Maiakawanakaulani Roos will become the youngest captain in Black Ferns history when she leads the team out against the USA in the final round of the World Rugby Pacific Four Series 2023 in Ottawa on Friday.
The 21-year-old has been handed the responsibility with regular co-captains Kennedy Simon and Ruahei Demant both named on the replacements’ bench for the match, which will kick-off at 16:00 local time (GMT-4) at TD Place Stadium in the Canadian capital.
Second-row Roos made her test debut on the end-of-year tour of England and France in November 2021 and has gone on to win 16 caps, starting the Rugby World Cup 2021 final win against England just 12 months later.
The Black Ferns released a heart-warming video of the moment she found out she had been handed the captaincy on social media, and team-mate Renee Holmes has backed her to lead by example in Ottawa.
“I’m so, so, so proud of Maia,” Holmes told World Rugby. “[It’s] absolutely incredible, you would not believe she's only 21 the way she upholds herself in this group on and off the field. She's a great leader.
“I’m excited for her to get this opportunity, and I know she can feel that all the girls have her back, we've got her. You know, she might not say much but she doesn't need to say much – she just leads through her actions.”
Friday's matches will be available to stream via the World Rugby website where a local broadcast deal is not in place.
New Zealand, who qualified for WXV 1 with victory against hosts Canada last Saturday, need only a single point against the Women’s Eagles to secure a second successive Pacific Four Series title.
“Obviously, our goal this whole time was just to put our hand up and get that chance to play at home again [in WXV 1],” Holmes said. “That was our goal and we’ve done it now, so we’ve got one more job to do this weekend.”
Holmes made her debut on the same European tour as Roos and has also gone on to become a fixture in the team that has swept all before it in the Pacific Four Series and at RWC 2021.
She will start Friday’s encounter against the USA on the bench, however, earning a well-deserved breather having scored 25 points in the victories against Australia and Canada.
Tenika Willison will instead line-up at full-back as she makes her first start in a team that also includes debutant front-rows Esther Faiaoga-Tilo and Grace Gago.
“Neeks (Willison) is just an amazing all-round player,” Holmes said. “For her, it’s just that confidence in herself, and we all back her around too.
“And that’s something that’s really special about this group is that it comes from the top. The coaches believe in you, your players believe in you, and then you believe in yourself.
“So, it's a really special group to be a part of it, and I'm so excited to see Neeks get that start this weekend.”
Following their defeat to Australia last Saturday, the USA need to beat the Black Ferns to have any chance of qualifying for WXV 1.
Whoever finishes second and third in the Pacific Four Series standings at the end of Friday’s action at TD Place Stadium will join the Black Ferns in New Zealand this October and November. The fourth-placed team will head to Cape Town, South Africa, for WXV 2.
The Women’s Eagles have not beaten New Zealand since a 7-0 victory in the RWC 1991 semi-finals. The Black Ferns have won each of the last 12 meetings between the sides, including a 50-6 triumph in the 2022 Pacific Four Series.
Prop Charli Jacoby, second-row Rachel Ehrecke and winger Summer Harris-Jones come into the team as the Women’s Eagles target a famous win.
“We are confident we can cause the Black Ferns some problems with our physicality and pace,” USA interim coach Rich Ashfield said.
Canada, Australia target victory
Canada and Australia will bring the curtain down on the 2023 tournament when they meet in Friday’s second match at TD Place Stadium (kick-off 19:00 local time).
Depending on the result in the earlier match, both teams could have qualified for WXV 1 by the time they take to the pitch, however, both will be keen to finish their campaign on a high regardless.
That is certainly the case for the hosts, who were cheered on a by a Canadian record crowd for a women’s international test match of 10,092 last Saturday and will want to repay that support with a win.
History is on the side of the home team, who have won each of their four previous encounters with the Wallaroos, including a 22-10 win at Semenoff Stadium in Whangārei, New Zealand, last June.
All four of the Canadian scorers in that match will be involved on Friday, Emily Tuttosi, Justine Pelletier and captain Sophie De Goede from the start, and Alexandria Ellis on the bench.
Canada coach Kevin Rouet has made six changes to the side that lost to New Zealand last weekend, including handing a first start to fly-half Claire Gallagher.
"Our team has spent the last few days reflecting on our learnings from our match against New Zealand and continuing to prepare for Australia,” Rouet said.
“We are looking forward to getting back on the pitch to play another great opponent in front of another great home crowd. As with New Zealand, Friday’s match is yet again an important step in our progression towards .”
Australia led Canada 10-0 after only 13 minutes of last year’s corresponding fixture but were unable to capitalise on that fast start as Tuttosi scored the first of her side’s three tries on the stroke of half-time.
Wallaroos coach Jay Tregonning has made just one change to the side that beat USA, as Siokapesi Palu replaces Cecilia Smith in the centres. But there is also a return for Piper Duck on the bench, who is set to play her first match since being named the squad’s captain in the wake of Shannon Parry’s retirement.
"We saw a much-improved performance against the USA last week," Tregonning said. "Canada plays a very different style of game and we've taken that into consideration during preparations this week.
"We saw how dominant they were against the Black Ferns last week, and now the Wallaroos are raring to compete against the fourth-best team in the world."