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Five players to watch out for in Super Rugby Aupiki 2024

By Adam Julian
The winning Matatu team during the Super Rugby Aupiki Final match between Matatu and Chiefs Manawa at FMG Stadium, on March 25, 2023, in Hamilton, New Zealand. (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Super Rugby Aupiki expands in 2024 with a full home and away regular season, a longer preseason, and increased player payments. On the coaching front things are relatively settled with two changes in head coaches.

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Former Black Ferns assistant Whitney Hansen takes over from Blair Baxter as Matatu head coach, a move that was preordained last season, while at Hurricanes Poua Ngatai Walker is in charge as Victoria Grant is on maturity leave. Willie Walker (Blues) and Crystal Kaua (Chiefs Manawa) both continue at the helm.

Chiefs Manawa have made the most notable gains, with the return of Ruby Tui and Chelsea Semple, while Black Ferns Ariana Bayler from the Blues, Krystal Murray from the Hurricanes and Grace Steinmetz and Renee Holmes from Matat? all join their ranks. Ruby Tui will ensure social media channels stay vibrant with her return.

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Capped Black Fern Kaipo Olsen-Baker moves south from the Hurricanes Poua to Matat?, while former Black Ferns Sevens star Niall Williams-Guthrie joins the Blues. Williams-Guthrie enjoyed a long span with the Black Ferns Sevens and featured for grand-finalists Gold Coast Titans in the WNRL.

International talent includes Fiji’s Bitila Tawake, Japan’s Seina Saito joining Chiefs Manawa, and Charlotte Woodman signing with Matat? by way of the Exeter Chiefs in England.

Matatu are the defending champions after they beat Chiefs Manawa 33-31 in a classic final in Hamilton last year.

Here are five players to watch out for in Super Rugby Aupiki 2024.

Kahlia Awa (Blues)

The question as to who replaces Kendra Cocksedge as a long-term Black Ferns halfback wasn’t really resolved in the 2023 season. With a strong Aupiki campaign, Kahlia Awa could emerge as a strong contender. The 20-year-old from Hawke’s Bay was outstanding in the Farah Palmer Cup helping the Tui upset Auckland for the first time since 2006 and making the semi-finals.

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Awa has a snappy, precise pass and an incisive running game. Her parents are former New Zealand age group basketballer Shontelle Wainohu and Duane Awa, who played more than 100 premier games as a front rower for MAC.

In 2016 Kahlia, alongside her twin brothers Ezekiel and Zedekiah, competed in the Ross Shield for Hastings West.

It was the first time in the 114-year history of the prestigious Hawke’s Bay Primary Schools tournament that two brothers and one sister from the same family turned out in the same team at the event.

A year later Kahlia became the first female to captain a Ross Shield-winning team.

Netball would be the primary focus for Kahlia at Hastings Girls’ High School. The talented midcourter was good enough to make the New Zealand Secondary Schools team and earned trails with the Central Manawa, the feeder side for the Central Pulse franchise.

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Rugby always lingered in the background though, especially with former Black Ferns World Cup winning halfback Emma Jensen deputy principal at Hastings Girls.’

Awa played in the First XV beside 2021 Black Ferns World Cup winner Liana Mikaele-Tu’u and appeared five times for the Tui as an understudy to Jensen in 2022.

Maama Vaipulu (Blues)

From Kaikohe, an uncle of the same name is a Tongan international. Maama’s father, Akapani Vaipulu – now a corrections officer – played for Northland. Maama is the fourth of five siblings separated by nine years. Her brother Kali played briefly for Bay of Plenty, and her mother Simone was a talented basketball player. The 21-year-old’s size and athleticism at lock were an undeniable asset for the Auckland Storm in their Farah Palmer Cup triumph. She scored two tries in the semi-final victory against Waikato and after the 39-27 victory in the final against Canterbury reflected.

“I was new last year, but they smashed us. It sucked and made me want to do better. Losing is not fun so we worked harder and smarter this time. Don’t play at their tempo. We wanted to control the ball, get our wingers involved, and play our game.”

The national age group volleyball representative was picked for the Black Ferns XV 38-12 win against Manusina. Vaipulu debuted for the Blues in 2023.

Te Urupounamu McGarvey (Chiefs)

There is real promise about Te Uru Pounamu McGarvey named Bay of Plenty Player of the Year in the Farah Palmer Cup. Her carries are frequent and penetrating and her scrummaging, despite frequent rotation on the tighthead side solid. The 20-year-old has scored five tries in 14 games for the Bay of Plenty. She packs down at 109kg.

Monica Tagoai (Hurricanes)

The damaging second-five will be determined to add to the two Tests she played for the Black Ferns in 2018. Despite the Wellington Pride losing every game in the Farah Palmer Cup she was acknowledged as player of the year. She beat the third most defenders (42) and made an average of two clean breaks per game.

In Aupiki 2023 her standout performance was in the playoff for third scoring two tries in the 29-24 victory against the Blues in Hamilton. Additionally, she’s been outstanding for her club Marist St Pats who won their first Wellington senior championship in 2023. She has scored 66 tries in 60 matches for MSP.

Cindy Nelles (Matatu)

The Canadian international (19 Tests) had an outstanding Aupiki campaign in 2023 following a rotten run of injuries which left her out for the best part of a year. She was exceptional in the final winning several key turnovers and was harshly penalised at the last ruck, poetic justice prevailed when Chiefs Manawa missed the final shot.

Nelles was the most prolific tackler in the tourney with 73 after being told by Canadian selectors, who omitted her from the Rugby World Cup squad, her defence wasn’t good enough. Her lineout and kick-off work were efficient. Nelles is a civil engineer and has won all 15 matches she’s played for Canterbury.

Honourable Mentions: Angelica Mekemeke Vahai (Blues), Chryss Viliko (Blues), Kaipo Olsen-Baker (Matat?), Liv McGoverne (Matat?), Kelsie Wills (Chiefs Manawa), Amanda Rasch (Chiefs Manawa), Aroha Savage (Hurricanes Poua), Rangimarie Sturmey (Hurricanes Poua)

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J
Jon 2 hours ago
British & Irish Lions free agent open to Super Rugby switch

There are a couple of teams who could use a stop gap experienced head. Blues - I’m not sure the Blues have signed a replacement for Caleb Tangitau (if he hasn’t been let go to make room for Barrett) yet, or whether Reiko is going on sabbatical and/or will remain in the squad. With exciting young French player Xavi Taele looking destined for higher honors in black, talented breakthrough rookie Cory Evan’s, and a couple of utilities, in AJ Lam and Bryce Heem(even Clarke?), all trying to learn the midfield trade, Williams could be a great aid. The Blues signed key English center Joe Marchant before he was raised to that level, and were possibly in the hunt to bring back the dependable Tele’a from the Highlanders. Possible the main squeeze which would put to bed any signing here would be the battle at 10 with Beauden’s return, and the forcing of Plummer back into the midfield. Hurricanes - Jordie Barrett is off to Leinster for a sabbatical next year but the more likely signing would be Billy’s brother back in the team. The Hurricanes are light on the outside with the loss of Salesi Rayasi to the Top 14 and if no quality is found to back up Kini Naholo, the midfield of Sullivan or Proctors could find themselves on the wing and space for a leader to show the Hurricanes three All Black midfield hopefuls (Higgins, Proctor, Umaga-Jensen) how its done. Highlanders - Rotation is high as usual at the Highlanders and versatility remains a strength with a lot of the squad. With compatriot Rhys Patchell signing a move to the JRLO, the passing of outside back Connor Garden-Bachop, and confirmed departure of Argentine wing Martin Bogado, the versatility of many of the young backups in the squad could see a veteran 12 like Williams being a strong partner for the robust Tele’a. With hope that the other Umaga-Jensen brother can force him out of the starting lineup, and shifting the sides general Sam Gilbert back into 10, the off-contract midfielder might seen as the perfect option for a squad still looking to fill one back spot.

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