England Women recovered from 13-3 down to edge world champions New Zealand 16-13 at Esher RFC on Friday in the first of three Tests between the Game’s top two teams in the space of eight days.
Tries from vice captain Sarah Hunter and wing Kat Merchant proved decisive for England, who won last year’s series with the Black Ferns 2-0 with the final Test drawn to avenge their loss in the Women’s Rugby World Cup 2010 Final.
The traditional foes will lock horns again on Tuesday at the Army Rugby Stadium in Aldershot on Tuesday before the series ends with a meeting at Twickenham on Saturday, after the England and New Zealand men’s teams come face to face.
England had to recover from an early blow when full back Danielle Waterman took a knock and was forced off, replaced by Jo Watmore, who was a standout for England Sevens last season, after eight minutes.
The home side looked the more dangerous of the two sides as the half progressed and took the lead in the 28th minute when captain Katy McLean kicked a penalty, but the Black Ferns’ response was swift with pressure applied at the restart with Casey Robertson touching down McLean’s charged down kick for the opening try.
A penalty by Kelly Brazier – the centre who had kicked the winning penalty in the 13-10 success for New Zealand in the World Cup final – extended that lead with a penalty to send the Black Ferns in with an 8-3 advantage at half time.
Making hard work of it
England were hoping to reassert themselves after the break, but instead it was New Zealand who scored first when fly half Kendra Cocksedge picked up the ball, spotted a gap and darted through to touch down and make it 13-3 after the conversion was again missed.
McLean missed a kickable penalty soon after and with 52 minutes played England rang the changes with sisters Fran and Alex Matthews, Sophie Hemming and Rosemarie Crowley all coming on. The impact was impact as Alex Matthews and Heather Fisher both went close before number 8 Hunter eventually made the pressure tell, burrowing over to score.
New Zealand were then reduced to 14 players at the hour mark when replacement Lydia Crossman was sin-binned and Emily Scarratt converted the resulting penalty to make it 13-11 as England looked to make the player advantage count.
With England in the ascendency, getting points on the board was crucial and smart backline play eventually freed up Merchant out wide to dive over and give the home side a 16-13 lead. New Zealand threatened to hit back again but England held firm and are now four games unbeaten against the world champions.
England head coach Gary Street said: “It was great to get the win to start the series off but we certainly made it hard work for ourselves. We didn't execute at times which meant that we missed a lot of chances – we certainly should have had more points on the board in the first half.
“Throughout the match we showed a lot of diversity with several players having to play out of position but their knowledge and skill base, as well as character, shone through. With the next game on Tuesday recovery is key."