The New Zealand women's squad, unbeaten since 1991, are shattered by a thrilling late victory for England, reports Marian Phillips
A DRAMATIC late try in the last act of the match, scored by Emily Feltham after a 60-metre movement, gave the England women's team victory over New Zealand and a 1-1 share of the Test series in Albany, New Zealand, yesterday.
The New Zealand Black Ferns have been dominant in the women's international game of late, were unbeaten since 1991 and are holders of the World Cup. Their semi-professional squad is revered in New Zealand and only two years ago they defeated England by 67-0 and 44-11.
However, England had given notice of their own improvement by winning the recent series against Australia by two Tests to nil and by running New Zealand close in the first Test, played last week. Yesterday's match, played as a curtain-raiser to the New Zealand-Manu Samoa match, was one of the finest in the history of the women's international game.
New Zealand led 12-8 at half-time, with England's only try of the first half coming from Nicky Crawford, the Worcester wing. A superb try by Shelley Rae, the fly-half, gave England the lead at 15-12 in the second half but New Zealand struck back with a try and maintained their 17-15 lead until well into stoppage time. England's last attack was begun out of deep defence and carried on through several phases until Paula George, the England full-back and captain, sent Feltham over for the try that won the match.
"The key was our self-belief," said Geoff Richards, the England head coach. "New Zealand's record is frighteningly good but we had selfconfidence in our squad. It is probably the high point of women's rugby in England. It was a great match and I am delighted for the players."
The victory represents comforting news for those who follow the women's game who felt that New Zealand's domination had become so absolute as to be potentially ruinous. The England squad have benefited from one of Sport England's World Class Performance grants which has allowed the players funding for training and other equipment and enabled some players to become part-time professionals. Many of the England squad are accomplished sportswomen who have reached high levels in other sports and who have opted for rugby to take part in the boom in the women's game that has taken place in the past decade.
Carol Isherwood, the Rugby Football Union for Women's performance director, said: "This victory is a triumph for all our efforts and for the concept of grant-aiding of elite teams. Hopefully, it will put us on the map as far as New Zealand are concerned because some people here found it difficult to accept that we might be contenders. Hopefully, it will give the women's game at international and domestic level more impetus."
Prospects for the England squad are good, since the tour party contained a large number of promising newcomers. But for long-suffering fans in the northern hemisphere who have grown up with the notion of New Zealand superiority in the men's and women's game, the news from New Zealand is that the Kiwis, after a 22-17 defeat, had been roasted.
Meanwhile, Nicola Ponsford, a leading player and administrator in the women's game, received an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours.
Sunday Times (London, England) (June 17, 2001): p5