Stability the key for success under Black Ferns' Allan Bunting
The first clues as to what the Black Ferns will look like in the Allan Bunting era were revealed on Tuesday when 34 contracted players were named for the 2023 season.
There are six new players rewarded for strong form in Super Rugby Aupiki. Grace Steinmetz, Grace Brooker, Patricia Maliepo, and Kelsie Thwaites are recalled following previous periods in the Black Ferns. There are 24 players from the World Cup-winning squad.
Stability was a key theme in the Black Ferns Sevens under Bunting. A senior leadership team consisting of the likes of Sarah Hirini, Tyla Nathan-Wong, Kelly Brazier, and Ruby Tui essentially ran the show. In fact, Tui wrote of the 2020 Olympic champions in her autobiography Straight Up:
“The other genius part of our leadership group was that we were completely different people, but we knew ourselves well enough to speak up when it counts. When you just get the same views, groupthink takes over. The fear of disagreement or hurting feelings becomes stronger than sticking up for what’s right, and that is a dangerous place.”
Ruahei Demant and Kennedy Simon will almost certainly remain co-captains. Demant was a sensation in the role last year while Simon rebounded strongly from injury in Aupiki and is hugely respected. The Bremner sisters, the experienced Pip Love and Charmaine McMenamin, and halfback Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu are other key figures in driving strategy and culture.
Bunting will be most loyal to these senior leaders who have inspired successful player-driven campaigns in the past. Yes, there will be more input tactically by the coaches, that’s the nature of fifteens compared to sevens, but don’t expect a radical departure from the approach the Black Ferns employed last year to win the World Cup and that is a free licence to attack.
Marino-Tauhinu has only started two tests, but one of those was as captain against Scotland at the World Cup. She has surely usurped Ariana Bayler as the most likely starting replacement for Kendra Cocksedge after a strong showing for Chiefs Manawa in Aupiki.
Grace Booker and Amy Du Plessis look a sure bet in midfield with their success for Canterbury and Matat?.
The weakest part of the Black Ferns game is the set piece, especially defending mauls. The forward pack did a commendable job at the World Cup but where is the depth beneath them? Except for Counties hooker Grace Gago, not a single new tight forward has been selected. If Love and Amy Rule were to go down the raw Santo Taumata and improved Tanya Kalounivale could be sorely tested against strong opposition.
To defend the World Cup in England in 2025, Bunting is going to have to grow depth in the tight forward department. The recalling of Kelsie Thwaites, formerly a New Zealand beach volleyball national champion, is rich reward for a player whose improvement has been rapid in her short time in rugby.
What do we know about the six new players and what they will provide? Gago is very much third choice hooker at this stage. She plays in a bustling fashion sharing more in common with Luka Connor than the clinical Georgia Ponsonby.
Katelyn Vahaakolo and Mererangi Paul have tremendous potential. Vahaakolo previously played rugby league for the Kiwi Ferns and Newcastle WNRL side. She covered both midfield and wing for the Blues in Aupiki. She is the one player who most closely resembles Portia Woodman at present. Paul, a former Northern Mystics netballer, boasts raw pace and was among the top try scorers in Aupiki.
Rosie Kelly looks set for a bright future in black. A goal-kicker who can cover halfback, first-five, and fullback she’s only lost once in 20 matches for Canterbury. Her general kicking has improved out of sight in the last 12 months. She’ll challenge Patricia Maliepo and the older Hazel Tubic for a utility role on the bench.
Manawat? flanker Layla Sae is perhaps the most surprising selection. The type 1 diabetic from a volleyball background was a commanding presence in an often underwhelming Hurricanes Poua team. Strong and athletic her game will slot in nicely alongside similar athletes Liana Mikaele’Tu’u and Alana Bremner.
Lucy Jenkins was the top tackler in the 2022 Farah Palmer Cup and the second top defender in Aupiki.
“I could have named her the player of Aupiki before the final,” Alan Bunting said on Tuesday.
“Her work rate and commitment are outstanding. She’s into everything, massive turnovers at critical times, she was massively impressive. She can really lift this team.”
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