her toughest opponents. Nassira Konde, an Olympic silver medallist with France in Sevens at Tokyo 2020, made her test debut against New Zealand back in November 2018.
Black Ferns props Chryss Viliko and Tanya Kalounivale will be under pressure to hold the scrum but could produce fireworks with the ball in hand. Patricia Maliepo and Martha Mataele offer versatilely and speed out wide. Luka Connor has been effective in the ‘closing role’ winning 11 Tests off the bench.
Teams (caps in brackets)
Black Ferns: 15. Renee Holmes (13), 14. Ruby Tui (10), 13. Amy du Plessis (11), 12. Logo-I-Pulotu Lemapu Atai'i (Sylvia) Brunt (10), 11. Katelyn Vahaakolo (3), 10. Ruahei Demant (30) (Co-Capt), 9. Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu (16), 8. Liana Mikaele-Tu’u (15), 7. Kennedy Simon (17) (Co-Capt), 6. Alana Bremner (16), 5. Charmaine Smith (28), 4. Maiakawanakaulani Roos (18), 3. Amy Rule (17), 2. Georgia Ponsonby (17), 1. Krystal Murray (11)
Reserves: 16. Luka Connor (17), 17. Chryss Viliko (1), 18. Tanya Kalounivale (9), 19. Chelsea Bremner (15), 20. Lucy Jenkins (3), 21. Ariana Bayler (7), 22. Patricia Maliepo (4), 23. Martha Mataele (1)
France: 15. Morgane Bourgeois (1), 14. Cyrielle Banet (35), 13. Marine Ménager (41), 12. Gabrielle Vernier (38), 11. Émilie Boulard (23), 10. Lina Queyroi (6), 9. Alexandra Chambon (14), 8. Charlotte Escudero (12), 7. Gaëlle Hermet (55), 6. Axelle Berthoumieu (12), 5. Madoussou Fall (23), 4. Manaé Feleu (9, capt), 3. Clara Joyeux (40), 2. Elisa Riffonneau (3), 1. Ambre Mwayembe (3)
Reserves: 16. Laure Touyé (27), 17. Coco Lindelauf (16), 18. Assia Khalfaoui (15), 19. Audrey Forlani (62), 20. Léa Champon (14), 21. Émeline Gros (25), 22. Pauline Bourdon Sansus (49), Nassira Konde (3)