World champions New Zealand have vowed to “fight to the finish” after losing the series to England with a second defeat in four days, this time a more convincing looking 21-7 score at Esher Rugby Club on Tuesday.
The Black Ferns, bidding to bounce back from a 10-0 loss at Twickenham, found themselves behind on the scoreboard after only two minutes when England captain Katy McLean kicked a penalty and it got worse when wing Georgina Roberts touched down before the clock had reached double figures.
However, with their first real attack New Zealand hit back, their lively scrum half Kendra Cocksedge making an electric break through the heart of the England defence with flanker Justine Lavea in support to dot down under the posts.
The deficit cut to a single point at 8-7, New Zealand spent much of the first half camped in their own 22 as England took the game to the world champions, putting them in the unfamiliar position of being on the back foot for long periods.
England would ultimately, though, only go in with a four-point advantage at the break despite enjoying scrum after scrum after scrum on the Black Ferns line, the repeated kicking option taken by McLean coming to nothing amid some resolute defending by the tourists.
The loss of Vita Robinson to the sin-bin proved costly for New Zealand, McLean kicking a penalty late in the first half and then darting through a gap in the defence to score England’s second try just as the second row was due to return to the fray.
One Test series
With the wind in their faces making clearing the ball difficult for New Zealand with England unable to unlock their defence, the score remained 16-7 until 12 minutes to go when hooker Vicky Fleetwood received the ball off the top of the lineout and burst through tackles to score her first Test try.
The match and series was all but wrapped up for England, but the Black Ferns, like any world champions, refused to just accept defeat, finishing the stronger and enjoying some possession in England’s 22 with Aroha Savage coming up just short from one burst.
Ultimately though it was a second defeat for the Black Ferns, who when they had the ball showed glimpses of what has made them four-time world champions. The problem was this was only their second Test in 14 months and their match sharpness was not that of an England side who have played 12 Tests in the same period and been in camp for a prolonged period.
“Full credit to England, I thought they played very well, with ball in hand they were making easy yards,” said New Zealand coach Grant Hansen. “When we had the ball we looked exciting in patches, there was just too much defence in between those patches that took it out of us.
“It was not through want of trying. England had a good build up to the series. The players don’t lose very often but they have been exposed to one of the best sides in the world.
“It will be very tough to get over this and the turnaround is not huge, but we are looking at a one Test series now. We will really have a crack and hopefully try and show we’re capable of playing some attractive rugby.”
New Zealand’s cause hasn’t been helped by the tour-ending knee injury suffered by hooker Fiao’o Fa’amausili at Twickenham and captain Victoria Grant’s vision was missed from full back. Grant could return from her ankle injury for the final Test at Esher on Saturday, but her deputy Casey Robertson led by example from number 8 and admitted her pride in the new players.
“I am really proud of the young girls that came on, they definitely put their hand up. It was a tough ask but they fought hard as they could to the final whistle. We were too far down to win but we kept going ... we’ll definitely be fighting to the finish of the series.”
England coach Gary Street knows that only too well and has vowed to field his strongest possible outfit for the final Test, even if that may give him a few selection headaches with 18-year-old Alexandra Matthews particularly impressive at number 8.
“It wasn’t just about getting the points tonight that was important but it was the attitude and the strength the players showed. They didn’t panic when I made the changes to the starting line-up, instead they showed real character. The back row was superb tonight. With three young players starting, they were outstanding. Alexandra Matthews in particular was a revelation playing as an 18 year old against the world champions.
“I have promised the players I will pick the best available side for Saturday’s game but selection will not be easy given the performances of all 26 players in the squad, but I am already looking forward to the final game on Saturday already.”