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Chiefs Manawa vs Matatu Super Rugby Aupiki preview: Last year's finalists meet in round three

By Adam Julian
HAMILTON, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 02: Merania Paraone of the Chiefs Manawa runs in a try during the round one Super Rugby Aupiki match between Chiefs Manawa and Hurricanes Poua at FMG Stadium Waikato on March 02, 2024 in Hamilton, New Zealand. (Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

Lost in the furore over the Hurricanes Poua haka is the fact that last year’s Super Rugby Aupiki finalists Chiefs Manawa and Matatu are due to face each other for the first time this season at FMG Stadium in Hamilton on Saturday.

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Reminiscent of 2023, Manawa are favourites to prevail having won their opening matches against Poua 46-24 and the Blues 17-10. Matatu has stumbled against the Blues 17-24 and Poua 36-29. Anything less than a win for the Southerners might spell the end of their title defence.

Chiefs super starters

Manawa were 19-0 ahead in as many minutes in the final last year. Black Ferns prop Tanya Kalounivale exploded out of the blocks by scoring two tries. The Chiefs’ greatest threats then are similar to what they are now and that’s a menacing scrum and lineout drive, the ability of forwards and backs to integrate seamlessly while attacking, and dynamic wingers Ruby Tui and Mererangi Paul to finish.

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This season Manawa led Poua 19-7 after 25 minutes. Last Saturday they were a dozen points ahead in as many minutes against the Blues. Manawa has won 10 of their 11 official matches in their existence, including a 39-12 win over the Blues in a pioneering exhibition fixture in 2021. Black Ferns hooker Luka Connor has scored 12 tries.

Matatu, with six Rugby World Cup-winning Black Ferns in their roster, was a study of composure in the 2023 decider. Renee Holmes, now with Manawa, reflected.

“Within the group, we’d been building belief all season and were adamant we were the team that was going to beat Manawa. We only lost to them by eight in the round-robin, scoring the last three tries. Going behind 19-0 wasn’t the ideal start but we hadn’t touched the ball. The first time we got the ball we scored a try and reset. Here we go. When we scored again that was crucial. We talked about building scoreboard pressure.”

Second-five Grace Brooker echoed similar sentiments.

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“I felt like that was the calmest of all the games we played in that season…We have a really good understanding of rugby and its momentum swings.

Matatu isn’t far off in 2024. Ironically in their loss to the Blues, they blew a 12-0 lead but did rally to almost steal a share of the spoils. Against Poua, Matatu constructed a 20-phase attack to level scores in the second half. Tries from a charge down, intercept, and failure to secure a late kickoff restart were momentum swingers.

Renee Holmes’s record and that missed kick

Manawa had a chance to win the final with the last kick of the season but cruelly Tenika Willison who later earned Black Ferns selection missed a handy shot.

Few gave Matatu a chance of toppling unbeaten defending Aupiki champions Chiefs Manawa in the final, a hypothesis enhanced when the Southerns slipped to a 19-0 deficit in as many minutes. Willison reflected in the Black Ferns A to Z.

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“I’ve had a few of those moments. I had a kick to stretch the World Cup Sevens final in 2022 against Australia to extra time and I missed. After the Aupiki final I did a lot of self-reflection and what it highlighted is that self-doubt still existed. I needed to ask the question, have I done the mahi to make sure it doesn’t happen again? It’s a different moment and you can’t overthink things. You have to trust the process.”

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On the other side, Holmes couldn’t miss for Matatu, scoring a record 23 points. “Kicking-wise I was going to take anything 40-out,” she said.

This attitude was a stark contrast to the round-robin. Matatu was beaten 24-25 by Poua in Christchurch with Holmes criticised for not taking a handy penalty close to full-time which would have won the hosts the game.

“I felt I wasn’t the right person to take it. Physically I was exhausted. I’d scored two tries and made 19 carries in that game so I felt my legs wouldn’t have the energy to get the distance, Holmes admitted. “I went to our two backup kickers and they weren’t comfortable either, so we went for a lineout. Imagine if we had scored. When we didn’t it sucked, and it took me a couple of days to get over it because I felt I’d let the team down. I won’t make that mistake twice.”

“Kickers are a rare breed. We’re courageous but we need those bad moments to build diamonds.”

The Blues missed two kicks one from a Ruby Tui charge down and another from the ball falling off the tee against Manawa. Matatu goalkickers Rosie Kelly and Liv McGoverne are among the best in the country.

Key match ups

The Chiefs spent most of the second half against the Blues defending. A swirly wind made handling difficult. The Chiefs scrum was dominant with Fijian Bitila Tawake a revelation off the bench. Matatu has the 2022 Black Ferns Rugby World Cup-winning front row but they haven’t imposed themselves in the first two fixtures.

Unusually, the Bremner sisters oppose each other for the second time in Aupiki with Chelsea a key figure in the lineouts, kickoffs, and in tight for Manawa. Alana is the captain of Matat? and performs a similar role but will want to assert more dominance with her carry.

That’s been no issue for Matatu No.8 Kaipo Olsen-Baker. Her stats are outstanding ranking in the top five for carries (36), meters gained (184), defenders beaten (14), and tackles (29).

The Blues breakdown work against Manawa was disruptive and supplied ample chances. The Chiefs will work hard to remedy that area. Chiefs captain and openside Kennedy Simon and evergreen No.8 Victoria Edmonds are outstanding.

Brooker vs Steinmetz 

The most interesting clash in the backs is former Matatu winger Grace Steinmetz marking Black Ferns second-five Grace Brooker. Brooker is an astute, sturdy, and organised player while Steinmetz has made a decent fist of her switch. She’s scored tries in both games and against the Blues was forced to make 16 tackles. She’s carried 23 times in two matches.

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Flankly 16 hours ago
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The Bok kryptonite is complacency. How did they lose to Japan in 2015, or to Italy in 2016? There are plenty of less dramatic examples. They often boil down to the Boks dialing back their focus and intensity, presuming they can win with less than 100% commitment. This can be true of most teams, but there is a reason that the Boks are prone to it. It boils down to the Bok game plan being predicated on intensity. The game plan works because of the relentless and suffocating pressure that they apply. They don’t allow the opponent to control the game, and they pounce on any mistake. It works fantastically, but it is extremely demanding on the Bok players to pull it off. And the problem is that it stops working if you execute at anything less than full throttle. Complacency kills the Boks because it can lead to them playing at 97% and getting embarrassed. So the Bulls/Leinster result is dangerous. It’s exactly what is needed to introduce that hint of over-confidence. Rassie needs to remind the team of the RWC pool game, and of the fact that Ireland have won 8 of the 12 games between the teams in the last 20 years. And of course the Leinster result also means that Ireland have a point to prove. Comments like “a club team beating a test team” will be pasted on the changing room walls. They will be out to prove that the result of the RWC game truly reflects the pecking order between the teams. The Boks can win these games, but, as always, they need to avoid the kryptonite.

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