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Black Ferns squad selected for O'Reilly Cup and WXV 1

By Adam Julian
New Zealand perform the Haka ahead of the Pool A Rugby World Cup 2021 match between Wales and New Zealand at Waitakere Stadium on October 16, 2022, in Auckland, New Zealand.

At the beginning of the week, a Black Ferns squad of 30 players was selected for the O’Reilly Cup against Australia on September 30th in Hamilton and the inaugural WXV1 tournament in October/November.

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A Black Ferns XV was laos picked to tussle with Manu Sina on September 23 in Pukekohe.

Established World Cup-winning Black Ferns Pip Love, Kendra Reynolds, and Joanah Ngan-Woo were cut from the Black Ferns squad while Grace Brooker was demoted to the Black Ferns XV.

The new caps in the Blacks Ferns are Auckland props Sophie Fisher and Chryss Viliko, Manawat? loose forward Layla Sae, and Canterbury wing Martha Mataele.

The latter two selections are not a surprise. Sae is a contracted Black Fern and Mataele has scored at least a single try in ten of her last 13 games for Canterbury and was strong in Aupiki for champions Matat?.

Fisher and Viliko have been steady improvers throughout the season and busted the hinges on the door in the FPC final. Fisher is a converted lock who covers tighthead and kicks goals. Viliko, a big and athletic loosehead is only 20.

Black Ferns Squad:
Kate Henwood (34, Chiefs Manawa, Bay of Plenty, 2)
Krystal Murray (30, Hurricanes Poua, Northland, 10)
Chryss Viliko (20, Blues, Auckland, new cap)
Georgia Ponsonby (23, Matat?, Canterbury, 16)
Luka Connor (26, Chiefs Manawa, Bay of Plenty, 16)
Natalie Delamere (26, Matat?, Bay of Plenty, 3)
Amy Rule (23, Matat?, Canterbury, 16)
Sophie Fisher (24, Blues, Auckland, new cap)
Tanya Kalounivale (24, Chiefs Manawa, Waikato, 8)
Charmaine Smith (31, Chiefs Manawa, Northland, 27)
Chelsea Bremner (28, Chiefs Manawa, Canterbury, 15)
Maiakawanakaulani Roos (22, Blues, Auckland, 17)
Alana Bremner (26, Matat?, Canterbury, 15)
Kennedy Simon (26, Chiefs Manawa, Waikato, 16) – Co-Captain
Layla Sae (22, Hurricanes Poua, Manawat?, new cap)
Liana Mikaele Tu’u (21, Blues, Auckland, 14)
Lucy Jenkins (22, Matat?, Canterbury, 2)
Ariana Bayler (26, Blues, Waikato, 7)
Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu (31, Chiefs Manawa, Counties Manukau, 15)
Iritana Hohaia (23, Hurricanes Poua, Taranaki, 3)
Rosie Kelly (23, Matat?, Canterbury, 3)
Ruahei Demant (28, Blues, Auckland, 29) – Co-Captain
Amy du Plessis (24, Matat?, Canterbury, 10)
Logo-I-Pulotu Lemapu Atai’i (Sylvia) Brunt (19, Blues, Auckland, 9)
Patricia Maliepo (20, Blues, Auckland, 3)
Katelyn Vahaakolo (23, Blues, Auckland, 2)
Martha Mataele (24, Matat?, Canterbury, new cap)
Mererangi Paul (24, Chiefs Manawa, Counties Manukau, 2)
Renee Holmes (23, Matat?, Waikato, 13)
Ruby Tui (31, Counties Manukau, 10)

A Black Ferns XV of 27 players, with half the squad under the age of 22, was a compelling selection and suggests plenty of talent exists.

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The youngest player in the team is 17-year-old Wellington centre and winger Justine McGregor. The Pride didn’t win a single game in the Premiership, but McGregor thrived. Her first-round hat-trick in a 29-58 loss to Canterbury was stunning.

With 12 tries Angelica Vahai was the leading try scorer in the FPC. The 18-year-old Auckland wing is still in high school and thrilled with her graceful and clinical finishing.

Otago centre Cheyenne Cunningham is a shepherd who travels ten hours a week just to play for the Spirit. She has an eye for the try line and good all-around skills at centre.

Her teammate Maia Joseph won the Fiao’o Fa’amausili Medal as the best and fairest player in 2022 and continued to flourish this year. Maia is the daughter of Japan coach and former All Blacks loose forward Jamie Joseph.

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With 130 tackles, openside Leah Miles was the FPC’s top tackler and another Otago player rewarded for a strong season.

The weakest aspect of the New Zealand game is tight forward play though mauling was much better this season and there is some real expertise in scrum coaching now.

Prop Moomooga Palu (Hawke’s Bay) and hooker Atlanta Lolohea (Canterbury) are very much investments in the future with the blessed gift of rare size. Canterbury locks Laura Bayfield and Emma Dermody looked most at home among World Cup-winning Black Ferns.

Will we see a post-World Cup Surge? Overtures about a groundswell of new interest in the competition following the Black Ferns meteoric World Cup success proved misleading.

While the Farah Palmer Cup Premiership final was well attended, the fan base at actual games was small and cosigned to those close to the players and a few hearty fans.

Media coverage possibly shrunk from last year with much focus on the All Blacks World Cup campaign and governance issues within New Zealand Rugby. When Ruby Tui returned there were frivolous stories about her involvement rather than informed analysis about the actual games.

All fixtures were televised live on Sky TV. The diligent Taylah Johnson and veterans Ken Laban and Rikki Swannell provided insight as did some ex-Black Ferns who were refreshing new voices.

However, much of the commentary left a lot to be desired. Basic facts were often misquoted, or just absent from a broadcast. There appeared to be a refusal to criticise poor play and not enough work was done on pronunciation.

Why Black Ferns Sevens players are consistently shielded from the FPC when the World Series doesn’t start until November is a mystery. The Black Ferns Sevens have enjoyed a consistently higher level of profile and training than their fifteen aside counterparts. The competition would undoubtedly be enhanced by their presence even in select games.

In 2022 there were 14 games decided by 20 points or more. This season 21 of the 44 matches were decided by 20 points or more.

Bridging the gap between the strongest and the weakest unions isn’t a straightforward task but with National Secondary School championships Manukura only playing four fully-fledged games this season strengthening high school rugby should be a priority.

In the Premiership Canterbury only finished two places ahead of Hawke’s Bay. Yet on August 12, Canterbury beat the Tui 84-14 in Hastings. Canterbury fielded nine contracted Black Ferns.

They have a full-time coach, Jimmy Sinclair, who works closely with Matat? rugby director and Black Ferns World Cup-winning assistant coach Whitney Hansen.

By contrast, Hawkes Bay has five teams in their senior club competition. They played a single round that concluded in May. Coach Sione Cherrington-Kite is a primary school teacher at Te Kura o Kimi Ora.

Eight players are a part of the Hawke’s Bay Academy with regular access to union gym facilities. Others are only welcome if they ‘buy into the programme.’ Because of work commitments that’s often not possible so they train elsewhere.

Some players were even asked to leave when trying to do voluntary extras. Hawkes Bay does have a union-employed personal trainer who assists the Tui.

The governance review into New Zealand Rugby which indicated Provincial Unions are drastically overspending on high-performance male programs and are in a financially dire position raises question marks about the future sustainability of a 13-team women’s competition.

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