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Sky Super Rugby Aupiki: 2024 Season Preview

Sky Super Rugby Aupiki: 2024 Season Preview

All BlacksFebruary 26, 2024

The third season of Sky Super Rugby Aupiki kicks off on Saturday March 2 with an expanded regular season that sees each team play each other home and away. The top two sides' quality for the final on April 13 hosted by the top qualifier.

Southerners Matatū defend their title after a 33-31 win over Chiefs Manawa in an epic 2023 decider. It was an incredible turnaround for Matatū who were bottom of the ladder the previous season.

On the coaching front, former Black Ferns assistant Whitney Hansen takes over from Blair Baxter as Matatū head coach, while at Hurricanes Poua Ngatai Walker is in charge as Victoria Grant awaits the birth of her second child. Willie Walker (Blues) and Crystal Kaua (Chiefs Manawa) both continue at the helm.

Blues

Although the Blues finished last in 2023, there is cause for optimism this season. With 16 players from the Auckland Storm who won the Farah Palmer Cup (FPC) Premiership last year, the Blues will be confident of flipping that result.

Particularly noteworthy in Auckland’s 39-27 upset of Canterbury in the FPC final at fortress Rugby Park, Christchurch, was how a young Auckland pack took it to vastly experienced Black Ferns. Props Sophie Fisher and Chryss Viliko received their first Black Ferns call ups the next day. Lock Maama Vaipulu (Black Ferns XV) must have gone close.

Former Black Ferns prop Aldora Itunu is back after time out to have a baby. Maia Roos and Liana Mikaele-Tu’u were two of the first names on the team sheet for the Black Ferns last year. The Blues pack should be vibrant and imposing.

Black Ferns co-captain and World Rugby Player of the Year Ruahei Demant will be the general of a backline that oozes with talent.

Sylvia Brunt has established herself as a starting Black Ferns second five. Patricia Maliepo can play almost anywhere in the backs. Niall Williams-Guthrie enjoyed a long spell in the Black Ferns Sevens. She arrives to Auckland after a season for Gold Coast in the NRLW. Auckland’s Daynah Nankivell is back from a sevens stint in Japan. Angelica Mekemeke Vahai scored 12 tries in the FPC in 2023. Kahlia Awa, a Hawke’s Bay standout, and the experienced Mel Puckett will tussle for a starting berth at halfback.

Key Player: Eloise Blackwell – The 46-Test Black Fern was named Auckland’s Player of the Year in the FPC. She scored two tries in the final, topped the season tackle count with 75, and showed the worth of her experience in bringing out the best of Auckland’s young forwards. Maia Roos went from lock to blindside to accommodate Blackwell late last season.

Squad:

Props: Esther Faiaoga-Tilo, Sophie Fisher, Aldora Itunu, Maddi Robinson, Chryss Viliko, Cheyenne Tuli-Fale.

Hookers: Grace Gago, Alakoka Po’oi.

Locks:  Eloise Blackwell, Rebecca Burch, Maiakawanakaulani (Maia) Roos, Maama Vaipulu.

Loose forwards: Dajian Brown, Paris Mataroa, Charmaine McMenamin, Liana Mikaele-Tu’u, Elizabeth MoiMoi. 

Halfbacks: Kahlia Awa, Mel Puckett.

Five-eighths: Krysten Cottrell, Ruahei Demant.

Midfielders: Sylvia Brunt, Patricia Maliepo, Niall Williams-Guthrie.

Outside backs:  Kerri Johnson, Jaymie Kolose, Angelica Mekemeke Vahai, Daynah Nankivell, Tara-Leigh Turner, Katelyn Vahaakolo.

Biggest gains: Niall Williams-Guthrie (Gold Coast Titans, NRLW), Aldora Itunu (Auckland), Daynah Nankivell (Auckland/sevens Japan), Kerri Johnson (Northland), Angelica Mekemeke Vahai (Auckland), Kahlia Awa (Hawke’s Bay).

Biggest losses: Tafito Lafaele (Japan), Shannon Leota (England), Kiritapu Demant (not playing).


Chiefs Manawa

Chiefs Manawa did the same thing as the Chiefs men in 2023. They beat every side but lost the final in heartbreaking fashion on the same field.

The 2022 champions have made the biggest moves in the off-season to bolster an already-formidable squad.

Black Ferns halfback Ariana Bayler is from Waikato and joins Manawa from the Blues. Goal kicking prop Krystal Murray represents her third club in as many seasons. She had stints with the Blues in 2022 and the Hurricanes last year.

Two Matatū champions have ventured North. Black Ferns winger Grace Steinmetz and fullback Renee Holmes join a stacked backline that also features the return of Black Ferns star Ruby Tui after a season off and midfield back Chelsea Semple who returns from maternity leave.

Internationals Seina Saito (Japan) and Bitila Tawake (Fiji) are the other notable newcomers.

The Chiefs pack were able to bully most opposition in 2023. Who could forget the opening two-try burst by Black Ferns prop Tanya Kalounivale in the final. With Krystal Murray, Black Ferns hooker Luka Connor, and the rapidly improving Te Urupounamu McGarvey as company, the Chiefs pack are poised to provide pyrotechnics.

The Manawa maul is a menace and with Black Ferns locks Chelsea Bremner and Charmaine Smith coordinating the lineout that threat remains.

Black Ferns co-captain Kennedy Simon spearheads a loose forward cohort that features colossal tackling veteran Victoria Edmonds and workhorse Ashlee Gaby-Sutherland.

Counties all-time leading points scorer Hazel Tubic is the only specialist first five listed. The two-time World Cup winning Black Fern is one of the best general play kickers in New Zealand and should get the Chiefs Manawa pack down the park. Chelsea Semple and Merania Paraone are alternatives at ten.

In the outside backs former netballer Grace Kukutai signs after playing sevens overseas in recent years. Bay of Plenty’s Olive Watherston earns a promotion to the main squad after being part of the wider training group in 2022. Mererangi Paul will look to continue the form that saw her named World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year in 2023.

Key Player: Tanya Kalounivale - When fully in sync the Chiefs Manawa power game is irresistible. Much of achieving scrum dominance and spearheading their strong carry game resides on the shoulders of Kalounivale. The Fijian-born powerhouse was fitter and more imposing in 2023 than she has been at any stage of her career.  

Squad

Props: Bitila Tawake, Kate Henwood, Krystal Murray, Tanya Kalounivale, Te Urupounamu McGarvey.

Hookers: Luka Connor, Vici-Rose Green.

Locks: Charmaine Smith, Chelsea Bremner, Chyna Hohepa, Mia Anderson.

Loose forwards: Ashlee Gaby-Sutherland, Kennedy Simon, Seina Saito, Victoria Edmonds.

Halfbacks: Ariana Bayler, Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu.

Five-eighths: Hazel Tubic.

Midfielders: Azalleyah Maaka, Chelsea Semple, Merania Paraone.

Outside backs: Apii Nicholls, Georgia Thompson, Grace Kukutai, Grace Steinmetz, Mererangi Paul, Olive Watherston, Reese Anderson, Renee Holmes, Ruby Tui.

Biggest gains: Ruby Tui (season off), Chelsea Semple (maternity leave), Ariana Bayler (Blues), Krystal Murray (Hurricanes), Grace Steinmetz (Matatū), Renee Holmes (Matatū), Bitila Tawake (Fiji), Seina Saito (Japan).

Biggest losses: Awhina Tangen-Wainohu, Santo Taumata, Angel Mulu, Carla Hohepa, Kelsie Wills, Tynealle Fitzgerald

Hurricanes Poua

At their best the Hurricanes Poua have shown they can be ruthless. They upset Matatū in Christchurch last year and conquered the Blues in the third-place play-off after defeat in the previous encounter. Coach Ngati Walker laughed that the girls can go from ‘Smashed Em Bro’ material one minute to infuriating the next.

Walker will have to be patient in 2024. He has 13 new players, several of whom are young locals as the Hurricanes Poua look to build a base where 75% of their players are sourced from the franchise area.

The Poua have lost Black Ferns prop Krystal Murray, No. 8 Kaipo Olsen-Baker, Wallaroos first-five Carys Dallinger and top try-scorer Autumn-Rain Stephens-Daily from last season, while star winger Ayesha Leti-I’iga remains sidelined with a long-term injury.

Strengthening regional Hubs has already paid dividends in Hawke’s Bay though with Tori Iosefo (prop), Tamia Edwards (hooker), and Leilani Hakiwai (midfield) three debutants from the Hawke’s Bay Tui rewarded for a strong Farah Palmer Cup campaign and diligence within their hub.

New recruits Harmony Kautai, Holly-Rae Mete, Hannah King, Elinor Plum-King and Hakiwai are all under the age of 20 which suggests future building is a part of Poua planning.

Other fresh faces in the Poua include hooker Te Uarangi Olsen-Baker, sister of Kaipo. There are high hopes for lock Samantha Taylor who’s achieved considerably in athletics, touch rugby and netball. Elinor-Plum King is a product of National First XV champions Manukura. The flanker is smart, tenacious, and skillful. Manawatū’s Rangimarie Sturmey isn’t a debutant but she’s only 22. She had some moments of real quality in the FPC and is maturing rapidly as a winger or midfielder.

Canterbury import Te Rauoriwa Gapper is a likely starter at first five.

To be consistently competitive in 2024 the Poua will lean heavily on the experience of Black Ferns Leilani Perese, Joanah Ngan-Woo and Monica Tagoai. Prop Perese returns after maternity leave seeking to add to her 12 international caps. She plays both sides of the scrum. Lock or loose forward Ngan-Woo was a hero of the 2022 Rugby World Cup triumph. She was curiously overlooked for national selection in 2023.  Tagoai hasn’t been a Black Fern since 2018 but has been consistently good in midfield after the pandemic and injury. She can’t be far away from a recall.

Manawatū duo Iritana Hohaia (halfback) and Layla Sae (flanker) were new Black Ferns in 2023. They will bring a good deal of verve and professionalism.

Key Player: Iritana Hohaia pushed hard for a Black Ferns starting berth last season. The halfback arguably possesses the quickest pass in New Zealand and that coupled with improved option taking makes her an invaluable asset. A halfback is a key link between forwards and backs. If the young Hurricanes forwards can achieve parity, then it will be on Hohaia to get a swift and talented backline moving.

Squad:

Props: Marilyn Fanoga, Tori Iosefo, Leilani Perese, Cilia-Marie Po’e-Tofaeono.

Hookers: Tamia Edwards, Te Uarangi Olsen-Baker, Cristo Tofa.

Locks: Jackie Patea-Fereti, Rachael Rakatau, Kahurangi Sturmey, Samantha Taylor.

Loose forwards: Maddie Feaunati, Rhiarna Ferris, Joanah Ngan-Woo, Elinor Plum-King, Layla Sae.

Halfbacks: Iritana Hohaia, Paige Lush.

Five-eighths: Te Rauoriwa Gapper, Hannah King.

Midfielders: Shakira Baker, Teilah Ferguson, Leilani Hakiwai, Rangimarie Sturmey, Monica Tagoai.

Outside backs: Harmony Kautai, Holly-Rae Mete, Kalyn Takitimu-Cook, Isabella Waterman.

Major gains: Samantha Taylor (Manawatū), Te Rauoriwa Gapper (Canterbury), Hannah King (Canterbury).

Major losses: Krystal Murray (Chiefs Manawa), Kaipo Olsen-Baker (Matatū), Carys Dallinger (Australia), Ayesha Leti-I’iga (injured).

Matatū

Reigning champions Matatū should be among the leading contenders with eight Black Ferns in the forwards. In the backs, they boast Black Ferns first five Rosie Kelly, redoubtable Black Ferns centre pairing Grace Brooker and Amy du Plessis, and prolific try-scoring winger Martha Mataele.

Black Ferns fullback Renee Holmes and winger Grace Steinmetz are headed North to Chiefs Manawa, but Oliva McGoverne is a welcome addition. She has played 50 games for Canterbury and won four FPC Premiership. In 2022-23 she was the leading points scorer in England’s Alliance Premiership for the Exeter Chiefs. She plays first and second five.

Black Ferns XV youngsters Moomooga Ashley Palu, (prop) Atlanta Lolohea (hooker), Laura Bayfield (lock) and Holly Wratt-Groeneweg (flanker) are worth keeping an eye on.

The pack is where Matatū will have real strength. Pip Love, Amy Rule and Georgia Ponsonby are the Black Ferns 2022 Rugby World Cup winning front row. Love will be fiercely determined after being dropped for World XV1 last year.

Canadian lock Cindy Nelles, Aupiki's top tackler in 2023, is a big loss but Laura Bayfield and Emma Dermody won't shy away from graft and are adept lineout forwards.

Matatū will be captained by inspirational Black Ferns flanker Alana Bremner.

Key Player: Kaipo Olsen-Baker – Olsen-Baker ranked in the top five of the FPC for carries, metres gained by a forward and tackles busted. The 2022 Black Fern will add some muscle and dynamism to a Matatū back row that will rival the raw athleticism of the Blues and Chiefs Manawa.

Squad

Props: Amy Rule, Pip Love, Moomooga Ashley Palu, Marcelle Parkes, Eilis Doyle.

Hookers: Atlanta Lolohea, Georgia Ponsonby, Tegan Hollows.

Locks: Emma Dermody, Laura Bayfield, Stacey Niao.

Loose forwards: Alana Bremner (capt), Fiaali'i'i Solomona, Holly Wratt-Groeneweg, Kendra Reynolds, Leah Miles, Lucy Jenkins, Kaipo Olsen-Baker.

Halfbacks: Di Hiini, Georgia Cormick.

Five-eighths: Rosie Kelly, Maia Joseph, Liv McGoverne.

Midfielders: Amy du Plessis, Grace Brooker.

Outside backs: Charlotte Woodham, Chey Robins-Reti, Cheyenne Cunningham, Martha Mataele, Winnie Palamo.

Biggest gains: Liv McGoverne (Exeter), Laura Bayfield (Canterbury).

Biggest losses: Grace Steinmetz (Chiefs Manawa), Te Rauoriwa Gapper (Hurricanes Poua) Cindy Nelles, Renee Holmes (Chiefs Manawa).

Click HERE for the season draw.

One week to go! ⏳

Still plenty of time to get your signs ready for #Aupiki24 🎨#LoveEveryMinute pic.twitter.com/XkGeIzfjdR

— Super Rugby NZ (@SuperRugbyNZ) February 23, 2024

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