That is not to say that the open rugby strategy needs changing, but certainly the kicking game will be looked at this week, says head coach Wayne Smith.
Asked what was said at halftime to help inspire the comeback from a 17-10 deficit, Smith had this to say: “Well, we needed to kick a bit more. We needed to get the ball in behind them. I won’t tell you the other tactics but the girls went out and they delivered them really well I thought.”
The Black Ferns’ short kicking game, in the face of some torrid defence by the French, was not always effective, though Kendra Cocksedge did put in some useful kicks into the box and Renee Holmes’ grubber did set up the second half try for Ruby Tui.
Smith said it was an “unbelievable ending,” having to watch Caroline Drouin’s late penalty goal attempt drift short and wide.
“I thought we were pretty jittery at the start. I’m sure we didn’t play quite as well as we’d hoped but, man, there’s a lot of heart in this team. We saw that right through that second half, it was outstanding,” says Smith, who had vivid recollections of the 8-7 All Blacks’ win over France in the RWC decider just over 11 years ago.
“We've got a lot of heart in the team, a lot of courage to keep playing. I knew we would keep playing. It probably got us in some trouble a wee bit at the start, but it also got us out of trouble,” he says.
“The girls have a huge attacking attitude and it's not always the right thing to do, but it dug us out of a hole today and our defence was out of this world, I thought. But that’s as good, as well organised a team as I've coached against, France, particularly defensively. Just outstanding the way they are able to spread so quickly, they had the backfield pretty well covered. It was a real challenge.”
The Black Ferns sought to spilt the tight French line early by going up the middle, as they did against England in the second half of the 2017 Rugby World Cup final. But the French defence, led by hooker Agathe Sochat, who made an incredible 22 tackles, was equal to the task, so the customary offloading game of the Black Ferns was nullified.
Replacement wing Ayesha Leti-I’iga was able to make some powerful surges when she entered the fray at the 55-minute mark. Tui then dropped back to fullback.
But it was a night where space was at a premium. The Black Ferns were tested in all areas, could not play their optimal game, but they rallied and found a way thanks to the physicality of its pack and a couple of key plays.
“We knew we needed to turn up physically, they're big athletes. So, we were counting on our upfront tackles and line speed, and I think the girls just had a lot of heart in that one,” says co-captain Kennedy Simon, who herself thrives on the close combat. She is making good progress off the bench in her return from injury, and could be a chance to start next weekend’s final. It won’t, though, be at the expense of the industrious Sarah Hirini, the reigning NZ rugby player of the year, who won the match award and powered through her 80 minutes.
They may enter the final as underdogs against England on a 30-match winning streak, but they have a proud record at RWCs and at home, just two losses in either facet, so the decider could well be as tight as this epic semifinal.
The Black Ferns will take on England in the Rugby World Cup final at Eden Park on Saturday 12 November. Get your tickets HERE.