AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Black Ferns coach Wayne Smith says his team are not yet at the level needed to defeat England, the veteran mentor also heaping praise on New Zealand’s trans-Tasman rivals after the Wallaroos shot out to a 17-0 lead in their Rugby World Cup opener on Saturday night.
Playing in front of a sold-out Eden Park crowd in their first World Cup match on home soil, the Black Ferns appeared to struggle under the pressure in the first 30 minutes before they found their rhythm to turn the match around.
Despite the comprehensive seven-tries-to-three, 41-17 win, Smith still endured a restless night’s sleep.
“When we got back here [team hotel], I went straight upstairs and coded the first 30 minutes on the computer, so I finished at about 1:15am then I went to bed and slept like a baby; woke up every hour screaming,” Smith said.
“I don’t think we handled the occasion that well, I think Australia did. I thought they were really sharp, really aggressive, really took it to us. We just seemed that, individually, I’m not sure we were all prepared for that.
“I think excitement, maybe working too hard on being excited for it and maybe not enough on the reality of what was going to occur [got to the players].
“I don’t think we really played our own game in that first half. We were tentative, we slowed the ball down instead of quickening it up, there were a lot of opportunities for us that we didn’t see and that’s normally clouded minds. Maybe emotion caused that, a whole lot of factors at play, but we just weren’t as clear as what we should have been or what we have been.
“World Cups are different, other teams all march behind their flag, they’re a different beast to what you play the rest of the year, we’ve got to accept that and be able to meet that challenge.”
Scoring 41 unanswered points to seal the impressive victory, Smith was encouraged with how the team found their way back into the game, with wing Ruby Tui playing a starring role to turn the tide with two tries, 10 tackles and 133 run metres.
“Ruby Tui could even play flanker if you wanted her to, she’s so versatile, she’s just an exceptional player, so we’re pretty lucky,” Smith said.
“You need the whole team to be on that same page and I think after halftime we were. There was a real growth in our desire to get quick ball, to be more physical in the collisions and move quicker, which is our game.
“It was really encouraging, I thought, to see that the team had been in a hole and then all the sudden they were able to get out of it and flourish, in that second half we played seriously brilliant rugby; [we] just need to start off like that.”
Under pressure to take home the title and make it back-to-back World Cup wins, the Black Ferns coach believes his side still has plenty of work to do if they’re to down World Cup favourites and the No. 1 ranked England, who handed Fiji a 14-try mauling.
“England are powerful, aren’t they? They’re the standard, so we’re not that level yet, we’ve still got time up our sleeves, but we’re definitely not that level yet,” Smith said.
“The thing about playing the way we want to play means you’ve got to have a good set-piece, you’ve got to win top quality ball and you need lightning quick ball out of rucks and to do that you got to be physical and united in that front. That will be the challenge for future games against northern hemisphere teams.”
With the top two finishers in each pool guaranteed quarterfinal places, New Zealand will look to lock up their progression to the knockout stage on Saturday when they face Wales, who snuck home against Scotland at the death with a penalty to Keira Bevan.
Looking beyond pool play though, Smith is wary of coming up against their Australia for a second time at the tournament.
“I’ve got a feeling Australia are going to make the semis,” Smith said. “I don’t know who they’ll play, I hope it’s not us, because I think that they are way better than what people have rated them as. They’ve got some sevens girls come back in, they’ve got some great ball carry forwards, Grace Hamilton, Shannon Parry, and they’re world class.”