Rugby World Cup: Sevens stars steady nervous Black Ferns in comeback opening victory over Australia

During the Rugby World Cup build-up, the Black Ferns were at pains to embrace their sevens specialists back into the fold as 15s teammates - not strangers from another code.

"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," insisted veteran halfback Kendra Cocksedge.

But after New Zealand's nervy start to the defence of the world crown against Australia, the champions owed their "sevens girls" a special vote of thanks for their ability to respond to the big occasion.

Half an hour into their tournament opener at a soldout Eden Park, the Ferns found themselves 17 points down against a team they had never lost to before. After all those years of Wallabies futility at the Auckland fortress, the Wallaroos seemed on the verge of the unthinkable.

Fortunately, the home side rallied from their predicament, unleashing 41 unanswered points, highlighted by a combined five tries to sevens speedsters Portia Woodman and Ruby Tui.

While Woodman's hattrick led the scoresheet, Tui's relentless workrate set the tone for the comeback.

"My gut feel is it was a massive occasion and we've got a lot of players here that aren't used to those big occasions," said assistant coach Wes Clarke. "They'll take some lessons out of that.

"I think you saw the sevens players, in particular, step up really early. Of course, they've just been to the Olympics, so they're probably more prepared for these occasions, but we'll be better for it.

"It certainly helped us in that game, but we're hoping, going forward, we'll deal with it better ourselves as well."

Head coach Wayne Smith named four Tokyo gold medallists in his starting line-up for the World Cup opener, with Black Ferns Sevens skipper Sarah Hirini at openside flanker, Woodman and Tui on the wings, and Stacey Fluhler at centre.

Portia Woodman in action for the Black Ferns
Portia Woodman in action for the Black Ferns. Photo credit: Photosport

Since last year's Olympic heroics, Tui had foresaken the shortened format to consolidate her 15-a-side credentials, while the sevens programme struggled to maintain its international dominance, losing Commonwealth Games and World Cup titles to Australia.

After 30 minutes at Eden Park, there was almost a collective determination that trans-Tasman momentum swing must stop here and now.

Woodman echoes Clarke's views on the pressure.

"We have a lot of young girls in our environment that have never really experienced anything like this," she said. "It's about the last two percent.

"How do you handle the pressure when things aren't going your way? How do you come back from that?

"Heading into the game against Wales, we've got that under our belt."

If nothing else, the Black Ferns have put their worst fears - a potential stumble against their archrivals at the first hurdle - behind them for the rest of the tournament.

Sarah Hirini in action for the Black Ferns
Sarah Hirini in action for the Black Ferns. Photo credit: Photosport

"That's a great result for us," said Clarke. "We were down 17-0 at one stage, but we showed a lot of character, showed that our systems were good for getting things back together and our mental skills were really good.

"To trail 17-12 at halftime and win the second half 29-0 is really special."

Catch the Rugby World Cup live on Spark Sport or free-to-air on Three, or join Newshub on Sunday for live updates of the Black Ferns v Wales clash