Injury doubts to key stars to influence Black Ferns team for historic Rugby World Cup opener – Stuff

Rugby World Cup: Black Ferns v Australia. Where: Eden Park, Auckland. When: Saturday, October 8, 7:15pm. Live coverage: Spark Sport, live updates on Stuff. Referee: Aimee Barrett-Theron (South Africa)
Joseph Pearson is a sports reporter for Stuff
OPINION: Injury doubts could remove some selection headaches the Black Ferns have for their historic Rugby World Cup opener against Australia at Eden Park on Saturday.
As well as co-captain Kennedy Simon (leg), winger Ayesha Leti-I’iga (calf) has been under an injury cloud.
Tighthead prop Tanya Kalounivale (ankle) and Alana Bremner (knee) are other likely starters carrying knocks for a fixture that will smash attendance records for women’s rugby.
Leti-I’iga was the Black Ferns’ best player as they swept Australia (23-10), Canada (28-0) and the United States (50-6) in the Pacific Four Series in June, coach Wayne Smith said two weeks ago, ahead of the 95-12 thrashing of Japan at Eden Park.
The 23-year-old was in devastating form on the left flank and started the two August tests against the Wallaroos when the Black Ferns retained the O’Reilly Cup.
However, Leti-I’iga was rested for the Japan test, Smith said, after scoring seven tries in five matches, including two doubles against the Aussies they are facing for a fourth time in as many months.
She has smashed through Australia’s defence with superb poise, power and pace, but a calf injury might sideline her and influence some major selection dilemmas.
The Black Ferns may keep Leti-I’iga on ice, given they are expected to comfortably defeat the Wallaroos, albeit after struggling to beat them in their last meeting six weeks ago in Adelaide when a more experimental side was rolled out.
She might not be risked for their other two pool matches, against Wales and Scotland, in which the Black Ferns are also likely to record huge wins because neither are anywhere near the level of the more professional set-ups of New Zealand, England and France.
That’s a luxury the Black Ferns can afford because only those three teams are realistic World Cup contenders, with England the huge favourites.
Smith has also said they are still figuring out their best team, which might not be clear until they face a more serious challenge in a knockout match.
At this stage, the top teams in the women’s game are at a much higher level than the rest and lopsided results are almost certain throughout the pool stages.
Leti-I’iga’s possible absence is offset by the comeback of star wing Portia Woodman from sevens.
She helped herself to seven tries against a feeble Japanese defence and should start on the left, with Ruby Tui on the right wing and Renee Holmes at fullback.
Assuming that quartet is fit, dropping one from the starting line-up will be a tough call, although it appears that either Tui or Holmes would have to make way.
In midfield, Amy du Plessis is likely to start alongside either Stacey Fluhler or Theresa Fitzpatrick.
Against Japan, du Plessis started at centre, with Fitzpatrick at second five-eighth, then played most of the second half at second-five as Fitzpatrick was replaced by Fluhler.
Fluhler played centre on her return from sevens and has started there for 18 of her 21 tests and could get the nod ahead of Fitzpatrick, who might be a more handy reserve because she can cover more positions. Still, it’s a tight decision.
If openside flanker Simon doesn’t start, Ruahei Demant will captain the team at five-eighth and Kendra Cocksedge, the most-capped Black Fern, will be halfback for her 63rd test.
The experienced Charmaine McMenamin is a certainty at No 8 and Sarah Hirini could start at No 7 next to Liana Mikaele-Tu’u if blindside flanker Bremner is not deemed fit.
Her sister, Chelsea Bremner, seems to be the preferred locking partner for the in-form Joanah Ngan-Woo, keeping Maiakawanakaulani Roos on the bench.
Kalounivale’s ankle injury means tighthead prop Amy Rule is likely to start in the front row.
Phillipa Love is expected to be retained as the loosehead with either Luka Connor or Georgia Ponsonby at hooker.
Possible starting XV to play Australia: Renee Holmes, Ruby Tui, Stacey Fluhler, Amy du Plessis, Portia Woodman, Ruahei Demant (c), Kendra Cocksedge; Charmaine McMenamin, Sarah Hirini, Liana Mikaele-Tu’u, Chelsea Bremner, Joanah Ngan-Woo, Amy Rule, Luka Connor, Phillipa Love.
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