By GEOFF CUMMING
On a cold June night last year, 15 exhausted Black Ferns trudged off North Harbour Stadium, heads bowed.
A powerful England team had ended the 10-year unbeaten run of our national women's rugby team.
In their last outing before this year's World Cup, the Black Ferns had lost their aura of invincibility with an error-ridden performance. More worrying was the evidence that our part-timers were overpowered by the English professionals, whose World Cup quest was backed by a million-dollar sponsorship deal.
The result reduced some players to tears. Since their only previous defeat, against the United States at the 1991 World Cup, the Black Ferns had strung together 27 wins. Their average winning margin was 46 points.
Like the players, losing was a new experience for Darryl Suasua, the coach who had guided the team to new heights since taking over in 1996. But Suasua was already working on turning defeat into victory.
"Take a big, long whiff of that because that's what defeat smells like," he told the players in the dressing room afterwards.
In Barcelona last weekend, the Black Ferns savoured sweet revenge, beating England 19-9 to win their second successive World Cup.
In a land where rugby and national pride are intertwined, the Black Ferns' record in the past decade overshadows that of their male equivalents, the All Blacks, who have returned empty-handed from three successive World Cup campaigns.
Fans of men's rugby continue to argue that the Ferns have it easier because the developing women's game lacks depth internationally.
Suasua says the same can be said of the men's tournament, where only four or five teams stand a chance of winning and mismatches bring cricket scores in early rounds.
Observers say the standard of the 16 teams in Barcelona was vastly better than four years ago in Amsterdam. Australia, France and England were a serious threat to the Black Ferns and, although they did not concede a try, their defence was often breached.
Their back-to-back achievement, as much down to off-field attention to detail as on-field skills and tactical nous, may even hold some pointers for our hapless men.
Team manager Jackie Barron says the ingredients for victory included a common goal, a clear plan, selections to suit and supportive management. But the winning of the games came down to the skills, commitment and motivation of the players.
"They love the game. They love playing, they are absolutely passionate about it," says Barron.
"We had a group of women who were completely committed, very professional in their approach and very disciplined. They had a common goal and there was no compromising on that goal."
Their motto: Better than before.
Preparing for the campaign last year, Suasua built a database which compared his squad with the top four men's NPC sides.
"In areas like work rate, error rate and decision making, a number of the Black Ferns ended up top in their position in the country," he says. Overall, the squad was pitched at "just above NPC level" in terms of what it could achieve.
"This Black Ferns' team is far in advance of any premier men's club side in their understanding of the game, commitment to training and basic skill base."
It's been a huge progression from the early days of women's rugby in the late 1980s, says team physio and former Black Ferns' captain Helen Littleworth.
"Back then, women rugby players were regarded as social players rather than athletes," says Littleworth.
"It was seen as something like a men's pursuit where you played and went to the bar. It wasn't perceived as a good place for women to be."
Players had to be "tapped on the shoulder" and recruited from other sports. Now, girls play with boys at junior level and enter single-sex teams at intermediate school. The sport is thriving in secondary schools, and leading clubs field at least one senior women's side.
Rugby was the first choice sport of most younger members of the Barcelona squad of 26, a development reflected in skills and tactical flexibility.
Littleworth was part of a management team of eight in Spain which included specialist coaches, a team doctor, a personal fitness trainer and an IT specialist equipped with the same computer video package used by the All Blacks to analyse team and opposition strengths and weaknesses.
From the time the squad was named in November, the players were put on individually tailored fitness programmes and low-fat diets. Their aerobic fitness and muscle development was monitored weekly, and injuries reported to Littleworth.
As well as team training, Suasua worked one-on-one with players, taking individuals for weight training and to work on specific skills.
At "education sessions," players were given written assignments about tactics or rules "to increase their rugby intelligence". On the field, everyone knew the calls and the sequences of play.
The squad was united. In training camps and on tour, provincial teammates were split up, older players helped newcomers and positional rivals roomed together.
Training routines were varied to avoid staleness. Alcohol and junk food were banned once the squad assembled in April.
In the Spanish heat, players wore jerseys made from the same synthetic fibre used by the All Blacks to keep cool, and bras and shoulder pads were specially designed to cope with the climatic conditions.
In essence, the management displayed a level of organisation and attention to detail associated with the men's game in the professional era.
But these women - paid nothing but a daily allowance while on tour - made sacrifices reminiscent of the amateur All Blacks of folklore. They did so while holding down full-time jobs and, in some cases, juggling child and family responsibilities.
The side which started the final included six players with university degrees. They included a teacher, a lecturer, a lawyer, a research assistant, a policewoman, a firefighter, supervisors and customer service workers. Suasua says all the players place considerable importance on their careers but were willing to do everything asked to get to Barcelona and win the World Cup.
First-five Anna Richards, a lawyer, and centre Annaleah Rush, a teacher, gave up their jobs.
Halfback Monique Hirovanaa, the star of the final at age 36, fitted in four hours of training a day around shift work as a quarantine assistant.
Bay of Plenty winger Exia Shelford drove for five or six hours to get to weekly fitness tests before returning to work.
Black Fern sides in the 1990s were compelling and attractive to watch, moving the ball and creating space for swift outside backs to score tries. But defeat against England showed the opposition had caught up. Lessons Suasua took from the loss included the need to vary the game plan and develop forward dominance.
Prop Regina Sheck, a veteran of 20 tests since 1993, was put on a programme to improve her aerobic fitness and strength, spending two to three hours a day in the gym or out running.
"For me the training wasn't too different but it was mentally tougher," says the Tokoroa policewoman. Before the last World Cup she lived in Auckland and had access to one-on-one coaching. This time, she had a daughter and a disabled sister to look after.
"There were times when I wondered whether I really wanted to do this. But I had a goal that I wanted to achieve which was to win the World Cup. I didn't want to have the England loss as my last game for New Zealand."
Loose forward Melody Robinson, a journalist, was told to work on her strength and speed over summer. Suasua went with her to the gym three days a week for extended lunch-time weight training. In the evenings, she did speed work.
Robinson says the players took enormous pride from representing their country. "Rugby is our national identity. It makes you bond together, especially in a foreign country like Spain. It's you and your teammates against the world."
In Barcelona, the opposition was much stronger than four years ago, with most teams adopting the running game the Black Ferns used to such devastating effect in Amsterdam.
All Blacks' media liaison officer James Funnell, who saw the tests, says the other teams had caught up in terms of athleticism "but tactically we raised the bar a bit".
"We had two game plans for the final. When England lifted their game in the second half we shut them down."
Against France and Australia, the New Zealanders set out to play the game in opposition territory by kicking, then pressuring their opponents into error. In scrums and mauls, the forwards "put the heat on" to draw in the defence before letting the backs loose. Funnell says it worked to the extent that Australia and France spent most of their matches in their own half, if not their 22.
Before the final, the team knew England would have analysed their opponents and devised countering tactics, such as having their wings and fullback drop back.
"We decided to move the ball out wide on the basis they would expect us to kick. When we didn't kick they started to gain in confidence and moved everyone up. So in the second half we kicked. I don't recall them playing with the ball in our half in the second half."
The 10-point winning margin did not reflect the New Zealanders' superiority, says Funnell. "The team we had was essentially irresistible."
For more than half the squad, Barcelona was their farewell to international rugby. Most of the senior players are still overseas, letting their hair down before coming home to focus on careers and families. Suasua is stepping aside but says the nucleus is in place for a successful title defence in four years.
"We've already got a whole tight-five with an average age of 22 who, if they keep it up, will be outstanding and a backline who will be reaching their prime."
He singles out outstanding lock Victoria Heighway, 21, and barnstorming prop Helen Vaaga, who starred in the rout against Germany, as linchpins of future teams. Both were spotted as schoolgirls.
Suasua says there are issues for the sport's development, which come down to funding. There's a vast gulf between club rugby and international level, limited opportunities to develop players and too few tests between World Cups.
But he says the players are not complaining.
"They play the game because they love it, they are not after any perks. They would rather it stay amateur."
By GEOFF CUMMING