Woodman blasts Black Ferns past Wales into Women’s Rugby World Cup semis

Wales’s World Cup dreams have been extinguished and the dying of the light, in the end, made for pretty tough viewing. Denying the Black Ferns a semi-final berth was always a fanciful notion and, for all the plentiful red-shirted spirit and heart, few teams in the world would have fancied shutting down the constant darting menace of New Zealand’s back three.

With the dynamic duo of Portia Woodman and Ruby Tui contributing three of New Zealand’s nine tries, even the firm tournament favourites England will have looked on with a creeping sense of unease. The Black Ferns will now face France, convincing 39-3 winners over Italy in the day’s other quarter-final, in the last four and Woodman is now out on her own as the most prolific try-scorer in rugby union World Cup history.

A France-New Zealand semi-final will certainly be well worth watching, with both sides capable of moving the ball effectively and attacking with relish. Under the tutelage of the former All Black coach Wayne Smith, the Black Ferns backs are starting to look particularly sharp and, as a consequence, confidence is starting to return to other parts of their game.

In front of another excellent crowd on a mild Northland evening, Wales were frequently reminded that knockout rugby can be horribly unforgiving. Their only reward, in the end, was a first-half penalty goal for Keira Bevan, although the sight of the entire Welsh team defiantly advancing in a line towards the haka before kick-off will stick in the memory. Sadly they spent much of the subsequent game in reverse, with the Black Ferns scrum also wholly dominant by the end.

With Theresa Fitzpatrick displaying plenty of midfield class and the captain, Ruahei Demant, in decent kicking form, it added up to a relentless test of character for a Welsh side still in the foothills of professionalism. Only 12 minutes had elapsed when Tui put Woodman over on the right for the Blacks Ferns’ first try and the quick-witted pair were also responsible for the second, Woodman collecting Demant’s cross-kick and sending the alert Tui over.

The chorus of Kaiser Chiefs’ Ruby blasted out over the public address and the locals settled back in expectation of more of the same. Wales had one or two moments of promise but were powerless to prevent New Zealand adding a third try inside the first half-hour, this time courtesy of a stretching Sarah Hirini. With a further score for the prop Amy Rule making it 26-3 at the interval, it was already a case of damage limitation.

The slickness of the midfield handling for Woodman’s second try three minutes after the restart, however, was outstanding and the replacement hooker Luka Connor also helped herself to a brace. The back-rower Alana Bremner and Demant also added further scores to intensify Welsh discomfort but Alex Callender, the tournament’s leading tackler, was encouraged by her side’s refusal to lie down. “We went out there and showed how much it means to us to play for our country,” the back-rower said. “I think we’ve grown since January and we’re only going to get better.”

The Wales coach, Ioan Cunningham, also expressed pride in his team afterwards and making it to the last eight will be a source of some consolation. “I thought we fronted up physically in the first half,” he said. “We can take a lot of confidence from this. For periods we competed with [one of] the best teams in the world.” Defeat was certainly less painful than the fate suffered by the male streaker who made an exhibition of himself by running on to the pitch during the second half and ended up being brutally flattened by a posse of no-nonsense security staff.

Whether anyone can flatten England is the next big question to be answered, with New Zealand now probably the narrow favourites to reach the final.

France, though, are a more than capable side, with some strong-running forwards and no shortage of pace and skill behind, as Italy were frequently reminded.

The smooth-running full-back Emilie Boulard was a deserved player of the match and the French scrum-half Pauline Bourdon is another consistent joy to watch. In addition, Scotland’s Hollie Davidson also had an authoritative game with the whistle and appears to be an increasingly strong contender to referee the final at Eden Park on Saturday week.

It all added to a brilliantly staged event: thousands of happy fans of all ages perched on the vast grass bank opposite the main stand, humming along to blasts of Motown, reggae and Elvis Presley, enjoying two good games of rugby for the princely sum of £5 for an adult ground entry ticket. Keep it fun and affordable and people will want to come back.