Portia Woodman-Wickliffe: The greatest women’s rugby player ever?

Analysis – The news that Portia Woodman-Wickliffe is calling it a day at the end of the Olympics is a bit of a surprise, even though it feels like she’s been around forever.

At 32, the outstanding Black Ferns and Black Ferns Sevens player has gone far past when test rugby wingers usually reach their use-by date, and still looks to be just as effective as ever.

Woodman-Wickliffe will be aiming to go out as a gold medal winner, but even that’s something she’s already achieved. If the heavily favoured Black Ferns Sevens somehow end up third in Paris she’ll have a whole set of Olympic medals, after winning silver in 2016.

The space she was allowed to roam on a Sevens field often felt unfair, a fair chunk of her incredible 256 career tries came without a hand being laid on her.

To put that into context, that’s better than a try a game across 11 seasons in the side – a phenomenal strike rate and model of consistency in a highly regarded professional programme.

The other slightly unbelievable fact about her career is that she was a relative latecomer to top-level rugby, because her netball career as a teenager saw her selected for the Northern Mystics. Had it not been for Sevens being included in the Olympics, guaranteeing funding for the first female rugby players to make a living from the sport back in 2012, Woodman-Wickliffe may well have stayed on the netball court.

Mystics' Portia Woodman competes against Vixens' Chelsey Tregear.

The Woodman family name carries with it a bit of weight on the rugby field. Not only did Portia grow up with an All Black father Kawhena, her uncle Fred Woodman played in two tests in the infamous 1981 series against the Springboks. Both brothers were stalwarts of the North Auckland union before it changed its name to Northland, a legacy that Portia carried on when she represented the province in the Farah Palmer Cup.

Arguably, Woodman-Wickliffe’s high-water mark in the 15-a-side code was during the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup, in which she scored a tournament-record 13 tries. Eight of them came in one match against a hapless Hong Kong outfit. She then scored four more in the next game against the USA – one of which was nominated for World Rugby try of the year, and part of an effort that won her Women’s Player of the year.

That try total is a record for any New Zealander for one test and at a World Cup, and is likely to stay that way for a long time.

Portia Woodman of New Zealand poses after receiving the Women's 7's Player of the Year award during the World Rugby Awards 2015 at Battersea Evolution on November 1, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Dan Mullan - World Rugby/World Rugby)

So, does that make her the best ever on a women’s rugby field? Given just how prevalent the short form of the game has been for women, in that it very much complimented Woodman-Wickliffe’s overall professional career rather than simply providing an alternate pathway like it does for most others, her achievements across both make her stand out.

Many Sevens players simply can’t translate their effectiveness onto a 15s field and vice-versa, but Woodman-Wickliffe got to a point in both where the respective teams’ entire game plans revolved around getting the ball to her as fast and often as possible.

New Zealand's Portia Woodman and Renee Wickliffe.

Woodman-Wickliffe will leave a big legacy, but if there is one thing New Zealand women’s rugby has been very good at producing, it’s outside backs. Katelyn Vaha’akolo stands as the most obvious candidate to assume the role of main strike weapon in the Black Ferns, while the likes of Ayesha Leti-I’iga, Mererangi Paul and the Super Rugby Aupiki production line assures that the team will always have that depth.

All of those players have their own unique attributes: power, pace, sidesteps and instinct. But Woodman-Wickliffe has all of them, a perfectly balanced winger, which is what makes her the best to ever do it. The Black Ferns Sevens campaign in Paris now has that added incentive to send her out as a champion.

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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