The Black Ferns' old-school game plan would've impressed Colin Meads

by Paul Thomas / 05 September, 2017
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The Black Ferns pose with the spoils of victory after beating England in the final of the World Cup in Belfast – New Zealand’s fifth crown. Photo/Getty Images

The Black Ferns’ stunning ambush nets the World Cup title as misfiring All Blacks go back to the tried and true.

Pinetree would have approved of the way last weekend’s big games were won.

Rugby has changed, out of all recognition in some respects, since Colin Meads was in his glowering, beetle-browed prime: it’s faster, more open, more adventurous. Back then, it was often a 10-man game – eight forwards plus a halfback and first-five whose job was to hoof the ball high in the air or over the sideline whenever the forwards reluctantly parted with it. Forwards struggled to see the point of outside backs, dismissing them as “glory hunters” and “Brylcreem boys”. The great Ireland and British Lions lock Willie John McBride spoke for many of his fellow behemoths who toiled in the dark places when he declared, “I hate small men.”

New Zealand has embraced ball-in-hand rugby at all levels, but the fundamental principle hasn’t changed: games are won and lost up front. Backs may get the glory, but forwards do the work that enables it.

The Black Ferns’ World Cup triumph in ­Belfast and the All Blacks’ Bledisloe Cup-clinching ­victory in Dunedin were old-school affairs, based on forward power. The difference between the two was that the Black Ferns’ emphasis on forward grunt was an inspired and impressively executed strategic ploy, whereas the All Blacks were forced to fall back on their pack, particularly their scrum, because not much else was working.

Before the final, the conventional wisdom was that it would be England’s highly structured approach against the Black Ferns’ all-out attack, epitomised by the electric and prolific left wing, Portia Woodman. Instead, the Black Ferns pulled off a gambit that’s often talked about but rarely attempted: taking your opponent by surprise by playing a different style of game rather than ­sticking with the approach that has got you to the final. They scored seven tries – without ­Woodman getting on the scoresheet; loosehead prop and player of the match Toka Natua, ­however, barged over for three tries.

Young prop Toka Natua. Photo/Getty Images

Extraordinarily, Natua is not the first Kiwi front rower to get a hat-trick in a World Cup final this year: hooker Asafo Aumua did it at the Under 20 World Cup in Georgia in June. The Under 20s destroyed England, 62-17, to win their sixth World Cup; the Black Ferns’ 41-32 triumph gave them their fifth world crown and was perhaps the sweetest victory, given they failed to make the semi-finals in France in 2014.

Strategic boldness was backed up by clinical execution: coming from 12 points down, the Black Ferns halted England by dominating possession and built up an unstoppable momentum of their own, via a relentless pick-and-drive assault. Their accuracy, clarity of thought and unwavering intensity surpassed anything we’ve seen from the All Blacks in 2017.

Meanwhile in Dunedin … the Wallabies’ third try, taking them out to 17-0 after 15 minutes, was unusual in that it came from a rapidly ­back-pedalling scrum. It brought to mind one of Meads’s best (verbal) ripostes, delivered in the course of his only test match victory as All Blacks captain, the second test against the 1971 Lions.

After a front-row dust-up, a fired-up Lions pack shunted the All Blacks scrum backwards. “How do you like this for scrummaging, you bastards?” crowed Lions tighthead prop Sean Lynch, a Dublin publican who earlier in the tour had narrowly escaped being sent home for running amok with a fire hose and, as a teammate put it, transforming the first floor of the team hotel into “the set of Titanic”.

“Bloody impressive,” replied Meads. “But if you pull your head out, you’ll find we’ve just scored a try.”

This article was first published in the September 9, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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