Rugby World Cup: Black Ferns triumph sparks World Rugby Awards success

New Zealand's successful defence of the Rugby World Cup on home soil has sparked continued recognition for the NZ women - and their coach - at the World Rugby Awards.

Captain Ruahei Demant has been named Women's 15s Player of the Year at the lavish Moncao function, with record tryscorer Portia Woodman among the beaten finalists for the award.

Ruby Tui has claimed Breakthrough Women's 15s Player of the Year, while Wayne Smith was named Coach of the Year, after guiding the team back from record defeats to England and France only 12 months ago. 

Former Black Ferns captain and current NZ Rugby board member Dr Farah Palmer has also been recognised for her contribution to the women's game.

First-five Demant, 27, was elevated to the captaincy over previous skipper Les Elder and led from the front, stamping her class on the tournament.

"Unexpected," she said. "For me to be here tonight with so many off my teammates... we've never done this before, so we're having a lot of fun tonight.

"Like most of us in our team and many rugby players in New Zealand, I come from a very small place and to put on a black jersey was always a dream. I never knew about the Black Ferns growing up as a kid and like most other women my age now, women's rugby was never accessible or something you aspired to.

"One of the great things about this World Cup was it was free to air, so everyone could watch. People could turn on the telly or go to the games, and see people that looked like them... so many strong women out there doing incredible things."

After helping the Black Ferns Sevens to 2021 Tokyo Olympic gold, Tui, 30, completed a successful switch to the 15s format, where she quickly established herself in the starting backline, either on the wing or at fullback.

Off the field, she also became a fan favourite, as New Zealand embraced women's rugby, packing out Auckland's Eden Park for a world record attendance to watch the thrilling final against England. 

"It's been a whirlwind," she said. "I'm so proud of New Zealand.

"It's such an honour to win this away at 27-and-a-half years old. I think I've set the record for the oldest rookie in 15s, but I'll take it."

During World Cup celebrations, Tui gave her winner's medal away to young cancer survivor Lucia, so World Rugby presented her with a replacement medal during the awards ceremony.

Smith, known in rugby circles as 'The Professor', already had an enviable World Cup record, as an assistant with back-to-back successful All Blacks campaigns. After the Ferns' disastrous northern tour last year and subsequent culture review, NZ Rugby turned to him to rescue the women's programme.

Black Ferns attend the World Rugby Awards
Black Ferns attend the World Rugby Awards. Photo credit: Getty Images

He urged his players to adopt an expansive style that troubled their opponents throughout the tournament, and finally got the better of both France (in the semis) and England on their way to the title.

"At the start, it was a bit like taking your granddaughter and all her friends to Disneyland," he said. "They're excited, joyful, noisy and then they all found the courage to hop on the rollercoaster.

"That rollercoaster was our all-out attacking game. The girls turned into 'wahine toa' - warriors - and the wahine toa are magnificent."

Midfielder Syliva Brunt was nominated, but missed out on Women's Try of the Year for her scoring effort against Wales at the World Cup, while lock Maia Roos was among Tui's opposition for Breakthrough Player of the Year.

Meanwhile, lock Sam Whitelock and winger Will Jordan are the only All Blacks named in the World Rugby Dream Team of the Year, with loose forward Ardie Savea, considered unlucky to miss nomination as Player of the Year, missing out again.