Rugby World Cup: Champion sevens culture driving Black Ferns bid to defend world title on home soil

While the Black Ferns carry a rich history of Rugby World Cup success into their title defence on home soil, they will lean heavily on the experiences of their high-performing sevens contingent over the next two months.

Just don't call them "sevens girls".

Since last year's disastrous northern hemisphere tour, where they were mauled by England and France, the NZ women's 15s programme has undergone an overhaul that dragged players kicking and screaming from amateurism into professional ranks - a transition their international rivals have already made.

With the introduction of Super Rugby Aupiki, our top female exponents have found a valuable stepping stone between provincial and test rugby, with the ability to focus solely on improving their games.

That's a luxury the Black Ferns Sevens have also enjoyed for several years, enabling them to compete on the World Rugby circuit, capturing World Cup, Commonwealth Games and Olympic titles along the way.

Five of last year's Tokyo Olympic gold medallists have been named among the 32 players to contest Rugby World Cup 2021, with former sevens coach Allan Bunting now on the Ferns staff, under mentor Wayne Smith. 

Sevens captain Sarah Hirini, and speedsters Portia Woodman and Stacey Fluhler forced their way into the squad, despite missing all five of the Ferns' build-up tests this year, while Ruby Tui and Theresa Fitzpatrick forsook the sevens campaign to make the switch fulltime.

Among the notable omissions were Tyla Nathan-Wong - who lasted only a few minutes into her test debut, before requiring a concussion check - and Kelly Brazier, who has attended previous World Cups and toured north with the Ferns 15s last year. 

Ruby Tui, Sarah Hirini and Portia Woodman pack down against France at the Tokyo Olympics
Ruby Tui, Sarah Hirini and Portia Woodman pack down against France at the Tokyo Olympics. Photo credit: Photosport

"It helps with that professionalism," admitted veteran halfback Kendra Cocksedge, who will contest her fourth and final World Cup tournament, before retiring.

"They're fulltime athletes, they're very professional in what they do. They drive some really good standards and I know every time they train, they're going to train hard.

"They're all great players... they haven't played a lot of 15s this year, but I know they'll transition as fast as they can. They've been to a couple of camps and they're like us, they want to put their best foot forward."

Part of that transition will be leaving behind the disappointments of this year's sevens campaign, which saw they beaten into bronze at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games and lose their own World Cup crown - both times to archrivals Australia.

"I think it's important for us to not call them sevens girls," said Cocksedge. "We're a team, they're in the 15s environment and I know they'll want to be called that.

"We don't want to differentiate them by calling them sevens girls, because they've worked just as hard as we have, just in a different environment."

Beyond the World Cup, Bunting looms as a possible heir to the head coaching role, after guiding his Chiefs Manawa - dominated by his sevens proteges - to inaugural Super Rugby Aupiki success. His current job description sees him responsible for rebuilding an off-field culture that was found wanting on the northern tour.

"The [sevens] girls have massive leadership skills," said Black Ferns co-captain Ruahei Demant. "Every time they come back into the 15s scene, whether for this team or our Super teams or even provincial teams, they are always so willing to help everyone be better, not only as players, but as people.

"I think that's a massive testiment to Allan Bunting and the culture he creates, and how he can empower players within a team. To have those girls and also 'Bunts' here, helping us and guiding us along this journey, we're very fortunate."

Watch Rugby World Cup 2021 on Spark Sport and free-to-air on Three, or join us for live updates of the Black Ferns campaign, startin October 8