Black Ferns invincible

Despite crippling injuries that have sidelined stars Portia Woodman and Kelly Brazier, the Black Ferns Sevens continue their invincible march on the world stage to advance their Team of the Year claim at this week’s Halberg Awards.

Their latest triumph in Sydney on Sunday culminated in their 48th consecutive win since being hammered 31-0 by Australia at the same venue a year earlier.

This time they beat Australia 34-10 in the final.

Under the coaching of Alan Bunting and inspired captaincy of Sarah Hirini (nee Goss), the team’s all-round strength has developed with clever playmakers like Tyla Nathan-Wong (who missed the final with an ankle injury) taking smart options and moving the ball wide to their speedy try-scorers.

With the brilliant Woodman currently absent while recovering from a bad injury, Michaela Blyde stepped out of her shadow to be named the world’s best woman sevens player for 2018.

Although shorter, Blyde generates the same excitement and has the same explosive speed. However, as a wing, she doesn’t have to expend the energy Woodman did with her powerful scrummaging.

Ruby Tui and Stacey Waaka also possess a happy try-scoring knack.
Last year was an amazing year for a happy, united team that not only dominated the World Series but won Commonwealth Games and World Championship golds.

The All Black Sevens men also won the latter two events although lacked the same overall consistency in the World Series when facing the likes of Fiji, South Africa and the United States.

They do, however, generally have a strong defence and performed well in Sydney despite the absence of outstanding skipper Scott Curry and the ageless Tim Mikkelson.

Other old heads like Sam Dickson and Kurt Baker showed they still have what it takes with strong games in Sydney. But it is younger guns like Vilimoni Koroi, Andrew Knewstubb, Regan Ware and Ngarohi McGarvey-Black who offer hope for the future.

Another youngster to impress with his robust performances has been 20-year-old Scott Gregory who thrives in the physical stuff.

Meanwhile after a dismal 2018 Six Nations championship in which they finished fifth, England have bounced back to defeat defending champions Ireland 32-20 in Dublin to announce they remain a threat to New Zealand’s world champion status this year.

Although both teams impinge the offside law with their stifling defence, it is very effective as Beauden Barrett and his All Blacks team-mates learned in their drawn series against the British Lions a few years ago.

Rather than slam the English and Irish for their style of play as some critics have, they deserve praise for their fitness and ability to keep the ball alive with sharp offloads.

With Mako and Billy  Vunipola  back, the English forwards beat the formidable Irish pack while the return of powerful inside centre Manu Tuilagi provided the momentum and space for Henry Slade, Johnny May and Elliot Daly to prosper out wide.

This was a better English team than that was so narrowly beaten by the All Blacks late last year before the tourists fell to Ireland in Dublin. Their boring borderline marking is suffocating but remains effective when allowed to go unpenalised.

Although playing a more attractive game, the All Blacks will do well to remember it is not a beauty contest. Hence beware the British bulldog!

Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author