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matatū players celebrate winning the Super Rugby Aupiki final
Matatū, 2023 Super Rugby Aupiki champions (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

SportsMarch 27, 2023

Super Rugby Aupiki finals review: How Matatū went from winless to champions

matatū players celebrate winning the Super Rugby Aupiki final
Matatū, 2023 Super Rugby Aupiki champions (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Two of the best games of the Super Rugby Aupiki season were saved for finals weekend in Hamilton. Alice Soper recaps.

Third/fourth playoff: Blues vs Hurricanes Poua

Sometimes a bronze playoff can be a bit of a flop. Still in recovery from the disappointment of missing out on the final, teams can struggle to turn up full noise. However the stakes in this match were slightly different to your average third place playoff. With only four teams in the competition, it was less about playing for bronze than it was about avoiding the wooden spoon.

The Poua had a dream start. A team try finished by Autumn-Rain Stephens-Daly was followed by the individual brilliance of Monica Togoai. She collected another shortly after and Isabella Waterman, being perfect off the tee, brought them to a 21 point lead.

Poua fans had visions of game one’s demolition in the back of their mind as the Blues then worked their way back into the match. Of course it was Jaymie Kolose, who has been the toast of the Aupiki season, who streaked past the Poua to score. Melanie Puckett set up the next one with a trademark quick tap, hot-potatoing it to Sophie Fisher who in turn found Grace Gago. The scoreline was back to a healthier 21-14 at the break.

Hurricanes Poua centre Shakira Baker breaks the tackle of Blues first-five Ruahei Demant (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

The Blues love a second half rally, and they opened the scoring with a perfectly timed draw and pass from Gago to put Tifito Lafaele over in the corner. The Poua struck back with a break from Shakira Baker, who got the ball out to Crystal Mayes, who was scragged into touch but managed to offload to keep the ball in play. Her Manawatū teammate, Rhiarna Ferris, got it inside to Waterman who zipped away to score. Poua also got an overlap for the next 10 minutes, with Katelyn Vaha’akolo sent to the bin for her shot on Mayes.

Layla Sae was given a try after busting multiple tackles, which looked to have sealed it for Poua.  But it was overturned on review and we had a real fight on our hands. Blues turned over Poua ball, Poua turned over Blues ball and the penalty count rocketed up.

In the 77th minute, Poua tried a thing called “scoreline pressure” and uncharacteristically took a penalty. This put them up by 10 points, meaning the try the Blues got moments later wasn’t enough. Krysten Cotterell, in an effort to save time, took the conversion quickly but missed, leaving the Blues still needing another try to pull off a robbery.

They had just enough time for one last roll of the dice and launched a searching attack out of their half. But Isabella Waterman sealed it for the Poua, tackling Holly Williams into touch. The Poua finished third and are now one-all in their rivalry with the Blues.

Blues 24 – Hurricanes Poua 29

The final: Chiefs Manawa vs Matatū

The potential of this Matatū side was up against the consistency of the competition leaders Manawa. Matatū’s first try streak was well and truly broken as Manawa started with a bang – their scrum, relentless as ever, knocked Matatū right off the ball, and the forwards continued battering the Matatū line until Tanya Kalounivale crashed over. A well-worked set move off a lineout then gave halfback Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu space to score. Kalounivale, fired up and unstoppable, pumped her way through tackles to give the defending champions – still unbeaten in this young competition – a 19-0 lead after 20 minutes.

Game over? Not quite – this Matatū team is battle-hardened. Having fought to the finish in all their matches this season, they once again got stuck in and got their reward when Amy Rule broke through. Cindy Nelles then looped an offload to Amy du Plessis who hit the ball at full pace. She spun out of the tackle, giving a one-handed offload to Renee Holmes who scored their second try, then added a long range penalty shortly after. Then Martha Mataele put the Matatū in front with a long range run as she gathered an intercept and hit the gas.

It’s Manawa who went in ahead at the half, however, after a pass from Carla Hohepa which seemed to hang in the air for a gravity defying amount of time as it waited for Mererangi Paul to collect it. She did so at top speed to give Manawa the advantage, 26-22 at the break.

Tanya Kalounivale of Chiefs Manawa scores. (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Things were tighter in the second half as both teams got to work. Lucy Jenkins, Martha Mataele, Georgia Daals and the Manawa maul all had a go but couldn’t find a way through. Holmes found the limit of her range and was unable to land a penalty from 43 metres out. In the end it took another spin cycle from du Plessis into contact to give Matatū the front foot, taking the lead 27-26 as we entered the final quarter.

This was the first time in their history that Manawa were chasing down a lead rather than defending one in the dying moments. And this task wasn’t made any easer as Matatū kicked two penalties to extend their lead to seven points with seven minutes to go. Manawa haven’t built their reputation on a lack of confidence though, and Luka Connor clearly wanted to lock up the top tryscorer spot as well as this final. She went over in the 78th minute, giving them the chance to draw level – but Tenika Willison’s conversion attempt from the touchline sailed wide.

Two points separated the teams going into the final 90 seconds. The whistle was blown but unfortunately for Matatū it was for a penalty, not full time. Just to the right of the posts, Willison lines up the kick and Grace Brooker’s Mum thinks there’s no way they can be this lucky twice in six months. But just like the Black Ferns-France semi final, the kick floats wide and the Cinderella story of this Matatū side earns its fairytale finish.

Matatū 33 – Chiefs Manawa 31

Coming up…

This should be the part where you can find out when the Black Ferns are playing their next test or when the Farah Palmer Cup, New Zealand’s provincial women’s competition, kicks off. Frustratingly, these details are still largely to be confirmed.

There will be a test played against Australia on the 29 June, with the kick off time and location still to come. The Pacific Four Series will be played offshore against Canada and USA some time in July. The Black Ferns at this stage won’t play at home until September, but the details of where and when are still a secret. New Zealand Rugby has signalled they would like to host the first playoff series for the new WXV series in October, but that’s also yet to be confirmed. Meanwhile the Farah Palmer Cup website just states “No data found.”

It’s hard to write anything else here but a line of expletives. No real momentum can be created if we have to keep generating it from scratch. New Zealand Rugby needs to be building a bridge of dates to walk new fans across. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth after such a delicious feast of women’s rugby for the past month.

Finals Awards

Dynamic Debut: Holly Williams gets on the field and on the board, setting up a grandstand finish in the bronze final

Matatū Mums: For making their own T-shirts and plenty of noise among the Manawa home crowd

Winner on the Day: Rugby, with these women once again showing how it’s done.

Keep going!