It’s finals time in the Farah Palmer Cup (FPC), Presented by Bunnings Warehouse. Defending Premiership champions Canterbury have hit their stride while Auckland and Waikato are set to play out a thriller in Hamilton.
In the Championship, top seeds Manawatū and Northland are hot favourites to advance but southerners Otago and Tasman won’t lie down easily.
Saturday, 2 September
Waikato (2) vs. Auckland (3)
FMG Stadium, Hamilton
Waikato Record: 5-1 (150-93, 20t, 11c, 5p)
Auckland Record: 4-2 (195-118, 30t, 18c, 3p)
Last Meeting: Auckland, 25-15, Auckland, August 20
Auckland ended Waikato's title ambitions in the corresponding fixture last year but despite the Storm finishing a place below Waikato in the regular season standings it wouldn't be considered as much of an upset if history repeated. Auckland beat Waikato 25-15 on August 20.
That day it was the Auckland forwards that measured up against a pack that's been mighty and miserly. Waikato has conceded fewer points than any team in 2023. In the back and middle row Victoria Makea, Cyhna Hophea and Kennedy Simon are experienced and uncompromising while the front row has an embarrassment of riches with Vici-Rose Green, Esther Tilo and Black Ferns Toka Natua, Grace Houpapa-Barrett and Tanya Kalounivale ensuring set piece stability and carrying strength.
Waikato aren’t without threats in the backs but missed Black Ferns fullback Renne Holmes. First-Five Kiriana Nolan has had a strong season and Carla Hohepa has won the World Cup twice and seen it all.
Waikato will press the Storm in the scrums but with Black Ferns Maiakawakaulani Ross and Eloise Blackwell at lock Auckland’s lineout has little concerns. The back row is athletic and busy while Auckland have scored ten more tries than Waikato and will attack from almost everywhere.
Black Ferns captain Ruahei Demant runs a backline that features Black Ferns second-five Sylvia Brunt, and winger Katelyn Vaha’akolo. With nine tries and 658m run, Angelica Vahai has been one of the most damaging and exciting new threats in the competition.
Sunday, 3 September
Canterbury (1) vs. Hawke’s Bay (4)
Rugby Park, Christchurch
Canterbury Record: 5-1 (268-123, 41t, 24c, 5p)
Hawke’s Bay Record: 3-3 (150-242, 21t, 18c, 3p)
Last Meeting: Canterbury, 84-14, Hastings, August 12,
Defending champions Canterbury have hit their stride with four consecutive wins since an overtime loss to Waikato in Round 2.
With more present Black Ferns than any team, including the World Cup final-winning front row of Pip Love, Georgia Ponsonby and Amy Rule, Canterbury is a formidable unit with the best attack in 2023.
Canterbury can hurt by playing expansively or a tighter forward game as was the case in their come-from-behind victory over Auckland last Saturday.
Ponsonby, with two tries against the Storm, and captain Alana Bremner have been typically immense in the forwards but rookies Laura Bayfield and openside Holly Wratt-Groeneweg have made a big impression.
Out wide Karla Wright-Akeli and Martha Mataele have scored 14 tries combined. The Black Ferns trio of Rosie Kelly, Grace Brooker and Amy Du Plessis are poised and polished enough to make the most of any opportunity.
Hawke's Bay has adjusted to life in the Premiership with real bravery and skill. Their win over Auckland was a first since 2006 while the narrow success against Bay of Plenty (35-28) in Whakatane confirmed their playoff spot.
The forwards are honest and abrasive with prop Moomooga Palu (injured since R5) and veteran Gemma Woods standouts. In the backs Kahlia Awa has been a revelation with her energetic running game.
Krysten Cottrell is the most accurate goal kicker in the competition and an imperious general. The midfield of Jamiee Robin and Teliah Ferguson has created problems for all defences.
Saturday, 2 September
Manawatū (1) vs. Tasman (4)
CET Arena, Palmerston North
Time: 4.05 pm
Manawatū Record: 5-0 (252-78, 39t, 24c, 3p)
Tasman Record: 3-3 (180-162, 35t,19c,4p)
Last Meeting: Manawatū, 46-14, Palmerston North, August 13
Manawatū pulled away from Tasman in the second half of their first meeting, the Mako held scoreless in the second 40 minutes.
The Cyclones have a balanced and settled appearance with a reliable set-piece and arguably the best loose forward trio in the competition. Black Ferns No.8 Kaipo Olsen-Baker has beaten more defenders (51) and delivered more offloads (17) than any player in the FPC. Rhiarna Ferris and Layla Sae are real workhorses.
Centre Holly Rae-Mete made a name for herself with her thrilling last-minute winner against Otago. Fullback Selica Winiata celebrated her 100th appearance, and is the top points scorer in the FPC with 61.
Tasman have had a groundbreaking season with three wins. Their game is built around powerful forward carrying and the stewardship of first-five Cassie Siataga.
Key forwards for Tasman are hooker Precious Auimatagi and experienced loose forwards Tamara Silcock and Sui Pauaraisa.
In the backs, winger Fiaalii Solomona has charged for more meters (664) than any player in FPC. Siataga can do it all, but Tasman will have their work cutout at the breakdown and lack the depth Manawatū enjoy on the bench.
Saturday, 2 September
Northland (2) vs. Otago (3)
Semenoff Stadium, Whangarei
Time: 5:05 pm
Northland Record: 4-1 (192-67, 30t, 18c, 2p)
Otago Record: 4-2 (198-126, 33t, 12c, 3p)
Last Meeting: Northland, 42-20, Whangarei, August 5
The Kauri has played an eye-catching style of rugby where sometimes it's difficult to distinguish the difference between forwards and backs.
Ahora Savage (77) and No.8 Hikitia Wikaira (84) are the leading carriers in the FPC. Hooker Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate has delivered a competition-leading 17 offloads and Black Ferns prop Krystal Murray has scored six tries with former Black Ferns lock Charmine Smith running freely again. She scored two tries in the 42-20 win over Otago on August 5, and Murray got three. Smith told Alllblacks.com this week.
“Our style is so much fun. It’s like going out to have an organised game with your mates. Were encouraged to play what’s in front of us, read space, and use your skills which suit my game. There is structure but it’s not as methodical as it used to be which is fantastic. High risk leads to high reward. It’s not the end of the world if you make a mistake.”
Young backs Ocean Tierney and Lara Cooper have flourished. Otago boasts dangerous outside backs. Winger Jamie Church has scored a competition-leading ten tries, Keely Hill and Cheyenne Cunningham are a dynamic midfield pairing, and, in the forwards, openside Leah Miles is the top tackler with 105. Hooker Tegan Hollows and lock Julia Gorinski bring a wealth of experience.
Northland will have a size advantage and maul strongly. If Otago can limit that and keep the game moving it could get interesting.