On the mud bath at Stade Mayol in Toulon, New Zealand opened their two-test series against France with a scrappy 14-0 win on Saturday morning (NZ time).
After an error-ridden, penalty-laced, though still entertaining 0-0 first half, the visitors put on two quick tries in the second half to bag victory over the world No 3 side.
After warming up with a 67-6 thrashing of a new-look world No 5 USA in Chicago last weekend, this was always going to be a sterner challenge.
The two teams had met on four previous occasions, with New Zealand winning each time, the closest margin being 30 points. But this was their first clash in eight years, and France are the reigning Six Nations champions.
Their side, which hadn’t played since that competition in February-March, also featured three players who are nominees for World Rugby Player of the Year alongside New Zealand captain Fiao’o Faamausili.
And, on a rainy late night where mud was flying everywhere, conditions were to have a big say on proceedings in a physical encounter.
Handling was obviously tricky, and the French certainly loved a scrum being packed, with three early massive shunts earning them penalties as they sent the visitors pack, and egos, backwards at a rate of knots.
It wasn’t only there the Black Ferns were being stung, as they coughed up a heap of penalties at the breakdown – and come the 37th minute English referee Sara Cox had seen enough, issuing No 8 Aroha Savage a yellow card for slapping the ball down from a ruck.
New Zealand’s big lineout drive weapon never got firing, with the ball either being dropped or stolen, but France weren’t able to capitalise in any case, and the only points-scoring chance of the first half was a fluffed 21st minute penalty kick from a handy angle by France fullback Montserrat Amedee.
The second half turned into a different story, as the Black Ferns – still with 14 players – started ominously, with a sustained period of attack on the hosts’ line.
Three times they spurned shots at goal in favour of going through the forwards, and only after two unsuccessful visits to the TMO and a penalty turnover win by France, the Black Ferns eventually had their dividends in the 52nd minute, when lock Eloise Blackwell drove over from close range.
After waiting all that time for the game’s first points, New Zealand went back-to-back with a beautiful 58th minute try to winger Renee Wickcliffe, who finished in the right-hand corner after centre Stacey Waaka put on a fine fend and offloaded to fullback Selica Winiata, who juggled then provided the last pass.
Kendra Cocksedge’s superb conversion gave the Black Ferns a handy advantage, and while France were still full of running, they weren’t able to break the defence of the visitors, who had Wellington flanker Michelle Parkes make her debut from the bench in the final seven minutes.
The second and final test of the series is in Grenoble next Sunday morning (NZ time).
AT A GLANCE
Black Ferns 14 (Eloise Blackwell, Renee Wickcliffe tries; Kemdra Cocksedge 2 con) France 0. HT: 0-0.