The biggest surprise was 2022 Championship winners Hawke’s Bay upsetting Premiership finalists, Auckland.
Reigning Premiership winners Canterbury put their highest score ever on Wellington, but the Pride weren’t without their moments.
Waikato was the most convincing victor thumping Bay of Plenty in an ominous display.
Hawke’s Bay Tui: 32 (Kahlia Awa, Tee Aiolupotea, Teilah Ferguson, Leah Tuhi tries; Krysten Cottrell 3 con, 2 pens) Auckland Storm: 31 (Melanie Puckett, Princess Elliot, Angelica Mekemeke Vahai, Mizuho Kataoka, Cheyenne Tuli-Fale tries; France Bloomfield con, Sophie Fisher 2 con). HT: 15-17
When Hawke’s Bay upset Otago in the Championship final last year it was a fairytale for retiring halfback Emma Jensen. The 45-year-old World Cup-winning Black Fern is the most capped player in FPC history and was vital in the revival of the Tui.
Kahlia Awa will be vital in the Tui’s future. The combative and pacey halfback, in just her sixth game, produced a star-turn in an unexpected victory.
The Tui pack made an explosive start with incisive carrying and Storm's ill-discipline allowing the hosts to dictate territory.
Awa scored the first try following a quick tap from close range. Her calculated running stretched the visitors again and eventually, winger Tee Aiolupotea showed grit in the grasp of two defenders to finish.
Auckland hit their straps midway through the first half and three long-range tries saw them lead 17-15 at the interval.
Not to be outdone Auckland halfback Melanie Puckett showed speed and initiative before Angelica Mekemeke Vahai became an individual highlights reel. Mekemeke Vahai broke down the right wing, from deep inside her 22, and kicked precisely for fullback Princess Elliot to chase and snaffle. Mekemeke Vahai then poached a 95m intercept.
The Tui regained control after halftime with Awa consistently damaging but it was Teilah Ferguson who got the scoreboard moving again with a 60m burst that left defenders snatching at fresh air.
When Leah Tuhi barged over to make it 29-17 it appeared Auckland was reeling. However, Auckland’s bench added considerable punch. Japanese international Mizuho Kataoka scored a try in a pile-up and no one was getting in the way of prop Cheyenne Tuli-Fale.
Sophie Fisher missed an ambitious 45m penalty attempt that would have won Auckland the match.
The losses off Mele Huganfa (NRLW, Broncos), Tafito Lafaele, (NRLW, Broncos), Jade Bowen (overseas), Saphire Abraham (North Harbour) Abby Lockhart (Police College), Shannon Leota (overseas), and several Black Ferns, including World Rugby Player of the Year Ruahei Demant, was telling for Auckland.
Aldora Itunu played her 50th match for Auckland.
Loose forward Kathleen Brown and first-five Krysten Cottrell were exceptional for the Tui.
The last time Hawke’s Bay beat Auckland was in 2006 when the Storm lost their 71-match winning streak achieved over a dozen years.
After trailing 19-10 in the first half, Canterbury put on 43 unanswered points at Rugby Park, with Marcelle Parkes, Karla Wright-Akeli, and Atlanta Lolohea all grabbing doubles.
It was fitting that hooker Lolohea and No.8 Parkes should profit as the Canterbury forward effort left Wellington battered in the scrums and struggling to secure lineout possession.
Ironically Lolohea dashed 25m from an untidy lineout tap while Parkes scored both her tries in the first half with aggressive running lines shifting momentum. Linwood’s Laura Bayfield and Emma Dermody were fellow trojans of the Red and Black pack.
Martha Mataele looked assured in the unfamiliar position of centre, and has now scored at least a single try in nine of her past ten appearances for Canterbury. Hayley Hutana was North Harbour’s top points scorer last year and a welcome acquisition. Debutant Karla Wright-Akeli showed a bundle of skill and confidence.
Wellington started promisingly and finished respectably but the lack of accuracy coupled with several missed tackles was telling. Justine McGregor is only 17 years old. Her 60m intercept and 40m runaway from a scrum move hinted at considerable promise.
Wellington captain Jackie Patea-Fereti was typically dogged, and Monica Tagoai continued her impressive club form. The former Black Ferns midfielder has scored 66 tries in 60 matches for Marist St Pats.
Waikato has bragging rights in Chiefs Manawa country following a resounding victory against Bay of Plenty.
The hosts were suffocated by Waikato who enjoyed a clinical scrum and were disruptive at lineout time. Lock Leomie Kloopers and No.8 Chyna Hohepa were among the individual standouts in a fine collective forward display.
Bay of Plenty’s best period of the match was after halftime. They created a couple of genuine scoring chances and there was a lot to like about the carrying of Te Urupounamu McGarvey and the persistence and hustle of Kelsie Thwaites.
Waikato was able to draw upon some heavy artillery from the bench and scored four tries in the last quarter. Grace Houpapa-Barrett, Ariana Bayler, and Carla Hohepa are all past Black Ferns. Hohepa almost broke at will. Kaea Nepia is a promising flyer.
From the 2022 squad, Waikato has 27 players that have returned to play in 2023, with five players in line for major milestones this season.
Bayler is on 42 games for the province and is eight games away from achieving 50 games for Waikato, joining Victoria Makea and Chelsea Semple, who are the only two Waikato women’s players to achieve this milestone.
Other players in line for milestones this season include Kennedy Simon (33 games), Tanya Kalounivale (30), Kloppers (30), and Esther Tilo-Faiaoga (29), all of whom have a chance to reach 35 games for the province and will be rewarded with a personalised game-day jersey.