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Crystal Kaua talks 'the impossible task as a head coach' ahead of Aupiki season

By Ned Lester
Chiefs Manawa head coach Crystal Kaua looks on as her team warms up. Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

Chiefs Manawa coach Crystal Kaua quickly garnered huge respect from her players through her direct approach, and it paid off on the field with the team going undefeated up until the final in 2023.

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That was her first year as head coach with the team, having acted as now Black Ferns coach Allan Bunting’s assistant in the team’s championship-winning debut 2022 campaign.

That direct approach extends to her view on the state of the women’s game.

Ahead of the 2024 Super Rugby Aupiki season, New Zealand Rugby announced an extended format for the competition, including longer pre-season, more games, more roster spots and inevitably more pay for the extended time commitments.

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While a paid eight-week window prior to pre-season was introduced, the four weeks of pre-season training the teams get before the competition begins is still some way off what is needed, says Kaua.

“Not even a club rugby team gets a window that short for prep for a competition,” she told RNZ. “If you think about the break that’s been since international, since FPC, we have 16 days to prepare athletes to scrum, to go full live into contact and to play the best women in the country. I don’t know any other team in rugby, especially at a semi-professional level, I’d say anywhere in the world that does that.

“My biggest thing is I want the public to understand and the fans to understand what we put together given the hand we are given is spectacular. You watch the quality of rugby at Super level and when people watch our first-round game please note the number of days we’ve had together because that’s the quality of rugby we’re putting together.

“You’re putting together new game plans, new [defence] systems and new attacking structures with that many days. There’s an art to that, creating a culture where people care about each other, enjoy and love the game as well as play good code. It’s almost like the impossible task as a head coach to try navigate it but I think that’s why I love it so much, because it is challenging.”

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While pre-season fixtures against Super W were reportedly being discussed, it looks unlikely to happen now with the season kicking off on March 2.

That is something to potentially look forward to in 2025 – a Rugby World Cup year – along with some other key advancements that Kaua says are needed.

“It’s movement in the right direction but it needs to be better. When you’re looking at players and staff, when ultimately we are coaching seven games of rugby a year and we have our team together for Thursday to Sunday it’s hard to progress one as a coach and two as a player I think we are scraping the surface of potential and so I think we’re doing better than we’ve ever done before, New Zealand Rugby is doing better in the women’s game than we’ve ever done before but we’re still scraping the surface of what we could potentially be.”

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As for the season at hand, Kaua and the Chiefs Manawa may be 11 months removed from the 2023 final, but the emotion from the loss is still felt strongly within the team.

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“It’s always going to create a different level of hunger, for me personally I’ve never lacked hunger of learning, of knowledge, of growing, but it deepens that. All coaches lose, all players lose, all teams lose at some point and often from that you get more than the wins so hopefully we see growth.”

Former Chiefs utility back Dwayne Sweeney and former Chiefs Manawa midfielder Carla Hohepa joined the coaching setup for the coming season, and Black Fern Kennedy Simon is set to return as captain.

“Every player we pick every year is what we believe is the best at the time so I believe the people that we’ve picked in our squad are the best people for us based on where we are at today and the way we want to play the game and I thought the exact same thing in the selections last year and so I believe that the people that we’ve picked are here for a reason because they bring something to the table that we need.”

Each player stepping into the environment can expect Kaua’s trademark leadership style in full, one she says is rooted in care.

“It’s just an honesty but with a deep care that underlies that. I think that when people know that you care about them you can say anything and they hear it.”

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