In their final pool match, Scotland face their toughest assignment against reigning champions New Zealand.
There is only one change to the starting line-up, with Sevens try-machine Shona Campbell in at full back, in place of Chloe Rollie. Emma Orr was massive in defence last week, earning her a place in Rugby World’s team of the round, and will have to put in a similar shift this week to contain the talented Black Ferns. Captain Dr Rachel Malcolm is top of the tackle stats for the tournament, with Jade Konkel-Roberts and Emma Wassell also in the top 10 performers. Scotland will hope for more possession, but another heroic defensive effort will be needed. A massive shout out to Molly Wright who gets to play against the nation of her birth, and in Aotearoa New Zealand. For all the team, facing the haka will undoubtedly be incredibly special too, and they will need to keep the emotions in check and make sure they have another strong start.
There are a few more changes on the bench, with Louise McMillan and Meryl Smith returning to the 23, and first showings in the tournament for Katie Dougan and Liz Musgrove. After two highly physical and emotionally draining matches where subs have been relatively rare, so Bryan Easson may need to use his bench a bit more readily in this game.
The Black Ferns are of course known for their outstanding attack – it will be interesting to see if Scotland utilise a similar defensive strategy as against the Wallaroos. They rarely committing players to the breakdown, instead getting as many players in the line as possible to snuff out any space for their pacy backs. It was a relatively successful tactic against Australia until the Wallaroos forwards started carrying harder and tied in more defenders, and as the Scots tired a little from a gruelling defensive effort.
One of the main positives Scotland can take into the match is their driving maul remains excellent, and defending a maul is not an area of strength for the Black Ferns. In the second Laurie O’Reilly cup game, the Wallaroos also showed that you can stay in the game if you front up to a less familiar Black Ferns line up and deny their backs quick ball. Scotland have nothing to lose at all and hopefully can play with some freedom and get their own talented backs into a bit more space than they have been able to do so far.
The Black Ferns have rested some of their best-known Sevens superstars, including Portia Woodman, Stacey Fluhler and Ruby Tui, although Sarah Hirini does start. They also have benched the experienced and classy half-back pairing of legendary scrum-half Kendra Cocksedge and stand-off Ruahei Demant. If and when they do come on to the field, Cocksedge’s sniping near the try-line, and her break-creating passes, alongside Demant’s line breaks in centre field and her all round skill set, will be dangerous. I’ve been looking forward to seeing the incredible talents of winger Ayesha Leti-I’iga in this world cup, but would have preferred not against Scotland! She is a brilliant try-scorer who cuts a superb line, often off an inside ball in midfield, has an absolutely fantastic leg-drive in contract making her hard to stop, a superb player who was top try scorer in the Pacific Four series.
My stand out player to watch in the Black Ferns forwards is one of my new favourite non-Scottish players, Joanah Ngan-Woo, one of several impressive Black Ferns locks. She has a seriously impressive skill set, allying crisp passing and brilliant off-loads, with seriously athletic line-out jumping and is also an incredible fast and powerful runner with ball in hand. Based on her performances against Australia pre-world cup, she is one of the players to make you sit up in your seat, even at the ungodly hour at which this match takes place for UK viewers.
Everything will have to click and go right for Scotland to have a chance to record what I believe would be the first victory for one of our XVs teams over any New Zealand team. The Black Ferns will be the overwhelming favourites, but if Scotland can utilise their maul, defend like demons again, make better use of an extra player if there are any cards to the opposition and have much, much better luck, then they should at least be able to give a very good account of themselves. Pride and passions are a given, maybe, just maybe, it can be third time lucky.