The four teams still standing in the Farah Palmer Cup have marked themselves out from the start. Canterbury in the Premiership and Otago in the Championship are unbeaten this season, while Auckland and Hawke’s Bay each lost once in round robin play, both to their final opponents.
The weekend is perfectly set up. Both matches pit the North Island against the South Island, with four teams from storied unions eager to add their page to the province’s history. The home teams, Canterbury and Otago are favourites, but only just, and it’s perhaps those two sides with the most on the line.
Canterbury has again set the standard all season in pursuit of their third straight title, but last week Counties showed how to frustrate and put pressure on the defending champions. The Heat’s big ball-running forwards got them on the front foot, they stopped Kendra Cocksedge dictating the tempo of the game, and defensively were able to get in the faces of Canterbury’s strong midfield and force errors out wide. However Canterbury showed they can outlast teams, taking advantage of the tiring Counties forwards and capitalising when the visitors discipline fell away, punishing mistakes and finishing strongly.
Auckland however poses a different threat and the 45-12 win to Canterbury in round two is almost irrelevant given it was an Auckland team without the bulk of their Black Ferns. The Storm’s forward pack won’t fade like Counties’ did and, in Patricia Maliepo and Ruahei Demant, they effectively have two creators to set their backline away. Auckland also has less to lose. They go in to the final as underdogs and regardless of the result on Saturday their season will be deemed a success after the horror show of last year. In saying that, Canterbury will be far better for coming through that massive test of character in the semi-final and will have another good crowd behind them at Rugby Park. It shapes as a classic.
Otago has set the standard in the Championship although Hawke’s Bay hasn’t been far behind. This is the third straight time the Spirit has reached the Championship match, falling short on both previous occasions. I imagine losing a promotion game is a different type of hurt and it’s one that has been all too familiar for the Otago. Hawke’s Bay has become the poster team for new entrants into the competition after making their return to the FPC in 2017. The Tui have slowly, steadily built in the past two years, bringing players through their own system and developing a squad around a handful of key, experienced campaigners. After starting strongly, Otago needed two late tries to see off the fast finishing Tui when the teams played a couple of weeks ago. Expect there to be little between them again on Sunday.
For the top echelon of players this weekend will mark the end of the longest season the women’s game has seen. Others will get a chance to tour with a New Zealand ‘A’ team for the first time, while some will soon turn their attention to the summer of sevens. But first things first - promotion or the Farah Palmer Cup is at their fingertips.