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The Farah Palmer Cup 2023 so far: New talent, competition stalwarts, and returning Black Ferns

By Adam Julian
NEW PLYMOUTH, NEW ZEALAND - JULY 23: Selica Winiata of Manawatu leads her team ou during the round two Farah Palmer Cup match between Taranaki and Manawatu at Yarrow Stadium, on July 23, 2023, in New Plymouth, New Zealand. (Photo by Andy Jackson/Getty Images)

This year’s Farah Palmer Cup is a month old and while the Championship appears wide open the pecking order in the Premiership is largely unchanged.

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Waikato have won all four matches to start the Premiership and that includes inflicting a rare defeat upon defending champions Canterbury in the first fixture ever decided in extra time. Waikato boasts a particularly powerful rolling maul and the outstanding Renee Holmes at fullback.

With a handful of Black Ferns back, Auckland scored their largest victory of the season on Saturday with a 61-19 thrashing of Bay of Plenty. Promoted Hawke’s Bay has been the biggest surprise with two victories and a narrow loss to Waikato.

Manawatu is the only unbeaten side in the Championship, amassing 175 points in three games. Northland, Tasman, and Otago each have two wins.

The first fortnight of the competition featured no Black Ferns. They were in Canada winning the Pacific Four Series. That stretched the depth of many provinces but also presented numerous new talents a chance to shine.

New Talent.

Auckland winger Angelica Vahai scored a breathtaking hat-trick in their win over Bay of Plenty on Saturday. She has run a competition-leading 407m and has serious balance, poise, and pace. Counties’ Jaymie Kolose, Canterbury’s Karla Wright-Akeli, and Wellington’s Justine McGregor are other young, prolific finishers. Ocean Tierney from Northland looks the goods at centre and Hawke’s Bay halfback Kahlia Awa has been instrumental with her aggressive running game.

Laura Bayfield (Canterbury) and Silia Sakalia (Waikato) are two young locks that have emerged with real promise. Hawke’s Bay prop Moomooga Palu has been a destroyer. Bay of Plenty haven’t had a great season but in loosehead Te Urupounamu-McGarvey, they have a prop with real power. Tynealle Fitzgerald has been a workhorse on the blindside.

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Can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

A highlight of any Farah Palmer Cup is watching established players showcase their class and there has been plenty of that so far in 2023. Northland’s Aroha Savage, a 2017 Black Ferns World Cup winner, has 48 carries, 25 beaten defenders, and 47 tackles in three games. She has played No.8 and second-five, rating in the top three of all the beforementioned statistical categories. Bay of Plenty No.8 Natalie Delamere is the top tackler with 50. She was a Black Ferns hooker in 2023. Charmaine Smith with two tries against Otago and plenty of assertive lock play is another who is flourishing.

Selica Winiata still looks full of running and is only two games shy of cracking a century for Manawatu who might have the best loose forward trio in the competition with Layla Sae, Rhiarna Ferris, and Kaipo Olsen-Baker. Northland’s Hikitia Wikaira is another abrasive and busy loose forward while former Black Ferns openside Marcelle Parkes has been filling in as captain of Canterbury with real distinction.

Gemma Woods has been playing for Hawke’s Bay for two decades and covers everywhere from loosehead to blindside.

Tasman first-five Cassie Siataga and Hawke’s Bay veteran Krysten Cottrell are vital to the functioning of their teams and Cottrell might have the best tactical kicking game of any pivot in the country.

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Northland and Black Ferns prop Krystal Murray scored a ridiculous hat-trick against Otago running and disturbing like a centre.

Too Many Teams?

Taranaki has conceded 186 points and only scored ten in three games. North Harbour took a penalty when down 0-36 after 47 minutes against Manawatu. There is a large gap emerging between the best and worst in the championship which is a concern. Taranaki didn’t win a game in 2022 either.

Where are the Black Ferns Sevens?

The Black Ferns Sevens have historically not competed in the FPC which seems precious given the World Series doesn’t typically start until November and the last tournament was in May. Women’s rugby is demanding attention, yet the highest-profile talent doesn’t take part. Why is this? Few satisfactory reasons have been provided but there’s no doubt the competition would benefit enormously from their presence.

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