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Super Rugby Aupiki delivers on opening weekend

Super Rugby Aupiki delivers on opening weekend

All BlacksMarch 3, 2024

Super Rugby Aupiki 2024 has opened with a bang. The defending champions were knocked over in Invercargill while Chiefs Manawa were tested against a youthful and brave Hurricanes Poua in Hamilton.

Blues 24 (Jaymie Kolose 2, Krysten Cottrell, Tafito Lafaele tries; Cottrell 2 con) Matatū 17 (Pip Love, Winnie Palamo, Grace Brooker tries; Rosie Kelly con) HT: 0-7

Matatū jumped from last to first in winning Super Rugby Aupiki 2023. Are the Blues set for a similar trajectory in 2024?

It would be premature to declare potential champions in round one, but the Blues come-from-behind 24-17 victory was full of guts and bravado.

With the scoreboard clock showing 83:26 Matatū prop Moomooga Palu was held up under the posts as she thrust valiantly forward to score what almost certainly would have been a match-levelling try.

A few minutes earlier it was Palu who made a volcanic break to set in motion an exhausting last assault. The Blues defense, as it had been throughout, remained resilient and disciplined.

The first half was a slog. There were a dozen penalties and 17 combined turnovers after half an hour.  The collisions were fierce and the error rate was uncharacteristically high suggesting little chance of the second half pyrotechnics.

The Blues squandered two guilt-edged chances with fumbles inside the hosts' 22 in the first five minutes.

Matatū were pesky at the breakdown (especially Kendra Reynolds) and slowly built phases with little reward. 

In the 30th minute Blues centre Syliva Brunt enlivened proceedings when she slashed through the defense.  Martha Mataele made two covering tackles in retreat and then was cruelly yellow-carded for knocking the ball down.

It wouldn’t be her first stroke of misfortune. Early in the second half, Mataele dived over the line and while in the act of putting the ball down for a try had it knocked from her grasp by Niall Williams-Guthrie who flashed across like an asteroid. Williams-Guthrie was immense in seven for the Blues.

The Mataele card should have been the moment when the Blues took charge. Instead, it was Matatu that dictated terms. Prop Pip Love couldn’t believe her luck when she went over unopposed from close range for the first try on the halftime siren.

After the George Gregan impersonation by Williams-Guthrie, Matatū made certain of their second try in the 49th minute. Centre Amy du Plessis flung a pass to a wide-open Winnie Palamo. Even Patrick Mahomes would have been impressed with the distribution of du Plessis.

It takes a serious player to force 2022 World Rugby Player of the Year Ruahei Demant out of her favoured position. But once upon a time Blues pivot Krysten Cottrell was a Black Fern. She illustrated why in the 52nd minute when her break set up diminutive winger Jaymie Kolose.

At the hour mark the Blues hit the front for the first time when Cottrell again slipped free and dotted down near the sticks.

Matatū predictably rallied. An exhaustive 13-phase attack saw Grace Brooker make it 17-14.

The Blues had greater dynamism on the bench with the cameo of Tafito Lafaele bound to set chins wagging among national selectors. A textbook steal at the breakdown saw the ball transferred rapidly, and among congestion, between locks Maama Vaipulu and Eloise Blackwell to Kolose who was gone in a flash.

With two minutes left, Lafaele bullied her way through traffic for what proved to be the clincher.  

Chiefs Manawa: 46 (Azalleyah Maaka, Kennedy Simon 2, Luka Connor 2, Ruby Tui, Merania Paraone tries; Renee Holmes 4 cons, pen) Hurricanes Poua: 24 (Elinor-Plum King, Layla Sae, Tamia Edwards tries; Isabella Waterman 2 con, pen, Katelyn Tatita Cook con) HT: 19-14

Chiefs Manawa pulled clear of the Hurricanes Poua in the second half to start the season with a bonus point victory.

The final score of 46-24 was an unsurprising outcome when you consider Chiefs Manawa had 14 past or present Black Ferns compared to the Hurricanes Poua 10 debutants.

For sustained periods, however, the Poua showed genuine promise and forced the hosts to work hard for their success.

Greater firepower off the bench, a menacing maul, and a slight change of tactics at the interval were a telling difference for hosts.

From the outset, the Poua suggested they’d be stubborn and brazen opposition. Second-five Monica Tagoai busted from her own 22 to halfway. Untidy passing from the subsequent ruck ruined any chance of profit. Tagoai breaks and Poua errors at inopportune moments were a regular theme throughout.

The first try of the season was scored by Azalleyah Maaka. Blindside Mia Anderson was full of bustle and her most stampeding run created the gap for the Chiefs centre.

The Hurricanes Poua responded instantly. The Chiefs Manawa dropped a restart, the Poua scrum held firm, and repeat thrusts saw Elinor-Plum King crack the defense. Plum-King was hearty and skillful in the six jersey.

The Chiefs Manawa forwards can integrate seamlessly into the backline and openside Kennedy Simon was rewarded with the next two tries. In the 16th minute four passes, three by forwards, saw first-five Chelsea Semple hit a hole and send the Black Ferns skipper over in the left-wing corner.

In the 27th minute, the Hurricanes Poua failed to clear their territory and three swift passes from the forwards saw Simon score in the same corner.

Down 19-7, the Poua struck just before halftime. Plum-King carried with gusto again before supplying Tagoai who offloaded delightfully for Layla Sae. Worryingly the Black Ferns loose forward left the field injured in the second half. Curiously Tagoai was substituted in the 50th minute.

Ruby Tui is one of the most recognisable faces in world rugby. She showed why in the 48th minute. With only a smidgen of space, she burned the Hurricanes defense in a 40-metre dash.

The Chiefs Manawa played slightly wider of the ruck in the second half to avoid the heavy combat of an abrasive Hurricanes pack. The bench added noticeably greater vibrance and the maul was irresistible when employed. Hooker Luka Connor is the leading try scorer in Aupiki history, and she dotted down twice in the 66th and 69th minutes to settle the contest.

Merania Paraone spent a season in Spain playing hooker. She’s returned as a nippy winger and scored a try from a Renee Holmes crosskick. Second-five Grace Steinmetz is worthy of acclaim. After receiving a rib-rattler of a tackle by Tagoai she was resolute and often handled possession.

Poua lock and captain Jackie Patea-Fereti is in her 18th season of first-class rugby. She was typically industrious. Paige Lush and Hannah King are a new half-pairing and will rapidly improve. 

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