Eddie backed to follow Black Ferns’ lead and turn Wallaroos into rugby powerhouse

Sarah Hirini – the Olympic gold medallist New Zealand captain and World Cup winner – says the “brutal honesty” of Wayne Smith proved invaluable for the Black Ferns in 2022 and the veteran Sevens star believes Eddie Jones can make the same telling impact for Australian women’s rugby.

Smith, the New Zealand international turned All Blacks mastermind, took over the Black Ferns in 2022.

The brilliant coach, known as ‘The Professor’ and a two-time World Cup winner with the All Blacks, took over from Glenn Moore after the Black Ferns suffered three consecutive defeats on their end-of-season tour in 2021.

The coaching change worked a treat, as the Black Ferns resisted a late charge against France in the semi-final before ending England’s 30-match winning steak by claiming another dramatic 34-31 victory at Eden Park.

New Zealand Sevens star Sarah Hirini says New Zealand coach Wayne Smith played a pivotal role in the Black Ferns’ World Cup success. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

By lifting the World Cup, New Zealand Rugby’s decision to change coaches was proven to be the right move.

“We were really lucky with Wayne Smith,” Hirini said ahead of the Sydney Sevens, which gets underway on Friday.

“I’ve obviously heard a lot about how amazing he is as a person, as a rugby coach, but to actually feel it first-hand was pretty incredible.

“For him to say the reason he took over the role was because his wife told him to, it kind of had my tick of approval straight away. If you’ve got the support from back home then you’re going do a pretty good job.

“He just knew how to create connections really quickly and he was just really honest. It’s quite easy to kind of go around the fluffy stuff but he was brutally honest right from the get-go and we knew exactly where we stood on the team.

“He’s very innovative and he knew that we had a very exciting team and he probably used all our strengths to help us win that last game especially.”

After claiming the World Cup, Smith said it was the “most phenomenal moment of my rugby life hearing all these people chanting the women’s names.”

Sarah Hirini in action for the Black Ferns during the 2022 women’s Rugby World Cup final win over England at Eden Park. Photo: Greg Bowker/Getty Images

Indeed, more than 40,000 people attended the final at Eden Park as New Zealand embraced the women’s game.

Hirini said he was hugely impressed by Smith’s work-ethic but also his ability to tap into his huge rugby network, which saw other World Cup-winning coaches like scrum guru Mike Cron.

“He’d be getting up at 4am, just constantly on his laptop, making sure he knew everything about every other team and you’d ask questions and he just knew exactly what was going on,” Hirini said.

“I think probably the coolest thing is he didn’t care to ask other people for help either. So, we had heaps of different people come into our environment, who he was pulling in favours from here and everywhere.

“We had pretty amazing people come into our group over the eight weeks, and he just knew who to draw on to help with what we were going through.”

The Wallaroos challenged the Black Ferns in the opening match where they ran out to a big lead before being run over the top.

Nonetheless, Australia rallied to qualify for the knockout stages but were eventually knocked out in the quarter-finals, with England winning comprehensively.

Since then, Rugby Australia has announced that Jones, the incoming Wallabies coach, will also oversee the Wallabies program.

While Hirini acknowledged she did not know the Wallabies’ program, she backed the experienced coach to have a positive impact.

“I don’t really know him or the Aussie set-up very well, but I think he’s had a lot of success in the past, so jeez, if there’s one person who could do it, I’m pretty sure he could,” she said.

Returning Wallabies coach Eddie Jones says overseeing the Wallaroos program is not an afterthought. Photo: Nick Laham/Getty Images

Jones, meanwhile, was asked in his first major press conference via zoom how he would “balance” the role between the men’s and women’s programs, as it was put to him that the Wallaroos deserve to be “more than an afterthought”.

“I don’t think that’s how it’s supposed to be, the idea clearly is where I can lend my experience to the Wallaroos,” he said.

“They have their own coaching team and own coaching staff, so they’ll get on with it.

“I think there’s an opportunity there at times to watch what they’re doing and add some experience. 

“This is not an afterthought, it’s about adding value. The mere fact that Rugby Australia thinks that’s important gives you an idea of how seriously they want Australian women’s rugby to do well, and hopefully I can add some value along the way.”

Stirling Mortlock says securing Eddie Jones to oversee the Wallaroos program is a masterstroke. Photo: Hagen Hopkins – World Rugby via Getty Images

Former Wallabies captain Stirling Mortlock said Jones’ addition to the women’s game was a “huge coup” for Australian rugby.

“Women’s rugby in general has been a massive growth force behind rugby globally,” Mortlock told The Roar.

“And,in particular, the game has developed massively over the last five years and you can see that in the women being professional or semi-professional. But it’s also at the grassroots, so many girls getting involved with the sevens, which is on the back of just an amazing sevens program for the women.

“To have someone that’s just got so much experience at the highest level of global rugby coaching to oversee the program, a lot of people would say, ‘Well, how can you do that?’ and perhaps it’s token, or there’s no way we’re going to do both, but Eddie is the hardest working person I’ve ever met. When he commits to something, it’s done. He’s in.

“I think it’s huge for the women’s game, as well as the men’s game. Anyone that’s been coached by Eddie, and any other one that’s been around him or worked with him, would know that he makes sure the high-performance side of the organization is as good as it can be. Nothing is ever left to chance.

“It’s just such a huge thing for rugby in this country, women’s and men’s included, and even community; Eddie’s so good with his time, anytime he can be out there coaching with young kids or getting out to help coaches develop their coaching, he’s been phenomenal historically.

“I just think it’s a huge coup for the whole game in general, not just isolated to the Wallabies.”

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