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'Our losses have been by close margins which is exciting for the development of Aupiki'

By Adam Julian
HAMILTON, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 16: Alana Bremner of Matatu runs away for a try during the round three Super Rugby Aupiki match between Chiefs Manawa and Matau at FMG Stadium Waikato on March 16, 2024 in Hamilton, New Zealand. (Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

The penultimate weekend of Super Rugby Aupiki will determine which city the final will be played. Chiefs Manawa tops the table and with a win against Matatu will host the decider in Hamilton.

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If the Blues beat Hurricanes Poua and Manawa stumble, Auckland will be the venue for the finale.

The Blues were beaten at home in the second round 17-10 by Chiefs Manawa. The Blues returned serve emphatically last Saturday and might be favourites for the final.

Regarding favourites, a Black Ferns titian reached a huge milestone for Matatu.

Blues roaring

Blues captain Maia Roos emphasised with Sky TV after her sides’ 40-26 victory over Chiefs Manawa last Saturday that the Blues were determined to prove they are the best forward pack in the competition. The Blues achieved that lofty ambition emphatically.

The Chiefs lineout was a muddle as the Blues boldly and vigorously contested almost everything. After a stoic start, the Manawa scrum too was dispatched into retreat.

The Blues set the tone early with forceful carries and direct attack.

Former Black Ferns and 2017 Rugby World Cup winners Aldora Itunu (prop) and Eloise Blackwell (lock) have found a new lease of life while Maama Vaipulu might be the breakout star of the competition.

The 2023 Black Ferns XV selection has been a force of nature with abrasive defence, damaging carries, and an athleticism that sets her apart.

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The Blues caught lightning in a bottle from the 27th minute to the 32nd minute. Sensationally the score mushroomed to 28-7. New Zealand Women’s Player of the Year Liana Mikaele-Tu’u was rampant at No.8 and World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year Katelyn Vahaakolo has been breathtaking. Her Hurricanes hat-trick and try from halfway against the Poua reeked of class.

Krysten Cottrell has been a steady hand and points scorer at first-five but unfortunately, the Blues won’t have Black Ferns centre Sylvia Brunt for the final. She was suspended for three matches after a yellow card and a high tackle on Ruby Tui in the 48th minute. Tui has been selected for the Chiefs this weekend and didn’t seem to harbour a grudge against Brunt raising the question was the ban too harsh?

Defending champions on the board

Matatu captain Alana Bremner became the 21st woman to play 100 first-class games when she led Matatu to a 37-17 victory over Hurricanes Poua in Christchurch last Friday.

With five Farah Palmer Cup Premierships, 19 defences of the JJ Stewart Trophy, an Aupiki crown, and a Rugby World Cup on her resume victory was the only acceptable way to mark Bremner’s milestone.

“It’s a cool milestone. I debuted for Canterbury in 2014 so it’s taken me a decade to get here,” Bremner said.

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“The girls got around me and to share the milestone with family and friends back home in Christchurch after a month on the road was special.

“We’ve been building the last few weeks, and it was great to see all the hard work paid off. We scored some cool tries, and it’s a relief to get on the board.”

Defending champions Matatu had lost four consecutive games ruling them out of contention for the final. The camaraderie in the group and form of Bremner though has been strong.

“Our losses have been by close margins which is exciting for the development of Aupiki. In tight games we’ve been on the wrong side of winning crucial moments be that a making an error attacking, throwing an intercept, or a referees’ call going against us,” Bremner observed.

“I appreciate leadership comes with responsibility, so I’ve been trying to lead by example while leaning on other leaders more often for advice. I don’t know it all, but working collaboratively ensures we all learn and grow.

We’ve been working on resilience and consistency in key areas. We’ve shown we can score quality tries from first-phase ball.”

Matatu led for a combined 56 minutes and were level for 68 minutes in the four matches they lost.

Bremner leads the tackle count in Aupki with 77 in five matches. She has played lock, blindside, and eight. Her versatility and experience make her a key figure in the Black Ferns with 19 Tests since 2021.

“When I debuted against England in 2021 it was the Black Ferns’ 100th Test. Marlie Packer played her 100th Test in the Six Nations recently. That’s a phenomenal achievement to be so consistent for so long. She’s definitely one of those players you remember. She’s really in your face and physical,” Bremner said.

“The build-up to this World Cup feels very different to 2022. There are a lot more international on the calendar. We have more time together to build combinations, analyse, and play tests against countries that are getting better all the time.

“The Black Ferns’ biggest priorities now would be our kicking game, how and when we kick, our body height in contact, and improving our carry and clean.”

Defence, lineout, and leadership are specifics Bremner is concerned about and she has the ear of recently retired All Blacks captain Sam Whitelock to lean on. The legendary lock won 281 of his 363 first-class games, including the Rugby World Cup in 2011 and 2015.

“I first met Sam when Matatu management put us in touch. I had a face time with him where I wrote down heaps of questions and was kind of in awe. I looked at the clock and 45 minutes was gone, just like that.

“I’ve stayed in touch because he’s an awesome advocate for the game and I can ask him very pointed questions about the lineout, leadership, and defence.”

The venue for the final between the Blues and Chiefs Manawa will be resolved after this weekend’s round. Bremner is torn as to who she thinks might win that clash.

“It’ll be an exciting game. The Chiefs are structured and experienced whereas the Blues are more unpredictable, but when they get a roll on; they’re hard to stop.”

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