Highlights were in plentiful supply throughout the Dick Smith NRL Auckland Nines and right up near the top of the list – if not the top – was the outstanding series of three matches between the Kiwi Ferns and the Jillaroos.
Playing in front of huge crowds on both days was unique for women’s rugby league and the two sides made the most of the opportunity to create an impression.
The ferocity and intensity of the defence – there were some huge shots put on – was the standout feature while the skills on attack were also superb.
The Kiwi Ferns were chastened after losing to the Australians in the Women’s Rugby League World Cup final in 2013.
The New Zealanders exacted a measure of revenge by beating the Jillaroos 12-8 in high-quality one-off Test in Wollongong last November (the clash was the curtain-raiser to the Kangaroos’ Four Nations encounter with Toa Samoa).
Success in the three-match series of Nines matches was even more satisfying, being achieved in front of the biggest-ever crowd women’s rugby league has seen. Not only that, but it was at home in front of family, friends and ultra-parochial fans.
The series was secured with 8-4 and 16-4 wins in the first two matches before the Jillaroos won the last 8-7 in another thriller.
KIWI FERNS v JILLAROOS, EDEN PARK
Rookie Janna Vaughan made her Kiwi Ferns debut a day to remember scoring the winning try as the New Zealand women snatched a late 8-4 result over Australia in their opening encounter at the Dick Smith NRL Auckland Nines.
Locked 4-4 entering the final minute, the home side created space on the left wing for Vaughan to cross in a tackle for the deciding points.
“I was thinking ‘should I step back inside or back myself’,” she explained afterwards.
“I decided to back my fend on this occasion. I know I have a strong fend and I used it to my advantage.
“I had to finish it for my team. They’d done all the hard yards up the middle to give me the opportunity.”
Although a relative league novice, Vaughan is no stranger to physical confrontation. She’s also national muay thai kickboxing champion.
But, like her team-mates, playing before the biggest crowd of their careers, she got off to a shaky start on the Eden Park stage.
“My first catch went to ground and the nerves were definitely there,” said Vaughan. “It’s very exciting to be here and coming into the Kiwi Ferns at this time, when things are starting to get professional.”
The Jillaroos were the more assured early on and took the upper hand when a cross-field kick provided Jenni-Sue Hoepper with plenty of space for the opening try.
But down 0-4 at halftime, Kiwi Ferns coach Rusty Matua urged his charges to regroup. They created some chances of their own, with winger Atawhai Tupaea dragged out in the corner and unable to take advantage of an open field a few moments later.
“It was really about gaining composure,” said Matua. “We had a real dose of nerves at the start, with the noise of the crowd, the atmosphere and the intensity of the Australians coming at us as well.
“Some of the girls didn’t really realise how quickly they would fatigue either, so it was a real learning curve for us.”
The Ferns had been in this situation before, though. In their trans-Tasman test at Wollongong last November, they had been on the back foot through most of the game but ground down their opponents to snatch a famous last-minute victory.
This time hooker Sharnita Woodman helped settle any jitters with an opportunistic try early in the second half. Tuapaea tripped over the defence while chasing a kick into the goal area but the ball stopped dead in the corner for Woodman to pounce on.
Then the backline gave Vaughan her chance, which she grabbed with both hands (and a fend).
NZ Kiwi Ferns 8 (Sharnita Woodman, Janna Vaughan tries).
Australia Jillaroos 4 (Jenni-Sue Hoepper try).
Halftime: 4-0 Jillaroos.
Three tries and bruising defence carried the Kiwi Ferns to a series victory over the Jillaroos in the second match of the series.
Entering day two with a 1-0 advantage in the three-game series, the home team clinched overall honours with a 16-4 win.
Winger Janna Vaughan, who provided the game-winning try in the final minute of the first match, opened the scoring this time after a quickly taken penalty in midfield provided space out wide. Vaughan ran an infield angle that carried her away from the chasing defence and under the crossbar for a five-point touchdown, converted by veteran Laura Mariu.
Australia replied soon afterwards for a 7-4 halftime score-line but New Zealand extended its edge soon after the restart when Nora Maaka faked and jinked her way across for another five-pointer.
The Jillaroos had no response this time and their efforts often met with a brick wall in the form of Mariu, whose tackling was a particular feature of this performance.
As time ran out co-captain Sarina Fiso sealed the result with a try out wide and her side entered the third encounter with an unassailable advantage in the series.
"We're hoping this event will invite people to come along and give rugby league a go," Fiso said afterwards. "That's what we want.
"Nines is a very different game. It doesn’t have as much structure as we're used to. Nine minutes doesn't sound like much but it certainly takes it out of you."
Kiwi Ferns 16 (Janna Vaughan, Nora Maaka, Sarina Fiso tries; Laura Mariu goal).
Australia Jillaroos 4 (Kellye Hodges try).
Halftime: 7-4 Kiwi Ferns.
The Jillaroos salvaged some consolation when they snatched victory in game three with two second-half tries to Steph Hancock and Brittany Bromyley.
Vaughan scored her third try in as many games - a five-pointer, converted by Mariu - to give the Ferns a 7-0 lead at halftime.
Again, the ferocity of their tackling had the Jillaroos on the ropes, with Maitua Feterika the standout this time.
But their rivals' pace eventually took its toll with Bromyley scoring in the final seconds to steal the win.
Mariu was named player of the series.
"Obviously, everyone loves big hits," admitted coach Rusty Matua. "But it was really important for us to show the general public that the girls can play at this level.
"We were aiming for a clean sweep, so we're disappointed, but hopefully we've done enough to earn another invitation from the NRL."
Australia Jillaroos 8 (Steph Hancock, Brittany Bromyley tries).
Kiwi Ferns 7 (Janna Vaughan try; Laura Mariu goal).
Halftime: 7-0 Kiwi Ferns.