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Super Rugby Aupiki final preview: 'We can one hundred percent win'

By Adam Julian
HAMILTON, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 30: Mia Anderson of the Chiefs Manawa is tackled during the round five Super Rugby Aupiki match between Chiefs Manawa and Blues at FMG Stadium Waikato on March 30, 2024 in Hamilton, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

If triple Rugby World Cup-winning Black Fern Renee Woodman-Wickliffe takes the field in the Super Rugby Aupiki final for the Blues on Saturday at Eden Park, it will be her 100th first-class match and mean eight first-class centurions will collide – the most ever seen in New Zealand.

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Woodman-Wickliffe (46 Tests, 24 tries, 36 wins) was lured out of retirement after the 2022 Rugby World Cup to cover injuries for Bay of Plenty in the Farah Palmer Cup, and now the Blues.

Woodman-Wickliffe played for Chiefs Manawa in their 35-0 mauling of the Blues in the inaugural Aupiki decider in 2022.

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Blues coach Willie Walker is a former Maori All Blacks fullback. Walker guided Auckland to a Farah Palmer Cup Premiership triumph in 2023.

“We’ve got a bunch of experienced heads in this squad, many of whom have finals experience. They’ll be having conversations with our younger players this week around what to expect on Saturday and how to deal with the heightened pressure of a final,” said Walker.

Because youth that could decide the contest and Blues fullback Patricia Maliepo and Chiefs Manawa loose forward Mia Anderson represent the best of the youth on display.

Maliepo is a key attacking weapon for Walker. The Black Fern, unshackled by the foot injury that hampered her most of 2023, has been defensively sound and made timely injections on attack ranking fifth in carries (61), sixth in meters gained (316), and second in offloads (9).

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The Blues have been unstoppable since losing to Chiefs Manawa (10-17) on March 9. Four consecutive wins have earned the Blues a right to hosting rights, something they did not have for five weeks until Manawa was upset by Matatu 22-20 last Saturday.

“We’ve been building each week and were unstoppable in some areas of the field. This is the last dance. The work we’ve put in will come out on the field,” Maliepo said.

“The Chiefs strength is their forwards. If they front up early and win set pieces that won’t stop them. If our forwards meet them early and give them a taste of what we’ve got, we can hurt them.”

That’s exactly what happened in the Blues 40-26 win over Manawa on March 30. The Chiefs’ usually precise and powerful lineout malfunctioned as the Blues matched up physically and caught fire in a devastating five-minute burst which saw three tries scored in five minutes.

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Anderson will be essential in shutting down the Blues. She has featured in every match this season and has experience winning a final. In 2021 Anderson played for Waikato in its 22-20 upset of Canterbury in the Farah Palmer Cup (FPC) final. Canterbury beat Waikato 8-7 in 2020, a final in which Anderson also featured.

“It’s going to be like that this weekend; super close, they are an amazing side. Everyone is going to have to be switched on for 80 minutes to get the job done,” Anderson said.

“We’re our own worst enemies at the moment. We can one hundred percent win this weekend. We’ve put ourselves under unnecessary pressure the last two weeks. We’ve flipped that and been really positive. We’ve been waiting for it all to come together.

“We have an exciting game plan which no one else is doing. It’s been a big learning curve. It’s such a weapon when it works. When it doesn’t it goes the other way.

“Most teams play a 1-3-3-1 pod setup. We’ve changed that up and designed it for our skills so we can express ourselves more. It’s about letting the ball do the work. They don’t just run it straight, they’re in motion. It’s hard to explain in words, a bit nerdy, I don’t want to give too much away but it’s like moving pieces on a chess board quickly.”

Anderson had never been used as a strike runner of lineouts. Black Ferns winger Ruby Tui has run for the most meters in Aupiki.

Andreson debuted for a revived Northland in the FPC in 2019. She was a student at Kerikeri High School. She migrated south to Hamilton to study Business and Sports Science at the University of Waikato.

She missed the 2023 decider Manawa lost to Matatu (33-31) due to maternity leave.

Key Points

Chiefs Manawa has the best record of any team in the competition. Including a 39-12 win over the Blues in an Aupiki polite at Eden Park in 2021 they have won 11 of 14 matches. The Blues have won 7 of 12 matches.

Chiefs Manawa won the 2022 decider 35-0 against the Blues. It was not an official final but the last match of the round-robin, which Manawa topped. Luka Connor, Ruby Tui, Hazel Tubic, Portia Woodman-Wickliffe, and Langi Veainu scored tries. Kelly Brazier slotted two conversions and two penalties.

Chiefs Manawa has 15 past or present Black Ferns, Blues 11.

The Blues have scored 31 tries and have had the most carries for the greatest gain.

Manawa have scored 30 tries but had 15 more clean breaks than the Blues with the least carries of any team in Aupiki.

World Rugby Player of the Year (2022) Ruahei Demant is playing second-five instead of her more customary position of first-five. Krysten Cottrell has worn the Blues Ten jersey. The former Black Ferns pivot has scored a competition-leading 45 points in six matches.

Black Ferns co-captain Kennedy Simon is the Chiefs’ top individual tackler with 82 in six matches. Maia Ross has 74 for the Blues.

Black Ferns winger Katelyn Vahaakolo (Blues) and Manawa hooker Luka Connor are the top try scorers with six. Connor has scored an Aupiki record 16 tries in 13 games.

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