Papanui Pair Shine On Kiwi Ferns Debut
The Australian Jillaroos reclaimed supremacy in women’s rugby league with a well-deserved win in a typically bruising and absorbing Test against a gallant Kiwi Ferns outfit, but the disappointment of the 16-4 result was tempered in Canterbury by the outstanding debuts of front-rower Bunty Kuruwaka-Crowe and centre Corrina Whiley.
The Papanui Tigers pair emphatically proved they belonged in elite company with superb individual performances.
Kuruwaka-Crowe stood up to experienced Jillaroos prop duo Ruan Sims and Heather Ballinger, playing 62 minutes of the Test (more than any other front-rower) and racking up the most runs of any Kiwi forward (18) for a return of 103 metres, while she reeled off 22 tackles – including a string of courageous low efforts that chopped down the Australian ball-runners.
Whiley led the Ferns’ three-quarter line with 98 metres from 12 runs, including several determined charges from dummy-half that helped the visitors out of their own end. She came desperately close to scoring twice in the second half, with only excellent Jillaroos cover defence denying her in the corner.
The green-and-golds grabbed the early ascendancy when debutant Isabelle Kelly – a late inclusion for injured fullback star Sam Bremner – scored a stunning 50-metre kick-return try in the 10th minute.
The Kiwi Ferns hit back in the 25th minute after a period of concerted pressure, with winger Atawhai Tupaea crossing out wide. But the Jillaroos landed a crucial blow soon afterwards when 19-year-old five-eighth Zahara Temara followed up her own bomb – which the Ferns fumbled – to score a debut try and give the home side a 12-4 halftime advantage.
The Ferns were camped on their own line for an age after the resumption and they finally cracked as veteran Renae Kunst powered over in the 51st minute.
It would be the last scoring play of the evening. New Zealand regained momentum and had a ton of chances to claw their way back into the match, but Australia’s goal-line defence was outstanding and they held strong to chalk up a gutsy 12-point win to go with their inaugural Nines triumph in February.
While the Jillaroos deservingly took the silverware and plaudits, the match was another glowing example of the giant strides women’s rugby league has made in recent years; it was an awesome exhibition from both sides.
The Kiwi Ferns were magnificent: brutal in defence and enterprising in attack. They had the lion’s share of possession, but a gritty all-round effort from the super-fit Jillaroos – who took their rare opportunities – got the job done.
It’s impossible to single out one player as the standout. Kelly was astonishing on debut; aside from her brilliant try, she ran for 160 metres and came up with a string of big defensive plays out wide. Temara and halves partner Simone Smith, who was also on debut, were constant threats. Ruan Sims led from the front, while lock Simiana Taufa-Kautai topped both the tackle count (39) and running metres count (169) for Australia.
On the New Zealand side of the fence, captain and fullback Sarina Fiso was unbelievable. After a few shaky moments in the first half, she did everything humanly possible to inspire a Ferns comeback. She finished with an incredible 226 metres from 28 runs and took over the role of chief playmaker, though halves Georgia Hale and Alex Cook were still superb. Second-rower Teuila Fotu-Moala was a menace of both sides of the ball, Kuruwaka-Crowe was tireless and hooker Krystal Rota (73 metres and a game-high 46 tackles) never stopped.
The contest was evenly poised with 12 minutes of the first half left when Temara chased up her own kick and was rewarded with a four-pointer. Points were at a premium with both teams defending so stoutly, and the eight-point buffer gave the Jillaroos the confidence to carry on with the job in the second stanza.
The classic encounter sets up a mouth-watering rematch later in the year, with the nations short-priced favourites to meet in the Brisbane-hosted World Cup final on December 2.
On the strength of their initial foray in the Test arena, Kuruwaka-Crowe and Whiley shape as key figures in the Kiwi Ferns’ bid to regain the women’s rugby league crown.
WILL EVANS – CANTERBURY RUGBY LEAGUE