By Ali Donnelly
New Zealands series loss to England may have had some mitigating factors but the results serve to highlight wider problems for the game in the land of the World Champions.
First to the factors that worked against New Zealand. The timing of the series was a major disadvantage to the Black Ferns, coming three months after the end of the NPC and 15 months after their last test game. New Zealand also lost some of their top players at the end of the World Cup and they havent had a chance to test their young replacements who looked out of their depth at time against a far more established England outfit.
But timing is one thing preparation is another. New Zealand captain Victoria Grant confirmed after the final game of the series that her squad came together for just a few days before they left for England hardly the type of preparation for a side about to take on officially the second best team in the world who had ample time and preparation in the build-up to these games.
New Zealands lack of games continues to be an embarrassment the sports World Champions could do huge good if they were exposed to wider audiences more often, not least what it would do to continue to help them drive standards forward at the top of the game.
Though they might not say it out loud losing two games to England, and the overall series, I believe is probably one of the best things that could have happened to New Zealand.
The NZRU have trumpeted lately their plans to develop the 7s game for women (failing to mention that they are shamefully behind not just established nations like England and Canada, but now also sides such as Brazil, Spain and Holland) and have bigged up the nine game series with England, but it is still not enough and maybe now finally steps will be taken to redress the imbalance.
As things stand, New Zealand will go into next years three-test series without a game with none planned between now and then. England in the interim will not stand still. With the strides they are making at U20, 7s and senior level now, they will be in even better shape in 12 months time. Where will New Zealand be? Without a game, and likely to lose some of their younger players to the 7s game as that will begin to emerge over the course of the next year.
They need investment, a proper structure and from what weve seen in the past few weeks also access to the best conditioning programmes the NZRU have to offer. New Zealand are of course a fit strong and talented team, but England were far better conditioned to stand up to the challenge of three games in a week and in the last ten minutes of each game they were stronger and sharper, even when on the defensive.
It would be a massive shame if another year goes by and New Zealand were not to play another test game. Camps and training games are well and good but as England can testify, there is nothing quite like the rigour of test games to bring you up to standard quickly. The month before the series England were able to send a young team to France for two test games a trip which allowed Gary Street to discover that 18 year old Alex Matthews was ready for international rugby. New Zealand had no such luxury.
Relying on talent is clearly no longer enough the gap has been bridged for now and for once its New Zealand playing catch-up.
Funding is their biggest obstacle but a three game summer series with Australia or Samoa surely wouldnt hit the NZRU too hard in the pocket?
Womens rugby though is an unfair playing field across the board at 7s level there are now professional players competing against amateurs and some unions, including the RFUW, do provide solid funding to their 15s players while others do not, but New Zealand are not just any old team, they are our sports World Champions and they have earned their right to deserve to be on level pegging.
Heres hoping they get that chance.