Wayne's World Cup mission revives once dominant New Zealand

Oct 5 (Reuters) - The Black Ferns were in a crisis earlier this year after thrashings in four tests against England and France in late 2021 showed they had fallen behind their rivals during two years of New Zealand's COVID-19 isolation.

By far the most successful team in the history of women's rugby, New Zealand were also without a coach after Glenn Moore resigned in the wake of a review into team culture, which he said was sparked by "misleading allegations".

Enter, in April, Wayne "The Professor" Smith as director of rugby.

The brains behind two All Blacks World Cup triumphs, Smith brought his former boss Graham Henry on board as a consultant and set about building a team that could win the tournament on home soil.

Smith and Henry have the sort of rugby pedigrees that demand respect and their prescription for the Black Ferns in the face of the powerful English and French threats was simple - a skills-based game played at high tempo.

Out went the incumbent captain and a handful of the stalwarts who had helped New Zealand to the most recent of their five World Cup triumphs in 2017.

The net was cast far and wide for fresh talent able to play at pace and the final piece of the jigsaw was added with the addition of Portia Woodman, Sarah Hirini and Stacey Fluhler from New Zealand's Olympic champion Sevens team.

The results on the park this year have been more than encouraging - six wins from six tests against Australia, the United States, Canada and Japan with more than fifty points put on the scoreboard in half of them.

The last match, a 95-12 romp over Japan, featured seven tries from Woodman, long the most lethal finisher in the women's game.

Whether the transformation will be enough to secure a sixth World Cup, however, will probably not be known until the Black Ferns meet England or France.

Before that, Smith and his assistants Wesley Clarke and Whitney Hansen should have three relatively comfortable Pool A games to figure out their best combinations.

They open their campaign on Saturday against neighbours Australia, who they have beaten three times this year and never lost to, before facing Wales and Scotland.

If the tournament goes to plan for the leading teams, passage should be relatively straightforward into the semi-finals, where the moment of truth for the Smith project will finally arrive.

"It's not a secret that I didn't really seek the job," Smith said in August. "But sometimes you slide down a hill and land on a pot of gold, and that's what I feel like."

Reporting by Nick Mulvenney in Sydney, Editing by Peter Rutherford

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