The Super Rugby Aupiki squads have been announced for the 2023 season as Chiefs Manawa try to defend the title they won this year.
The five-week competition will start in February and will also feature its first female coaches, Crystal Kaua (Chiefs Manawa) and Victoria Grant (Hurricanes).
Here are the big talking points from Monday’s announcement.
* Black Ferns Sevens stars missing from 2023 Super Rugby Aupiki squads
* Black Ferns dominate World Rugby Awards
* If mainstream culture exists downstream of rugby culture, thank God for Ngā Mamaku
* Super Rugby Aupiki coaches Victoria Grant and Crystal Kaua urge NZ Rugby to run with Wayne Smith’s Black Ferns blueprint
* ‘Free for all’: Super Rugby Aupiki coaches reveal scramble to contract players – including Black Ferns
Sevens loyalty means some stars are missing
Super Rugby Aupiki lost a fair bit of star power as it became apparent on Monday that Black Ferns stars Sarah Hirini, Ruby Tui, Stacey Fluhler, Portia Woodman and Theresa Fitzpatrick were all missing from their respective squads. Super Rugby Aupiki clashes with the Canadian round of the women’s World Sevens Series in Vancouver. The clubs tried to put a brave face on those omissions, pointing to an influx of new talent, but those five players were among the most popular and recognizable of the Black Ferns’ Rugby World Cup squad. Tui could yet make an appearance for Chiefs Manawa, but part of the puzzle for NZ Rugby will be how to manage their elite athletes – who have strong emotional ties to the Sevens team – across the two forms of the game.
How the Black Ferns are spread across the four clubs
On paper, Chiefs Manawa and Matutū appear to have the strongest squads, with nine and eight Rugby World Cup-winning Black Ferns, respectively. In that context, Black Ferns lock Chelsea Bremner’s shift from Christchurch to Hamilton is significant, and Chiefs Manawa look to have a tight five that is capable of setting a good platform for their exciting set of backs. The Blues have six Black Ferns, including newly crowned World Rugby Player of the Year Ruahei Demant, while the Hurricanes have three Black Ferns to date, with three players yet to be added to their squad. Chiefs Manawa may be the team to beat.
Aussie flavor but no crossover games in 2023
Matutū have recruited Wallaroos lock Sera Naiqama to help fill the considerable void left by Chelsea Bremner. Naiqama, the younger sister of rugby league players Wes and Kevin Naiqama, played against the Black Ferns for Australia in the opening round of Rugby World Cup matches and is highly rated across the ditch. However, hopes that the Super Rugby Aupiki sides would play some crossover games against Australian opposition next year have been dashed. “At this stage it’s probably unlikely to happen in 2023,” NZ Rugby general manager professional rugby and performance Chris Lendrum said on Monday. “But, absolutely as part of the ongoing joint venture discussions we’re having with Rugby Australia, we’ve talked about how we bring our two women’s competitions together.”
Here comes the next generation
The Blues have 12 newcomers in their squad, including Kiwi Fern Katelyn Vahaakolo. Given the talent pool in the Blues region, it’s a certainty that some of these players will push for higher honors next year. They will certainly be well led, with Charmaine McMenamin, Ariana Bayler and Ruahei Demant forming the Blacks Ferns combination at No 8-No 9-No 10. With young powerhouses Liana Mikaele-Tu’u and Maiakawanakaulani Roos in the pack, and the exciting youngster Sylvia Brunt in the midfield, the Blues will be fun to watch. Winger Vahaakolo already has Super Rugby experience in the family: his older brother is Freedom Vahaakolo.
Murray’s big move
There has been some player movement between the four sides, with winger Cheyelle Robins-Reti a good pickup by Matutū from Hurricanes Poua. However, the most eye-catching bit of recruitment could be Krystal Murray’s shift from the Blues to Hurricanes Poua. The Northland prop was a weapon for the Black Ferns in the knockout stages of the Rugby World Cup, scoring a try against England in the final, and her extraordinary skillset will be a massive boost for Hurricanes Poua.
Super Rugby Aupiki squads (Rugby World Cup Black Ferns in bold)
Forwards: Eloise Blackwell, Dajian Brown, Joanna Fanene Lolo, Sophie Fisher, Grace Gago, Tafito Lafaele, Letelemalanuola Lavea, Shannon Leota, Charmaine McMenamin, Liana Mikaele-Tu’u, Maiakawanakaulani Roos, Alakoka Po’oi, Cheyenne Tuli-Fale, Maama Vaipulu, Chryss Viliko backs: Ariana Bayler, Sylvia Brunt, Krysten Cottrell, Kiritapu Denmant, Ruahei Denmant, Jaymie Kolose, Patricia Maliepo, Melanie Puckett, Tara Turner, Katelyn Vahaakolo, Holly Williams
Forwards: Amy Rule, Phillipa LoveSteph Te Ohaere-Fox, Moomooga (Ona) Palu, Atlanta Lolohea, Georgia Ponsonby, Natalie Delamere, Cindy Nelles, Emma Dermody, Sera Naiqama, Alana Bremner, Kendra ReynoldsLucy Jenkins, Marcelle Parkes, Leah Miles. backs: Di Hiini, Georgia Cormick, Rosie Kelly, Terauoriwa Gapper, Amy du PlessisCharntay Poko, Grace Steinmetz, Cheyenne Cunningham, Grace Brooker, Martha Mataele, Renee Holmes, Cheyelle Robins-Reti. (One to be added)
Chiefs Manawa (nine)
Forwards: Awhina Tangen-WainohuAngel Mulu, Chelsea BremnerCharmaine Smith, Dhys Faleafaga, Chyna Hohepa, Grace Houpapa-Barret, Kelsie Wills, Kennedy Simon, Luke ConnorMerania Paraone, Santo Taumata, Tanya KalounivaleTe Urupounamu McGarvey, Tynealle Fitzgerald, Pia Tapsell, Victoria Edmonds backs: Amanda Rasch, Arihiana Marino-TauhinuAzalleyah Maaka, Carla Hohepa, Chelsea Semple, Georgia Daals, Hazel TubicLangi Veainu, Mererangi Paul, Renee WickliffeViolet Hapi- Wise
Hurricanes Poua (three)
Forwards: Saphire Abraham, Maddie Feaunati, Rhiarna Ferris, Krystal MurrayTe Kura Ngata-Aerengamate, Joanah Ngan-Woo, Kaipo Olsen-Baker Jackie Patea-Ferreti, Leilani Perese, Cilia-Marie Po’e-Tofaeono, Rachel Rakatau, Layla Sae, Aroha Savage, Kahurangi Sturmey, Cristo Tofa. backs: Carys Dallinger, Teilah Ferguson, Iritana Hohaia, Ayesha Leti- I’igaMilly Mackey, Crystal Mayes, Bernadette Robertson, Victoria Subritzky-Nafatali, Monica Tagoai, Isabella Waterman (Three to be added).