After seven strong weeks of competition, be prepared to expect the unexpected in the Farah Palmer Cup semifinals, predicts rugby columnist Alice Soper.
It’s been the first time since 2019 we’ve had a largely uninterrupted competition, with only one game cancelled due to terrible weather. These play-offs are shaping up to be a battle between consistency and potential, the top two sides in both the Championship and Premiership leagues putting on dominant displays to lock their spot in with a week to go. The two challengers in both leagues have shown flashes of brilliance which, should they replicate this weekend, might just carry them all the way to the finals.
This year saw the return of quarter-finals for the teams ranked three to six in the Championship league. The Northland Kauri had to beat The Taranaki Whio, and North Harbour Hibiscus overcame Tasman to get to play the Hawkes Bay Tui and Otago Spirit.
It’s not a semifinal in the Championship if the Tui and Kauri don’t end up playing each other. As soon as the Kauri rejoined the provincial competition in 2019, these two have always met in the play-offs. The only exception was 2020 which had a Covid-amended format. The Tui have got past the Kauri each time, most dramatically winning last season’s semi, 27-26.
This has led some in the North to name the Tui as their bogey team, but the reality is, they’re quite evenly matched. Both have experienced campaigners supporting emerging talent and take huge pride in their jersey. Krysten Cottrell has taken full advantage this season of the explosive Amelia Pasikala, who’s beaten the second-most defenders in this year’s FPC and is the Tui’s top offloader. Pasikala will likely face up against another in-form midfielder, Harmony Covacich-Baanders – a strong ball carrier who will break tackles and the line with her offload game.
Cotterell’s experience in the backs is bolstered by a handy substitute. A player so capped, the record books can’t keep up with her: three-time World Cup winner, Emma Jensen. For those more recent fans of the women’s game, Jensen was the player who kept Kendra Cocksedge on the bench for most of her early career. She’s an ace in the hole for play-offs, bringing a level head at crunch time.
The Kauri have their own talismanic leaders in the form of Krystal Murray and Charmaine Smith. Murray, released by the Black Ferns, plays her best footy in the sky blue. Smith has led by example throughout the season, making the most tackles for the Kauri.
This will be a battle, down to the wire and hard to pick who will come out on top.
The next semi is between the dominant Otago Spirit and the rising North Harbour Hibiscus. The Spirit have fended off all challengers this season making it through to the play-offs unbeaten. Their commitment to off-field conditioning evident in the pace and width they have comfortably played their game. The recruitment of Super W halfback, Georgia McCormick, has been key to unlocking that tempo and second five, Keely Hill, well up for the challenge running the most metres for the Spirit.
Otago Spirit skipper Tegan Hollows will play her 50th game for the province in this weekend’s FPC Championship semifinal
The only trouble for the Spirit has been the loss of their preferred first fives, Victoria Substrizky-Nafatali and Maia Joseph. Both have picked up knee injuries putting the pressure on fullback, Sheree Hume, to steady the ship.
Their opponents, the North Harbour Hibiscus, are a great example of how the Farah Palmer Cup’s short seasons reward fast learners. Shaky in the opening rounds, they’ve found their rhythm in recent weeks and caught the Spirit napping at the end of their last match, running in two tries in five minutes.
Central to their success has been the outstanding form of Hayley Hutana. You have never seen a busier second five. She’s racked up the second-most points in the competition, scoring 16 of them against Tasman last week to bring her team to the semis.
Hibiscus would have to score a real upset to stop the momentum of this Spirit side, who’ve made their ambition clear from the outset – they want to return to the Premiership.
It’s been the best of times, it’s been the worst of times to be a Wellington Pride fan. Dropping the lead against the Auckland Storm last week, the Pride managed to lock in their semifinal place thanks to a combination of other results and bonus points. The Pride have adopted the Hurricanes’ early 2000s slogan, ‘Expect the unexpected’, delivering some stellar performances and others riddled with basic errors.
As a former front-rower for the Pride, my pride has been hurt watching some of our set pieces. This seems to have been steadied, however, by the return of veteran prop Ray Lolo. Te Kura Ngata-Aerangamate has been inspiring in her less-familiar black and gold jersey. Punishing on defence and cheeky around the ruck, she’s been in great form. The Pride have cycled through a few first five options this season and finally settled on the reliable Thamsyn Newton. Outside her, Teilah Ferguson’s timing on defence and attack has been a joy to watch.
They come up against old foes Canterbury, who will be bolstered by the return of their Black Ferns. Canterbury have ground out a number of wins this season, winning four of their games by six points or less. These steely nerves, now typical of this side, are a massive asset come play-offs.
It’s the class of Cocksedge and fellow veteran Steph Te Ohaere Fox, who play with as much passion as those pulling on the jersey for the first time. Martha Mataele has been a try-scoring machine and Rosie Kelly decisive at the back. They are clinical, they are proud, they are tough to beat at home.
Wellington should have no chance, but being the team they are, may yet pull off a robbery.
Waikato and the Auckland Storm will face off in the other semi. Both sides will be back at full strength with the return of their Black Ferns from international duty. These last two weeks, however, have shone a spotlight on the depth of talent currently in the Waikato, in the front row in particular.
Waikato have dropped only one match this season, losing by two points to Canterbury. They were a little wobbly at the beginning of the season but are starting to look again like Champions. Their lineouts have caused a couple of headaches but they have been punishing at scrum time. That mongrel is carried into their open play with strong ball carriers in both the forwards and backs.
Chey Robins-Reti appears to be enjoying herself playing fifteens, looking confident at both fullback and centre. An injured Kennedy Simons will be cheering her side on having contributed much to getting them here. Tanya Kalounivale, established now as a formidable front rower, has been well supported by the breakthrough performance of her propping partner, Awhina Tangen-Wainohu.
Auckland Storm look more dangerous running from their 22 than they do in their oppositions. When they’re on, they can rip a defensive line apart with their offload game and quickly add points to the board. This is high-risk rugby, though, and has seen the side push passes rather than build phases, putting a lot of unnecessary pressure on themselves.
When they last faced up against Waikato, it was the ‘Ariana Bayler Show’ – her tempo destabilising the Auckland pack. However this Auckland Storm side is back at full strength with the return of Ruahei Demant, Charmaine McMenamin, Tafito Lafaele and Maiakawanakaulani Roos. Patricia Maliepo was also back last week from injury and combined well with the formidable Mele Hufanga and league convert Katelyn Vaha’akolo.
It will be a physical encounter between these two sides, with whoever is successful battle-hardened for the final.
You’ve got to love the Farah Palmer Cup!
* Farah Palmer Cup semifinals: Hawke’s Bay vs Northland, Sat 12pm, Sky Sport 1; Canterbury vs Wellington, Sun 11.30am, Sky Sport 1; Waikato vs Auckland, Sun 1.30pm, Sky Sport Select; Otago vs North Harbour, Sun 4.30pm, Sky Sport 2.