Rugby World Cup: tears flow as men fall for women’s rugby

Crowd favorite Ruby Tui poses with fans after the Black Ferns beat Wales 56-12 in their second RWC2021 match at Waitākere Stadium. Photo/Getty

Changing room
By Jim Kayes

Witnessing the magic of the Black Ferns made Jim Kayes, a die-hard men’s rugby enthusiast, fall in love with the women’s game at this Rugby World Cup. And he is not alone, he writes.

Sometimes it’s okay to make a woman cry.

On Sunday, around half an hour before the Black Ferns kicked off against Wales in their second World Cup game, I ran into World Rugby’s Alison Hughes in the stands at Auckland’s Waitakere Stadium.

As we chatted, I mentioned that I had returned to Auckland after spending two nights with my brother and four brothers-in-law.

A boys’ weekend, which on Saturday night saw us happily settle in front of the TV to watch England play against France. In women’s rugby, of course.

“We planned the day to make sure we were back to watch it,” I told Hughes. “Six middle-aged guys watching women play rugby.”

That’s when her eyes filled with tears and she started apologizing, unnecessarily, for being “unprofessional.”

“But it’s 20 years of work right there,” she said, of the battle to get women’s rugby taken seriously.

We loved watching this game on Saturday and, with beers in hand, offered versions of the same “informed” commentary we make watching any men’s game.

It was the same in the crowd on Sunday. At one point a frustrated guy stood up in the stand and loudly protested to the referee: “She’s off her feet ref”.

There’s a lot to love about women’s football and even more to enjoy about the Black Ferns.

Yes, their scrum was wobbly at times, although official stats show New Zealand won four of their five scrums and Wales only nine of their 13. The Black Ferns scrum was much better when Santo Taumata, 19 years, came early in the second half.

Black Ferns' Santo Taumata in action against Wales.  Photo / Photo port
Black Ferns’ Santo Taumata in action against Wales. Photo / Photo port

The fitness for the front row continues to be work and the peloton continues to be way too high in the mauls.

It’s also true that the Black Ferns struggled with their kicks on goal (they made three of 10 conversion attempts), but introduced the cross kick pass into their game to great effect.

Coach Wayne Smith lamented the lack of discipline which saw the Black Ferns penalized 17 times with two yellow cards.

He said the Black Ferns would not win the World Cup with those kinds of penalties. He also worries about his squad’s ability to stop England and France when they get practice – as Wales did to score twice on Sunday.

It’s a legitimate concern, but I think Smithy also likes to talk about it a bit, just to keep his platoon on edge. He knows how England will play, but he also knows that if the Blacks Ferns can get the ball and just a bit of space, they will take a while to stop.

I really don’t want to compare them to the men’s game, but sometimes it’s worth doing because Portia Woodman’s 18 tries are now the most of any New Zealander at a World Cup – three more than Jonah Lomu.

She won’t want to watch the recording of either of them because she really should have switched to the unmarked teammate on the outside. It didn’t matter against Wales, but it could in the tougher games to come.

Woodman and Ruby Tui score great tries and both are tough on defense. Tui is not massive, but if she is light, she competes with as much courage and efficiency as a heavyweight.

Ruby Tui celebrates with her Black Ferns teammates.  Photo / Photo port
Ruby Tui celebrates with her Black Ferns teammates. Photo / Photo port

Smithy had told me that the front five and co-captain Ruahei Demant were top notch and she certainly commanded against Wales, with shrewd positional play, some revealing touches on the ball and good defending. His passing and supporting game were exceptional. The ball she threw to wing Renee Wickcliffe in the 48th minute was a peach and she stayed in support to keep the momentum going as the Black Ferns surged 80 yards for Sylvia Brunt to score her second try of the game .

The Blacks Ferns attack is formidable, but the defense win big Test matches as England showed when they limited France to just one decent chance on Saturday – which the French took advantage of. And France were equally impressive defensively.

On Sunday, the Black Ferns had 74 tackles and missed just seven, and some of those were hard-hitting shots that were enjoyed by the decent-sized crowd almost as much as tries.

The truth is, and it took me 700 words to figure this out, I am a late but now passionate convert to women’s football.

Correction, the match of 15 women. The Black Ferns Sevens have been sensational for a long time, but I’ll admit I wasn’t that worried about the 15s team.

I’ve reported on over 200 All Blacks Test but after watching the Blacks Ferns lose to England in 2001 the pre-RWC match against Japan at Eden Park a few weeks ago was the first full Test that I have watched in 21 years. since.

It’s embarrassing, really, but I know I’m not alone.

These black ferns captivated me. During the test in Japan, I texted poor Wayne Smith with my thoughts on the amazing blindside Liana Miakele-Tu’u.

Then I moved on to Charmaine McMenamin, who was No.8 that day, only to have them switch positions for the RWC opener against Australia (they were still great).

Smith will soon be blocking my texts because I didn’t start with the Bremner sisters, Chelsea and Alana, or the ever-smiling Stacey Fluhler.

“[Fluhler] has to start in midfield with Amy du Plessis,” one of the brothers-in-law said on Saturday night. I almost dropped my beer at the passion behind the comment.

It’s not so much a revolution that happens every weekend in Auckland and Whangārei, but a realization that women’s rugby is really fun to watch.

For the opening matches at Eden Park, I took my teenage daughter and three of her friends. They went to see Rita Ora. They left as Black Ferns fans.

I know that feeling.

This story originally appeared on Newsroom.co.nz and is republished with permission.

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