A History of Success

Rikki Swannell
Written by
Rikki Swannell

Author short introduction. Three to five lines of brief description.

Rochelle Martin, left, and captain Farah Palmer with the World Cup trophy the Black Ferns won in 2006. (Photo by Ross Land/Getty Images)

The Black Ferns played their 100th test in November and Rikki Swannell looks back at some of the memorable matches that make up that ton.

It took a while but they’ve got there. Some 30 years since their first official test the Black Ferns have finally played their 100th, and although the heavy defeat to England was far from the result or performance we’ve come to expect, the milestone gives cause to reflect.  

The history may be comparatively short, but it is compelling as generations of women fought for the right to play and be recognized.  

The first official test was against Canada at the 1991 World Cup in Glamorgan, a side captained by Helen Littleworth and featuring the now legendary Anna Richards. However, the year before a precursor to the World Cup was held in Christchurch, featuring New Zealand, The Netherlands, Soviet Union, USA and a World XV as well as a club competition component. While “Rugby Fest” was indeed the first multi-nation, multi-regional rugby tournament, these games aren’t deemed official test matches.

Jacquie Apiata has the distinction of being capped as the first ever Black Fern, while some nine players earned their first test caps in the 100th match against England. Fiao’o Fa’amausili (57) and Kendra Cocksedge (54) have played in more than half of the 100 tests, while 14 women have captained New Zealand.  

The 100th game was put on ice for a wee while. Since the 99th was played in August 2019 against Australia some 10 confirmed test matches were cancelled because of the pandemic. But among the list are World Cup triumphs, very few defeats and many legendary players who each have their own highlight.  

For Dr Farah Palmer, the three time World Cup winning captain, the one that stands out was the 2006 final against England which was her last in the black jersey. She’d already announced her intent to retire so remembers a lot of emotion surrounding the game, particularly with her parents watching on in the stands in Edmonton. Her memories of the final are vivid as New Zealand clung on in defence well past the 80-minute mark.  

“We were just ahead and if England scored we would probably have lost. I was out on the wing, where hookers tend to be a lot these days, and their winger got the ball in open space and I was like ...ohh shit!  I remember thinking I’m going to bluff... so I said “ I’ve got you, I got you” ...I didn’t, but I was basically trying to put her off and luckily for me she didn’t try to step me, she tried to bowl over the top instead. I managed to hold on and was at the bottom of the ruck feeling a bit winded, not knowing where the ball was and got up to see our fullback had scored right in the opposite corner at the other end. There was a huge sense of relief, everyone was celebrating and I was absolutely spent” she says. “I had drained every last bit of rugby playing ability out of my body and I was so elated and happy and emotional all at the same time.”

Tough as nails flanker Rochelle Martin, also part of three successful World Cups, picks the same tournament but a different match as her highlight. Well, kind of….she wanted to choose two but when forced to pick, the 2006 semi-final against France just wins ahead of the 1998 semi-final against England as her most memorable. Martin says semi-finals were “her time to party”, where things just clicked in make-or-break games. From a purely personal perspective, she says couldn’t have asked for more than the semi against France.  

“It was the closest I ever came to performing a perfect match in terms of my own expectations; it was an incredible experience to feel like I couldn’t have done any better. I’m sure it wasn’t perfect, there was probably a missed tackle here and there, but performance wise you strive, even through club and provincial, you never quite get it, but I  feel like that was the day it all came together, my best performance ever, two tries, right place right time the whole game. It was brilliant.”

Halfback Emma Jensen played 49 games for the Black Ferns, and like Farah Palmer, it’s a World Cup final against England that is etched in her memory. The 2010 decider was New Zealand’s third straight title  

“It was played at Twickenham Stoop and was the first time we’d played at a packed capacity, full stadium and the atmosphere was electric. The field is really close to the stands, so it was like the fans were on the pitch with us and England had so much support, it was unreal. When we were doing the haka they started singing Swing Low and we were like “what!” it fired us up. It was an intense game, but I didn’t think we were going to lose at any stage,” she recalls. “We had three yellow cards in that game and they still couldn’t score, so I just had one of those eerie feelings that I knew we had it.

Anna Richards tossed up between two finals as well, 98 against USA in Amsterdam and the 2006 decider. All four players were involved in that 06 campaign and remember a well-connected, holistic, fun environment, culminating in a third straight title. But in singling out one game, Richards plumps for 1998 for a variety of reasons.  

“I’d played in 1991 when we lost the semi and the NZRU hadn’t allowed us to go to the 1994 tournament because it wasn’t sanctioned, so we missed out on going to Edinburgh and I don’t know if I would have stayed played rugby (had we gone) so I was like god dammit I’m sticking around.” Richards says.  

The World Rugby Hall of Famer recalls it being the first time many people had heard of the Black Ferns.  

“Those were the days of fax machines and at every morning meeting there’d be one fax from Tammi Wilson’s mum read out. But then Steven Jones, the renowned English rugby writer who usually hates New Zealand and likes sticking the boot into anything kiwi and the haka, wrote this really nice, quite glowing, piece about us which the media in New Zealand picked up and then all of sudden there were a 100 faxes every day. It meant TV One decided to take the final live,” she says.  

“The whole vibe of the final was great, it was a sunny day having previously been really cold, we played good rugby, at halftime we were on the pitch and two boys streaked with the NZ flag and it was just fun. I also got to play with my sister Fiona and had great mates from that team like Mel Robinson and Monalisa Codling.”

It’s a stark reality that the All Blacks have just celebrated the significant milestone of 100 tests against a single country when they played South Africa in the Rugby Championship, while the Black Ferns have taken 30 years to get to the same mark against all nations. Surely the next 100 won’t take quite so long.

Rikki Swannell
Written by
Rikki Swannell

Sports broadcaster extraordinaire

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