Auckland-based Blackwell, the Black Ferns captain, was out running with flatmate and teammate Aleisha-Pearl Nelson when the pair paused at the top of a hill to read a message from team management that detailed World Rugby’s recommendation for the pinnacle tournament to be postponed until next year.
“It did come as a bit of a shock when I saw the email come through,” Blackwell, a physical education teacher, said.
“The first we heard of it was from our management followed by the Herald link so it was a bit of a bombshell and definitely unexpected, but we can’t really assume they had any information on this happening. It’s hit everybody pretty hard – everyone is feeling for each other.
“We were pretty devastated, but essentially nothing changes. I was upset for a couple of hours. Now it’s the same goal, same grind, and we’ll be working towards the same goal in 2022 if that’s what’s decided by the [World Rugby] board in a week.”
Veteran Black Ferns halfback Kendra Cocksedge had yet to process the recommendation to delay the tournament.
“Our focus right now as leaders in the side is to get around the girls and check in on each other. There’s going to be a lot of mixed emotions in the side especially for the new, younger players.”
New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson indicated the prospect of bringing 12 teams – three of whom were yet to qualify – and over 700 people into a country with full managed isolation facilities was problematic. The fact many foreign teams have been unable to play for over a year formed another factor in the postponement recommendation.
“We’re incredibly confident our team has done everything possible to make sure this tournament could have been a success,” Robinson said. “We’ll have to take a bit of stock now to step back and work through the disappointment in the immediate future and then build a plan for next year.
“We’re committed to making sure the Black Ferns have a meaningful campaign this year.”
With the recommendation coming to a head at the start of this week, Robinson admitted some parties were left in the dark.
“We know they’ll be disappointed but they were informed as early as we possibly could. We were working in tight timeframes with all of this,” he said.
“World Rugby have done everything possible to communicate in a timely fashion but in the last little while there’s been a need to get information out and there may well have been groups that felt they haven’t got all the insights they would normally get.”
This year’s World Cup was scheduled to be held in Auckland and Whangārei from September 18 to October 16. Robinson indicated the tournament would now start from October 15 next year at the same venues.
Despite preparing for the past four years, and making significant sacrifices during summer training, Blackwell appreciated the predicament foreign teams faced in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic gripping the globe.
“I was speaking to a mate in Canada this morning and she hasn’t played internationals since our game against the Barbarians at the end of 2019,” Blackwell said.
“The reality of it is pretty real and down in New Zealand we’re a little bit sheltered from what’s actually happening on a bigger scale around the world. You can’t expect them to bring 100 per cent of their capacity.”
One potential upside for the Black Ferns is they may have access to the full spectrum of sevens players, some of whom may not have backed up following their quest for gold at the scheduled Tokyo Olympics.
“A lot of those girls in the sevens have been involved in our XVs team. There’s a lot of quality within their environment that we could definitely benefit from. If it is postponed until next year it will definitely create some friendly competition among players and positions.”
Cocksedge, the first women to claim New Zealand rugby’s prestigious Kelvin R Tremain Memorial player of the year award, will be 34 by the time the World Cup begins but she remains determined to chase her third title.
“It’s tough to move on from a World Cup on home turf. We’ve got a year to get fitter and faster. It will be around mentally preparing. I know NZ Rugby will work really hard to get an international schedule in place, and hopefully get some games this year, for us to have a better prep leading into a World Cup in 2022. Give us another year and watch out.”