NZ Black Ferns wearing the favourites tag well

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 05:00 25/07/2014
Selica Winiata
CHRIS SKELTON/Fairfax NZ
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN: Selica Winiata carves through the Samoa defence, in a show of determination typical of the seasoned Black Ferns.

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Favouritism sits comfortably with the Black Ferns.

Not that they have a choice. Four successive Women's Rugby World Cup crowns place a target firmly on the team's back.

There's little doubt this tournament presents their toughest challenge, though.

The Black Ferns open their title defence against Kazakhstan in France this Friday, and must win all five games to secure a remarkable fifth success in a row.

Preparations to extend their dominance started long ago.

Six straight defeats to traditional rivals England in 2011-12 forced coach Brian Evans to overhaul fitness and conditioning requirements for his side.

Before that horror run, the Black Ferns held a 90 per cent winning record. Clearly, what had been done previously was no longer enough.

Trainer Jamie Tout was installed to lead a co-ordinated programme to lift standards across the country.

"The landscape changed because a lot of other countries started putting a lot more resource into it, led by England," Evans said. "You're not going to stay ahead of the pack by doing the same thing.

"We had a few bad results come our way. That was a real wake-up call that we needed to do things differently. The sevens has definitely helped the levels of fitness and competition among women. All of a sudden, they have the ability to be fulltime athletes."

The phenomenal record transpires to create expectations and pressure. Players realise only another world cup crown will be deemed a success.

"Collectively, we're all aware of the record, and we know the history," Evans said. "We try and treat it with the upmost respect but you don't want to get bogged down by the weight of expectations.

"The ladies like to enjoy their footy. You don't want that to disappear, so you've got to use the history as motivation, but not let it weigh on your mind."

Evans can call on 13 players who have been there previously, while halfback Emma Jensen and Canterbury No 8 Casey Robertson enter their fourth tournaments. Such experience and the composure that comes with it will be invaluable in countering what could be a heavy burden. When tensions rise, cool heads are needed.

"You've only got to look at the last world cup final. We were down to 13 players at one stage, and we still looked more-or-less in control. That's down to the experience of key players. We've still got those players in the team now."

More so than ever, competition is expected to be fierce. Realistically, Kazakhstan should be a breeze; the United States a step up but Ireland will pose the biggest challenge in pool play. France, who won the Six Nations for the first time this year, England, Canada and Australia are all considered contenders for the semifinal and final stages.

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"The playing field has levelled out. There's a lot more competition. People might be surprised."

Preparation for this pinnacle tournament has never been better. Last year, revenge was exacted with three home wins over England. Victories against Australia, Samoa and Canada (twice) last month followed.

Camps in January and late April also allowed gameplans to be bedded in and the inclusion of Jason Ryan, Canterbury's scrum coach, boosted the management team.

The prospect of claiming an unprecedented fifth showpiece had the squad brimming with a sense of anticipation as it left Auckland yesterday.

"It would be an amazing achievement. I think people probably underestimate how hard it is to win, and how much work goes in, particularly for the players who juggle work or study commitments. Winning another one will require an incredible effort."

Team: Ruth McKay, Aleisha Nelson, Stephanie Te Ohaere-Fox, Kathleen Wilton, Fiao'o Fa'amausili (c), Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate, Eloise Blackwell, Sanita Levave, Jackie Patea, Rawinia Everitt, Linda Itunu, Justine Lavea, Casey Robertson, Aroha Savage, Kendra Cocksedge, Emma Jensen, Kelly Brazier, Victoria Subritzky-Nafatali, Huriana Manuel, Claire Richardson, Amiria Rule, Shakira Baker, Honey Hireme, Halie Tiplady-Hurring, Renee Wickliffe, Selica Winiata.

- Stuff

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