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23 February 2023
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I’m really excited about Super Rugby Aupiki this year after the disruptions of 2022.

It almost feels like the proper start of the competition. There are some great match-ups ahead and some prime young talent coming through.

The Chiefs Manawa were very strong last year with their sevens girls but, with them not involved now, it might just even up the competition. It’ll be fascinating, too, to see what game plans the four teams bring and how much they will try to emulate how we tried to play in the Black Ferns.

As a retired athlete, I’m excited to see where this competition goes – I’ll be doing a bit of work for Sky TV too – and hoping to see Matatū go a bit better. I know they will want to come out and put a stake in the ground, especially with the bulk of players from Canterbury and coming off winning a Farah Palmer Cup. A lot will depend, too, on how players bounce back from winning the Rugby World Cup.

Coaches will have to quickly gel those who are fulltime pros and those who are semi-pro and have jobs. It’s a bit like that in the men’s NPC. We see that in the women’s game at club level too, with varying levels of rugby experience. Look at Sylvia Brunt at the Blues, not long out of Mt Albert Grammar but already a Black Fern with X-factor. Aupiki is about high performance and winning, though, not so much about development.

Looking at the halfbacks for each team, we’ll start with my old team Matatū. They’ve got three who can play No 9: Rosie Kelly, Di Hiini and Georgia Cormick. There will be stiff competition between that trio. I would have to watch a few games or trainings to see who might get the nod. But they are all quite different. Their kicking games, tactically, are probably not a big strength, so I know they’ll be working hard on that in combination with Terauoriwa Gapper or Charntay Poko at first five.

At the Hurricanes Poua, they’ve got Iritana Hohaia and Milly Mackey. Iritana has been involved with the Black Ferns. I like her as a nine. She’s one who could sneak into the Black Ferns for a Test debut in the next couple of years. She’s electric, has played a bit at fullback at 10, but nine is her spot. Her vision is good.

I’ve got a soft spot for her because she’s from the ‘Naki! At the Chiefs Manawa, Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu is the incumbent and her understudy is Violet Hapi-Wise from Waikato. Arihiana has been around a long time. She’ll line up probably with Hazel Tubic (at 10) and they’ve played a lot of rugby together, which is important. It was a smart move by Ariana Bayler to shift from the Manawa to the Blues where she can align with Ruahei Demant and connect with her on and off the field. I don’t know a lot about young Violet, but I know that Ari will take her under her wing.

Melanie Puckett is another good option for the Blues. Ariana and Mel offer contrasting styles. They don’t favour kicking too much, like many of the halfbacks. As a coach, I’d be looking at that as a work-on. Ari Bayler probably cemented that second halfback spot at the World Cup. I like her. She’s smart and works hard but needs to back her kicking. Mel brings a good running game, so someone like her coming off the Blues bench in the last 20 minutes will add flair. Lu’s (Demant’s) kicking was a work-on for her, but we saw during the World Cup that she backed herself – and hopefully she can take that confidence into Aupiki because she’s good at those crosskicks, which take courage. Patricia Maliepo, too, is smart and with a good boot on her. They might use them as 10-12 in a two playmaker set-up.

Matatū is playing one of their two home games at the Ngā Puna Wai facility in Christchurch. We’ve trained there for FPC. It’s a good surface, real dry, well looked after, and I know Matatū is keen to push that ground to bring that community and festival vibe. There is a need to attract crowds post-World Cup but we don’t quite know how that will look yet. Matatū are training at Lincoln University this year and have access to everything they need. The Crusaders are at Rugby Park, and it’s better to have your own facilities rather than trying to work around other teams, which is always a challenge.

As for the Aupiki format, it’s good to see the comp over five weekends in 2023, but I think we have to take a punt at getting in a double-round and the trans-Tasman element as early as next year. We’ll see how this year pans out, but we hope it grows further. Maybe a Japanese or Moana Pasifika element could be added in the future too. We don’t know how the Super W teams from Australia would match up at this stage. Would they be of FPC standard or higher? Maybe the winners could play off against each other just to get that taste.

Overall, in looking at the Aupiki rosters, it’s potentially going to be tight with all teams offering something different. The Chiefs are without Ruby Tui, Portia Woodman-Wickliffe, Kelly Brazier and Stacey Fluhler, but they look very physical in that loose trio and in the backs and have made a very good signing in starting Black Ferns lock Chelsea Bremner, who will pair up with Charmaine Smith. They are the ‘Bash Sisters’ and both love contesting in the air. They also have four current Black Ferns props, and I reckon Santo Taumata is going to be an epic player.

The Poua might have been written off by some but they have size and skill in there, and signing Aroha Savage, Krystal Murray and Christo Tofa from the Blues will add plenty. They are physical, and we know how dangerous Ayesha Leti-I’iga is on the wing. They just lack a bit of experience in the game drivers.

Matatū are always a fit side and enjoy playing that expansive game. Cheyelle Robins-Reti has joined the group and brings her footwork and kicking game in the outsides. Grace Brooker can take it up the guts in her return from injury.

At the Blues, Maia Roos is young but experienced. Krysten Cottrell has been around for a while and played for the Black Ferns. The Blues will bring that abrasiveness in the forwards and Maliepo and Brunt in the midfield are not small humans.

It’s almost too tight to call, but I’ll always back Matatū. They possibly didn’t adapt fast enough to Covid-19 last year compared to other teams, but there’s a top coaching group in Blair Baxter, Whitney Hansen and Tony Christie. They have a lot of experience in that roster and know how to play. People say Canterbury plays a wide game, but who has stopped us in five finals? A fit team that plays a full 80 is still hard to stop. Look at how Alana Bremner and Pip Love go about their work. Then there’s a young hooker, Atlanta Lolohea, who is very promising. Can’t wait for kickoff!

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