On the field the Black Ferns were magic. In Belfast in August, they came back from a 12-point deficit to beat England 41-32 to win an astounding fifth World Cup. Yes, you read that right, a fifth World Cup — two more than the All Blacks.

Off the field they were all class too, inspirational role models who didn't shy away from pointing out the pay and pointy-end-of-the-plane disparity between themselves and their male counterparts.

The team is full of teachers, students, nurses, farmers, mums — all of whom make time for 5am gym sessions before working full days, and often training again in the evening. Some had to give up jobs to prepare for the World Cup, some trained with men to get that competitive edge.

READ MORE: • NZer of the Year 2017: Finally, victors' ball is rolling

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They are amateur athletes, with the discipline of professionals. They bring an exciting new dimension to the game New Zealanders love, and utterly deserve their success.

With the help of the new Labour government's belief that they deserve to be paid to play the sport they love, they have galvanised a support base for their cause.

There is much still to do, but rugby's leaders have woken up to the need to make the game a paying proposition for these women. It is a legacy the Black Ferns deserve. As Liam Napier writes today in our tribute piece on pages 22-23, respect is not enough.

In recognition of their passion, professionalism and athleticism, the Black Ferns are the Herald's New Zealanders of the Year.

They were chosen by the Herald's senior editors. It was a tough call, with many deserving contenders.

But the Black Ferns prevailed. Aldora Itunu, Toka Natua, Aleisha Nelson, Sosoli Talawadua, Fiao'o Faamausili (captain), Becky Wood, Charmaine Smith, Eloise Blackwell, Charmaine McMenamin, Les Ketu, Linda Itunu, Rawinia Everitt, Sarah Goss, Te-Kura Ngata-Aerengamate, Aroha Savage, Aotearoa (Katie) Mata'u, Stacey Waaka, Kelly Brazier, Victoria Subritzky-Nafatali, Kendra Cocksedge, Kristina Sue, Hazel Tubic, Renee Wickliffe, Portia Woodman, Selica Winiata, Carla Hohepa, Theresa Fitzpatrick and Chelsea Alley — we salute you.

Finalists

were rescuer Andrew Field, Kiwi model and actor Zoe Brock, rest home pay campaigner Kristine Bartlett, Uili Papalii who gave his lunch to a homeless man, Team NZ, movie writer-actor-director Taika Waititi, Tauranga teen Hailey using her battle with mental health to help others, F1 driver Brendon Hartley and Anna Osborne and Sonya Rockhouse, who lost family in the Pike River mining disaster and have spearheaded the survivors' battle for justice.