With Sevens stars Tyla Nathan-Wong, Portia Woodman and Stacey Fluhler all a chance to line out alongside established Black Ferns Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate, Kennedy Simon and Chelsea Alley, Saturday’s Waikato vs. Northland fixture to open the 2020 Farah Palmer Cup will be the perfect introduction to a star-studded tournament.
After New Zealand Rugby put top-level rugby on hold for a couple of weeks as a result of the recurrence of community transmission of COVID-19 in the country, their domestic women’s competition will finally get underway this weekend — but, in what is likely a cost-cutting measure, games over its 7-week regular season will take place within 2 pools split based on geography, rather than the typical Premiership-Championship model used by NZR for its provincial tournaments.
Along with Waikato and the Northland Kauri in the North Pool are the Auckland Storm, Bay of Plenty Volcanix, Counties Manukau Power Heat, North Harbour Hibiscus and Taranaki Whio. In the South, 2019 champions Canterbury will be hoping to emerge through the group and defend their title in the 2-week playoff series that follows; the Hawke’s Bay Tui, Manawatū Cyclones, Otago Spirit, Tasman Mako and Wellington Pride will be competing with them for that pool’s 2 postseason spots.
Auckland have been the traditional powerhouse in the women’s game — over the 5 seasons to 2016, they won 35 of their 38 provincial fixtures, with an average margin of +30.1 points per 80 minutes — but have been eclipsed by the Cantabrians in recent years; a win for Blair Baxter’s side in his first year in charge would be the province’s fourth successive title.
Moreover, while the Storm did make it to last year’s Premiership final, it is their South Auckland rivals Counties Manukau who have been the strongest North team in the Premiership since the 2017 World Cup. With Auckland and the Power Heat competing at the top along with fellow 2019 Premiership sides Waikato and Bay of Plenty, the North Pool promises to be tightly fought.
In contrast, Canterbury’s recent performances mean that they will be clear favourites in the South Pool:
From last year’s Championship, Otago — who won promotion, before COVID-19 intervened — and runners-up Hawke’s Bay will also be looking to compete in the South Pool after 3 successive years in the second tier. In the North Pool, Northland put in a creditable performance in their first year back in provincial competition; with a 4-0-3 record in 2019, they outperformed both the Whio and the Hibiscus.
The Kauri are one of the teams which stand to benefit most from the release of Black Ferns Sevens players to take part in this year’s 15-a-side competition: in Nathan-Wong and Woodman, they will have players who stand 2nd and 3rd respectively on the all-time list of points-scorers on the Women’s Sevens World Series.
(It’s important to note that Woodman is returning from a couple of long-term injuries; as a consequence of Achilles and hamstring issues, she only played 6 matches on the 2018-19 World Series and did not appear in 2019-20 — across the 2016-17 and 2017-18 editions of the tournament, she played 54.)
Alongside Nathan-Wong, Northland could have another talented playmaker in their backline in the form of 2017-World-Cup-winning fly-half Victoria Subritzky-Nafatali; she has been named in the province’s squad despite pleading guilty to a charge of drink-driving last month.
Also named is another starter from that World Cup final, veteran loose forward Aroha Savage. Her presence will soften the blow of losing young back row Mia Anderson, who — after playing FPC rugby for Northland in 2019 and taking part in the Red Bull Ignite7 camp late last year — has moved to Hamilton for university, and will line out for their Round 1 opponents in 2020.
Elsewhere in the Waikato squad, Cheyelle Robins-Reti, Tenika Willison and Huia Harding have all recently represented the Black Ferns Sevens team, but Fluhler — after helping Melville to a Waikato premier title — will be the real star in the backline.
She was the Black Ferns’ first-choice at centre during their 2017 title run, and should fill that position for Waikato outside a 10-12 combination of Renee Holmes and Chelsea Alley (although long-time international Carla Hohepa is another midfield option).
Fluhler has really come into her own on the Sevens circuit since that World Cup win, where her pace and footwork are such valuable assets in the wide channels:
In Woodman’s absence, she became the primary strike runner for Allan Bunting’s 2019-20 team:
Fluhler also had to take on more responsibility for the Black Ferns Sevens as a consequence of an injury to Michaela Blyde, but the 2-time World Rugby Women’s Sevens Player of the Year will be back running out for Bay of Plenty over the next couple of months.
Given that NZR have established Mount Maunganui as the full-time base for their Sevens programmes, it’s unsurprising that Blyde’s province have picked up a number of her Black Ferns Sevens teammates for the FPC. Kelly Brazier is no stranger to the 15-a-side code and should slot into a playmaking role in the Volcanix midfield, while Alena Saili, Risi Pouri-Lane and Mahina Paul are other options from the Sevens side in the backline.
Paul announced herself on the World Series circuit with a phenomenal extra-time try in the Cape Town quarter-final last December:
With Renee Wickliffe also available in the outside backs and the likes of Luka Connor, Kelsie Wills, Karli Faneva and Les Elder — back from maternity leave — in the pack, Rodney Gibbs’ side should improve on last season’s 2-0-4 record (with an average margin of -6.7 points per 80 minutes).
If the Volcanix are to make the playoffs out of the North Pool, they will have to finish above either Auckland or Counties Manukau. The Power Heat will be a tough proposition, led around the field by a pair of excellent halfbacks in Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu and Hazel Tubic — and with the addition of Sevens star Ruby Tui; she has been listed as a back in the team’s squad announcement, despite playing some club rugby for Ponsonby earlier this year at 7. Counties also have threats out wide like Lanulangi Veainu and Emily Kitson, and power up front in the shape of Leilani Perese, Harono Te Iringa and Ilisapeta Molia.
(One of Molia’s partners in the back row will likely be openside Larissa Lima, a Brazilian whose path to playing competitive rugby in New Zealand has been circuitous.)
Up the road at Eden Park, the Storm’s pack — already filled with internationals in Aldora Itunu, Cristo Tofa, Aleisha-Pearl Nelson, Eloise Blackwell and Charmaine McMenamin — has gained a starlet in Liana Mikaele-Tu’u, who has moved to the city from Hawke’s Bay for her studies.
She has been a part of senior Black Ferns camps so far this year, along with another teenage Aucklander — Patricia Maliepo, a fully-contracted international in 2020 — who will be looking to push on after a strong campaign in 2019 and continue to show off her brilliant ball skills:
With Maliepo at first five and a number of other youngsters competing for spots on the wing and at fullback, the Storm backline has the potential to be electric: watch out for Natahlia Moors, Grace Kukutai, Princess Elliot and Sylvia Brunt in the outsides, with more established internationals Theresa Fitzpatrick and Ruahei Demant — both excellent ball-players — linking with them from the midfield.
Natahlia Moors with the exceptional footwork and acceleration to finish off this great team try by Auckland in their Farah Palmer Cup win over Tasman: pic.twitter.com/NXzT1gHDA1— The Chase Rugby (@thechaserugby) September 9, 2018
Auckland travel to Taranaki in Round 1 to take on a Whio side that struggled mightily in the 2019 Championship, going winless in 6 games with an average points margin of -30.0 per game — although the addition of Gayle Broughton, likely to play at 10, should help matters.
In Sevens, she combines deadly footwork with a tendency to carry the ball in both hands and link well with her teammates, and these skills should transfer over well to a primary playmaking position in the 15-a-side code:
The North Harbour Hibiscus — who take on Counties Manukau first up — fared slightly better last year, notching up 2 wins in 6 Championship games. However, their average margin of -17.8 points per 80 minutes — combined with the fact that they have added no Black Ferns Sevens players, unlike their North Pool opponents — means that 2020 could be another tough season for the province.
Nonetheless, there is hope for them in the form of 2 promising young back row forwards: Tenaija Fletcher only turned 18 in June but already has a season of FPC rugby under her belt, while 22-year-old Pia Tapsell cemented a spot in the Black Ferns’ first-choice back row last year.
With one fewer team in the grouping and therefore one fewer fixture to complete, the South Pool doesn’t kick off until week 2 of the competition. (Southland have historically not fielded a team in the FPC.)
As noted above, Canterbury should be strongly favoured to emerge from this pool. Baxter can call upon top-quality players from 1 to 15: even without former captain and Black Fern Stephanie Te Ohaere-Fox, their pack will feature Pip Love and Amy Rule in the front row alongside sisters Chelsea and Alana Bremner; Rule and the younger Bremner sister both played for the Black Ferns Development XV late last year, along with their provincial teammates Grace Brooker (a test-capped centre), Martha Lolohea (wing) and Olivia McGoverne (fullback).
However, it is Kendra Cocksedge at scrum-half who will hold everything together with her brilliant passing game and support running:
Black Ferns scrum-half Kendra Cocksedge on 🔥 for Canterbury in the @farahpalmercup against Auckland, scoring four tries in a 37-12 win.— The Chase Rugby (@thechaserugby) October 6, 2018
For her first score, she showed great awareness of space to hold her support run wide – away from the cover – after Olivia McGoverne’s break: pic.twitter.com/XJGvmXaiVM
The Christchurch side are scheduled to take on Manawatū in their first game on Saturday 11th September. While the Cyclones were relegated from the Premiership last year, Sarah Hirini returns from Sevens to complement her sister Rachel Rakatau, who captains the side.
Hirini is an all-action flanker in the 15-a-side game, having started at 7 for the Black Ferns during the last World Cup. Her busy performances in the middle of the field on the World Series circuit are evidence of her suitability for this role:
Week 2 will also see Wellington travel to Tasman to open their campaign, and Otago hosting Hawke’s Bay in a repeat of last year’s tight Championship final.
The team from the capital will draw heavily from an Oriental Rongotai side that dominated all comers in club rugby earlier this year. Opponents will need to be wary of Ories’ Amanda Rasch at fly-half, as well as her club teammate Ayesha Leti-I’iga:
Ayesha Leti-I’iga is another powerhouse in the black 11 jersey.— The Chase Rugby (@thechaserugby) November 11, 2018
The 19-year-old made her @BlackFerns debut last weekend against the USA, and started again on the left wing in their 14-0 win over France in Toulon on Friday night: pic.twitter.com/FrsE3upKnB
Their opponents Tasman are unlikely to seriously trouble the other 5 teams in the South Pool; they have won only 4 of their 19 games since they entered the competition in 2017, with an average margin of -28.7 points per 80 minutes over this period.
Under the roof at Forsyth Barr Stadium, the Spirit will be led by their young halfbacks. Rosie Buchanan-Brown at 9 and Rosie Kelly at 10 have built a partnership over a number of years for University in Dunedin premier club rugby, and combined beautifully for the opening try of the province’s 2019 Championship final victory:
Black Fern Kilisitina Moa’atane also returns from last year’s team and will start outside Kelly in the midfield, while young Amy du Plessis is another promising back who has spent time in the Black Ferns Sevens programme. (18-year-old Maia Joseph — daughter of of Jamie — is another scrum-half to look out for in the Otago squad.)
The Tui halves from last year’s final should also reprise their roles in a couple of weeks’ time: Emma Jensen and Krysten Cottrell are both capped internationals, and their combined provincial experience of over 30 seasons means that they will be pivotal as Hawke’s Bay push for a more successful season in 2020.
This year’s Farah Palmer Cup is therefore set to be a unique one, with the conventional tournament structure upended due to COVID-19 and elite Sevens players available as a result of the cancellation of the end of the 2019-20 World Series and the postponement of the beginning of the 2020-21 edition.
At test level, just over 12 months until the scheduled start of a 15-a-side World Cup on home soil, the absence of regular international competition is far from ideal preparation for Glenn Moore’s Black Ferns. However, the level of talent which the 5-time champions can draw on from within their own borders means that this 9-week tournament will be a more than viable contingency plan.