Here’s our chance to see some of the stars of the Rugby World Cup take the field again – and this time games are being played all across the motu.
So you discovered the joys of women’s rugby last November – welcome! We are stoked to have you join us. The good news is we are just days away from seeing our Black Ferns back in action with Super Rugby Aupiki kicking off on 25 February.
Super Rugby Aupiki is the new domestic league that was introduced last year. You may have missed it as Covid ruined the party, reducing the tournament to just two weeks played out of Taupō. But not to worry, it’s back and barring further unprecedented events, should play out to its full potential this season. There will be three rounds of home games followed by a day of semi-finals played in Auckland and finals played in Hamilton.
That’s right, women’s rugby won’t just be played in the north. Fans in Levin, Dunedin, North Harbour, Christchurch, Hamilton and Wellington will all get a chance to see these games live. So if you could only watch the Rugby World Cup at home, now is your chance to come fill your local stadium.
Let’s take a look at the teams…
Area: Based out of Christchurch, Matatū covers the Highlanders and Crusaders franchise areas, aka the whole South Island.
2022 result: 4th
Head Coach: Blaire Baxter
Captain: Alana Bremner
Home Games: 25 February, Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin (vs Blues); 4 March, Orangetheory Stadium, Christchurch (vs Hurricanes Poua)
Fan favourites: Renee Holmes, Amy du Plessis, Alana Bremner (captain), Kendra Reynolds and their Black Fern front row of Pip Love, Georgia Ponsonby and Amy Rule
Players to watch: Chey Robins-Reti, Grace Brooker, Marcelle Parkes and Sera Naiqama
Best piece of merch: Embroided tube socks
Matatū are yet to get a win on the paddock but are winning fans easily off it. Being the only team created specifically for this competition, they had a chance to show what modern rugby in Aotearoa could look like. They had a jump on other franchises, releasing membership and merchandise in season one. And their gears are cool in a way that shows they know what the people want. It’s stuff you would wear day-to-day, not just to a match. Fans of Matatū don’t have to scroll through joint accounts either to find their team on social media. Being an independent women’s rugby brand, they stand in their own mana.
The team has recruited well after losing a couple of their season one standouts – Liv McGoverne to the English Premier League and Chelsea Bremner to the Chiefs Manawa.
Locking options have brought in Sera Naiqama fresh from the Wallaroos World Cup campaign as well as Canadian international Cindy Nelles from the Blues. Nelles has played her provincial rugby for Canterbury, so this is a return to home base for her.
Although she didn’t feature much for them last season, Matatū are also without their talismanic leader, Kendra Cocksedge. Cocksedge’s retirement adds a new layer of competitiveness to those wanting to play in the Black Ferns number 9 jersey. Keep an eye on halfbacks across this competition, they will all want to make an impression.
Matatū’s style of play is heavily influenced by the core Canterbury contingent and head coach. They are odds-on the best conditioned team and play clean, structured rugby. They might not go end-to-end to score, preferring to grind games out. Their forward pack is relatively green compared to their opposition. Inexperience can be a gift though as you have the power to surprise.
Prediction for Matatū: They will get their first win this season and will likely be targeting their first match against the Blues.
Area: Based out of Wellington and like their men’s team they draw from Wellington, Manawatū & Hawke’s Bay
2022 result: 2nd
Head coach: Victoria Grant
Captain: Jackie Patea-Fereti
Home games: 25 February, Levin Domain, Levin (vs Chiefs Manawa); 10 March, Sky Stadium, Wellington (vs Blues)
Fan favourites: Joanah Ngan-Woo, Ayesha Leti-I’iga, Krystal Murray and Kaipo Olsen-Baker
Players to watch: Victoria Subtrizky-Nafatali, Layla Sae, Shakira Baker, Teilah Ferguson and Monica Tagoai
Best piece of merch: Still to come :( (at time of writing)
This 2023 team has been bolstered by the good timber of the Northland Kauri. Krystal Murray, Aroha Savage and Victoria Subritzky-Nafatali joining their old teammate Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate. These four join a crew of journey-women in the Poua side which may not feature many current Black Ferns but would be underestimated at your own peril.
This team is filled with longserving players such as captain Jackie Patea-Fereti, Sosoli Talawadua, Crystal Mayes, Bernadette Robertson, Cristo Tofa, Rachael Rakatu and Rhiarna Ferris. These names may be lesser known to the wider public but are those that command respect in their provinces. The potential for these hometown heroes to shine on a bigger stage is exactly what Aupiki is all about.
That’s not to say they are all old school. There is the in-form World Cup talent of Joanah “The Hand” Ngan-Woo and the explosive Ayesha Leti-I’iga. Teilah Ferguson and Monica Tagoai are emerging prospects in the midfield and flanker Layla Sae is likely to be one of the breakthrough performers of this tournament.
If you are a fan of the men’s Hurricanes franchise, the Poua are your team. A backrow option of Layla Sae, Kaipo Olsen-Baker and Aroha Savage feels like a throwback to the hey-day of Jerry Collins, Rodney So’oialo and Chris Masoe. Not unlike the men’s team too, you should expect the unexpected. Under Victoria Grant, this team will play fast and furious, running at holes rather than through set moves. It will be the best of times, it will be the worst of times. It will never be boring.
Prediction for the Poua: Finalists.
Area: Based out of Hamilton and like their men’s team they draw from Taranaki, Bay of Plenty, Waikato and Counties-Manukau
2022 Result: 1st
Head Coach: Crystal Kaua
Captain: Kennedy Simon
Home Games: 11 March, FMG Stadium Waikato, Hamilton (vs Matatū); 25 March, FMG Stadium Waikato, Hamilton (hosting the final and the play off for 3rd and 4th)
Fan favourites: Chelsea Bremner, Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu, Luka Connor, Kennedy Simon, Tanya Kalounivale and Hazel Tubic
Players to watch: Mererangi Paul, Tenika Willison, Dhys Faleafaga, Georgia Daals, Harono Te Iringa and Charmaine Smith
Best piece of merch: 2022 victory tee (now on sale!)
The queens of 2022, the Chiefs Manawa have been the side most tightly embraced by their men’s franchise. Since their debut in the 2021 exhibition match, they have not been beaten. They are proud of that record and will do everything they can to maintain it.
The Manawa are a front row factory, producing the World Cup bolters Santo Taumata and Awhina Tangen-Wainohu. They will feature alongside Luka Connor and Tanya Kalounivale as well as Black Fern capped Angel Mulu and Grace Houpapa-Barrett.
That steel upfront continues throughout the side. You would struggle to point to an area of weakness. Those that will miss Ruby Tui this season will be consoled by the dynamite signing of Tenika Willison. She’s coming in red hot from an outstanding performance at the Sydney Sevens and is clearly loving her time under the guidance of her old high school coach, Crystal Kaua. Her connection with Mererangi Paul will end up in a lot of the highlight reels this season.
On her inside, you have perhaps one of the most tried and true pairings with Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu linking with Hazel Tubic. These two play club, province and now Aupiki together which means their rhythm is instinctive at this point.
Manawa are the benchmark of this competition, playing a style last year that was not dissimilar to the Black Ferns at the World Cup. They have runners, enforcers, flair and speed. They are what good women’s rugby in New Zealand looks like.
Prediction for the Manawa: Finalists.
2022 Result: 3rd
Head Coach: Willie Walker
Captain: Ruahei Demant
Home games: 4 March, North Harbour Stadium, Albany (vs Chiefs Manawa); 19 March, North Harbour Stadium, Albany (hosting the semi-finals)
Fan favourites: Ruahei Demant, Patricia Maliepo, Maiakawanakaulani Roos, Sylvia Brunt, Liana Mikaele-Tu’u, Charmaine McMenamin and Ariana Bayler
Players to watch: Hayley Hutana, Toka Natua, Elloise Blackwell, Krysten Cottrell and Kiritapu Demant
Best piece of merch: Blues bucket hat* (*Given that they don’t have a unique name for their team, all Blues merch is women’s merch. Which is a cheeky workaround.)
The Blues were another side that barely got a chance to launch in 2022. The Auckland-based side was hit heavily by the Covid wave and saw large chunks of their team end up in isolation. They have experienced the most changes to their squad between seasons. Recruiting across the board and bringing in a new assistant coaching team featuring the fearsome Linda Itunu and Mr Toffee Pops himself, Carlos Spencer.
They have a spine of Black Ferns performers including current World Player of the Year, Ruahei Demant. Ariana Bayler has moved up from the Manawa no doubt in a bid to get more game time. Somehow Sylvia Brunt and Charmaine McMenamin will be making their Aupiki debuts this season, which feels fake but here we are.
Elloise Blackwell, Kiritapu Demant and Toka Natua are all on a redemption arc. Blackwell, a former Black Fern captain, will be determined to prove herself this season. Kiritapu Demant actually beat her big sister Ruahei into the Black Ferns all the way back in 2015. Kiritapu is a stalwart of the Auckland club rugby and typifies their play-from-anywhere style.
Toka Natua scored a hattrick for New Zealand in the 2017 World Cup Final which is simply outrageous for a prop. Equally outrageous is that she has since managed to slip off the radar. At 31, Natua is only just entering her front row prime and if she returns to previous form, could be a key to the Blues success.
The Blues have all the pieces but what remains to be seen is if they have the timing. They are the wildcard of this competition, the side most likely to throw the ball wide from their own try line. The question to be answered is whether that pass will stick.
Prediction for the Blues: At least one play that ends up being on the shortlist for Try of the Year.
Alice Soper will be recapping each week of Super Rugby Aupiki 2023.