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Super Rugby Aupiki: A team-by-team preview ahead of the expanded competition

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)

The phony war is over and it’s time for Super Rugby Aupiki to establish itself in New Zealand’s sporting landscape.

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The new competition had an inauspicious start in 2022 owing to a Covid-19 outbreak that effectively reduced it to a ten-day tournament.

Last year’s edition started to show signs of what Aupiki could become, culminating in a pulsating final won by Matatu over the Chiefs.

In 2024, the four-team event expands to a double-round robin where every team plays each other home and away before the top two teams progress to a final.

The abolishment of semis and a third-place playoff means teams are, in effect, only guaranteed one more game than last season but what they have had is a vastly extended pre-season and more players on contract for a four-month period.

The feeling among many is that longer preparation time will mean teams are ready to go from round one, rather than refining combinations and skills knowing they had a guaranteed semi-final in front of them.

The new format still isn’t perfect. It will stay in place next year before the whole global women’s rugby calendar is rescoped in 2026, meaning Aupiki may expand in a variety of ways perhaps to mirror Super Rugby Pacific with teams from New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Island.

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But that’s in the future. With a number of Black Ferns contracts available, Super Rugby Aupiki looms as a critical piece in the overall goal for New Zealand Rugby – retaining the World Cup in 2025.

 

BLUES

After somewhat inexplicably finishing fourth last year, much better things should be expected from a young Blues side this season.

With a huge talent base in the Auckland region the Blues are backing local players once again, with the backbone of the squad coming from the Auckland team which perhaps surprised a few by winning the Farah Palmer Cup provincial competition last year.

That squad was full of players either finishing up or still at high school, but just like Maia Roos and Liana Mikaele-Tu’u before them players like Angelica Mekemeke Vahai and Elizabith Moimoi have marked themselves as extraordinary talents and been rewarded with Blues contracts as a result. One who has come from outside the region is young halfback Kahlia Awa, who was outstanding for Hawke’s Bay in the FPC.

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Roos and Mikaele-Tu’u have grown into two of the best New Zealand Rugby has to offer and could form the backbone of the Black Ferns for the next decade. This is a big season for the pair to keep taking their game to the next level, and with Sophie Fisher, Grace Gago and Esther Faiaoga-Tilo looking to establish themselves as international front rowers, the Blues have enough strength up front to match it with the other sides.

Ruahei Demant, the national captain and 2022 World Rugby Player of the Year, will lead the attack. She has outrageous talent like Sylvia Brunt, Patricia Maliepo and Katelyn Vahaakolo outside her and will bring a natural attacking game to a side that likes to give the ball plenty of air – you’d expect nothing less from a team which boasts Carlos Spencer in its coaching staff. For Demant, key will be to guide her team around the park with a judicious use of the boot as well as her natural instinct to take the ball to the line and look for runners off her shoulder.

The ace in the Blues pack could be Niall Williams-Guthrie. After a storied career with the Black Ferns Sevens and a stint in NRLW, Williams turns her hand to the fifteens game for the first time.

While it remains to be seen exactly where she’ll play and midfield is seen as the most obvious option, Williams also appeals as an enticing option on the side of the scrum given her natural sevens and touch speed, the link play that made her so effective in sevens and the willingness to put her head in dark places throughout her career. She’ll bring a hard-nosed, professional edge in leading young players and won’t settle for any shoddy standards.

The Blues have the potential to blow any team away on their day, they just need to make sure their day happens every week.

CHIEFS MANAWA

The Chiefs will be smarting after last year’s loss in the final to Matatu and may still be wondering what the heck happened after the 20-minute mark, but regardless of what their motivating factors are the Manawa go into the new season as undoubted favourites.

With 18 current or former internationals, the Chiefs have again assembled a formidable line-up having retained the core of last year’s team while also adding some serious quality from outside the region and the country. The additions of Black Fern Krystal Murray, Fiji’s Bitila Tawake and Japan’s most capped player Seina Saito means they have six international front rowers at their disposal.

And it’s not like the pack gets any weaker the further back you go. Black Ferns Chelsea Bremner, who again showed last season how vital she’s become, and Charmaine Smith are joined by the vastly experienced Chyna Hohepa and former netballer Grace Kukutai as locking options while the loose forwards will be spearheaded by Black Ferns co-captain Kennedy Simon.

Simon, who’ll lead the Chiefs, is an impressive presence in any team and in the traditions of many great New Zealand loose forwards seems to have little care for her body. She rightly demands plenty from her team-mates and is critical to New Zealand Rugby’s overall hopes in the next few teams.

Coach Crystal Kaua has also added to her backline arsenal by luring Renee Holmes and Ariana Bayler back to their home bases after spells at Matatu and the Blues respectively. Holmes in particular is a key recruit. The Chiefs, already with a plethora of quality outside backs, welcome the return of Ruby Tui and the addition of Grace Steinmetz but Holmes’ kicking attributes, game-driving ability and surety in defence make her a critical piece.

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One area where they do look a little light is at first-five, where veteran Hazel Tubic is the only specialist. Holmes may be expected to step forward from time to time while the return of Chelsea Semple after the birth of her daughter Cami gives coach Kaua another experienced option to drive the Chiefs around the park.

All in all, it’s hard to find too many holes in the Chiefs squad but the same could have been said last season and look how that finished up. The Chiefs will be gunning for the title.

HURRICANES POUA

With no fewer than 12 new faces in the squad and a new coach, the Hurricanes Poua will go into the season as underdogs, but not without hope.

Ngatai Walker will take charge as coach with Victoria Grant on maternity leave, although she will still have input. Former Black Ferns Mel Bosman and Emma Jensen join the coaching team, while the Poua will be leaning heavily on a core of vastly experienced forwards and a couple or rising Black Ferns if they’re to push more fancied sides.

Loose forward Layla Sae and halfback Iritana Hohaia both made their Black Ferns debuts last year and there’s a huge chance for Hohaia in particular to really cement herself as the long-term number nine, where New Zealand is lacking a little depth at the moment.

She’ll be expected to take on a leadership role in the backline which will also be looking to the experience of Shakira Baker and Monica Tagoai to give them a good punch in the midfield. First-five Te Rauoriwa Gapper is a good pick up for the Poua from Matatu having been part of Canterbury’s success in the Farah Palmer Cup over many years, although is still on the comeback trail from injury.

The Poua will be without block-busting winger Ayesha Leti-I’iga who is still recovering from an ACL injury. It leaves them short of an out-and-out game breaker out wide, although Hawke’s Bay’s Teilah Fergusson showed some of those signs for the Poua last season.

The Hurricanes have a core group of forwards who have been around the block and will set the tone for the young squad. In captain Jackie Patea-Fereti, Rachael Rakatau and Rhiarna Ferris they have three hugely respected leaders in the pack where they’ll be joined by the likes of Cristo Tofa and Leilani Perese.

Joanah Ngan-Woo, one of the most celebrated players of the 2022 Rugby World Cup, fell off the international radar last season and will be keen to make sure she’s back in the frame. After returning from a stint in the PWR, the form of back-rower Maddie Feaunati will be of interest in many quarters given she is eligible to play internationally for New Zealand, England and Samoa.

The player base comes from all around the Hurricanes-wide catchment area and on paper there are some really exciting aspects to this side. The key to their aspirations will be whether this squad can become greater than the sum of its parts.

MATATU

What a difference a title makes.

Matatu, the South Island’s team and the only club which doesn’t take its name from its men’s franchises the Crusaders and Highlanders, start the season with a spring in the step. A quite extraordinary comeback to beat the Chiefs in last year’s final, which yes, also had a little bit of luck in the final moments means they start the season in an altogether different place than many would have expected.

The astute and measured Whitney Hansen steps up as head coach, with veteran Aussie McLean and kicking guru Peter Breen alongside as assistants. Matatu has retained a core of the squad which won the title last year, have had a couple of significant defections but also picked up some notable signings.

The recruitment of Kaipo Olsen-Baker from the Hurricanes is a big move for both club and player. Olsen-Baker has enormous potential, of which we’ve only seen glimmers of owing to injuries, and a move south from the Hurricanes may be the catalyst to launch her back into the Black Ferns if she can stay fit.

In a potential loose trio with last season’s Aupiki player of the year Lucy Jenkins and Matatu captain Alana Bremner, Olsen-Baker could truly thrive.

The other key addition is first-five Liv McGoverne. A long-time Canterbury player firstly as a fullback and then a midfielder, McGoverne spent last season with Exeter Chiefs where she established herself as a flyhalf of note and returns making no bones about her overall goal – to finally crack the Black Ferns.

It’s always been a bit of a mystery as to why she was never really in the national frame prior to 2022 but McGoverne returns better for her experience in the PWR, full of ideas and intent, and determined to be a guiding force for Matatu. She has competition, however, with Black Fern Rosie Kelly and top prospect Maia Joseph blessing coach Hansen with options at number ten.

Overall, there’s a nicely balanced look to this Matatu squad, although they look a little light in experienced locks in comparison to other sides. It strikes as a big season for midfielder Grace Brooker, who was derailed by a significant knee injury in late 2021 and is trying to force her way into becoming a regular Black Ferns squad member.

English recruit Charlotte Woodman will bring the pace lost by the defection of Grace Steinmetz north and there’s a handful of Black Ferns like du Plessis, Ponsonby and Rule who should continue to show the national selectors that they are the sort of players that can carry New Zealand forward to the next World Cup.

Expect Matatu to contend again.

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