First Black Ferns squad of 2023 named

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Black Ferns Director of Rugby Allan Bunting has named 30 players in the squad to compete abroad in Brisbane and Ottawa, before returning home to play in front of fans at FMG Stadium Waikato in Hamilton at the end of September.

The Black Ferns team is (Age/Super Club/Province/Test caps):

Loosehead Props
Kate Henwood (34, Chiefs Manawa, Bay of Plenty, new cap)
Krystal Murray (29, Hurricanes Poua, Northland, 9)
Philippa Love (33, Matatū, Canterbury, 25)

Georgia Ponsonby (23, Matatū, Canterbury, 13)
Grace Gago (25, Blues, Counties Manukau, new cap)
Luka Connor (26, Chiefs Manawa, Bay of Plenty, 14)

Tighthead Props
Amy Rule (22, Matatū, Canterbury, 12)
Esther Faiaoga-Tilo (28, Blues, Waikato, new cap)
Tanya Kalounivale (24, Chiefs Manawa, Waikato, 6)

Chelsea Bremner (27, Matatū, Canterbury, 12)
Joanah Ngan Woo (26, Hurricanes Poua, Wellington, 17)
Maiakawanakaulani Roos (21, Blues, Auckland, 14)

Loose Forwards
Alana Bremner (26, Matatū, Canterbury, 13)
Kendra Reynolds (30, Matatū, Bay of Plenty, 9)
Kennedy Simon (26, Chiefs Manawa, Waikato, 13) – Co-Captain
Liana Mikaele Tu'u (21, Blues, Auckland, 11)
Lucy Jenkins (22, Matatū, Canterbury, new cap)

Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu (31, Chiefs Manawa, Counties Manukau, 12)
Iritana Hohaia (23, Hurricanes Poua, Taranaki, new cap)

First Five-Eighths
Rosie Kelly (23, Matatū, Canterbury, new cap)
Ruahei Demant (27, Blues, Auckland, 26) – Co-Captain

Amy du Plessis (23, Matatū, Canterbury, 7)
Grace Brooker (23, Matatū, Canterbury, 3)
Kelsey Teneti (20, Waikato, 1)
Logo-I-Pulotu Lemapu Atai'i (Sylvia) Brunt (19, Blues, Auckland, 7)

Outside Backs
Ayesha Leti-I'iga (24, Hurricanes Poua, Wellington, 21)
Katelyn Vahaakolo (23, Blues, Auckland, new cap)
Mererangi Paul (24, Chiefs Manawa, Counties Manukau, new cap)
Renee Holmes (23, Matatū, Waikato, 10)
Tenika Willison (25, Chiefs Manawa, Waikato, new cap)

Unavailable for selection due to injury: Awhina Tangen Wainohu (neck), Charmaine McMenamin (concussion), Hazel Tubic (knee), Layla Sae (ankle), Patricia Maliepo (foot), Santo Taumata (knee).
Unavailable for selection due to sabbatical: Ruby Tui.

The first Black Ferns Squad for 2023 was fittingly named today at Hamilton Girls’ High School, the former High School of Black Ferns Co-Captain Kennedy Simon, rookie Tenika Willison and Kelsey Teneti who returns to the fifteens format following a successful season with the Black Ferns Sevens.

Ruahei Demant (Te Whanau a Apanui, Te Whakatōhea, Ngāti Awa) and Kennedy Simon (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Māhanga) were inspirational in their leadership of the Black Ferns throughout last year’s campaign, Black Ferns Director of Rugby Allan Bunting has once again appointed the duo to lead the new squad.

“Ruahei and Kennedy, are inspiring wāhine and complement one another with their leadership style. Their trust, clear communication and leading actions provides us with a strong platform to continue to build as a team.”

2023 Sky Super Rugby Aupiki champions Matatū are strongly represented with eleven players named in this year’s Black Ferns squad. The Blues and Chiefs Manawa are evenly represented, with seven players from each side and Hurricanes Poua has four notable standouts. Eight Provincial Unions, spanning from Northland to Canterbury, are proudly represented in the 30-player squad. Sylvia Brunt is the youngest of the squad at 19, whilst incoming debutant Kate Henwood is the eldest at 34. With the retirement of Black Ferns legends Kendra Cocksedge and Renee Woodman-Wickliffe, Demant is now the highest capped player with 26 caps to her name.

Following an entertaining Sky Super Rugby Aupiki competition, form has been rewarded with all nine debutants providing eye-catching performances throughout the competition. In the front row Grace Gago, Henwood and Esther Faiaoga-Tilo are named, while Matatū Player of the Year Lucy Jenkins joins the loose forwards. In the backline, halfback Iritana Hohaia and first five-eighth Rosie Kelly receive the call up, while Chiefs Manawa outside backs Tenika Willison and Mererangi Paul will get a chance to show their talent on the international stage. In line to become a dual international, former New Zealand Rugby League Kiwi Fern Katelyn Vahaakolo rounds out the selected debutants.
Speaking of the debutants, Bunting said he, along with Assistant Coaches Steve Jackson, Tony Christie and Mike Delany, have been impressed with how they have taken hold of their opportunity.
“These players have impressed us across Sky Super Rugby Aupiki, but more importantly have joined our Black Ferns environment and taken the opportunity to put their best foot forward to wear the black jersey. We are excited to see their progression this year.”
Grace Brooker returns from injury to be named in the Black Ferns squad for the first time since 2021, alongside Black Ferns Sevens player Kelsey Teneti who makes the transition back to the fifteens format following her debut at last year’s Pacific Four Series.
“Grace has been inspirational in her return to the game. Her energy is contagious, and it has been great to see her back in our Black Ferns environment,” said Bunting.

“Kelsey has been a part of the 2023 Black Ferns Sevens campaign and while she is still putting her hand up for the 2024 Paris Olympics, she is a talented midfielder and is eager to grow her fifteens game with her sights on the 15s Rugby World Cup. Both Cory (Sweeney, Black Ferns Sevens Head Coach) and I are supportive of this and look forward to seeing her on the field developing her game,” added Bunting.
Bunting is focused on using the Pacific Four Series as an opportunity to build depth within the Black Ferns, ensuring they qualify for WXV1.
“We are excited for the 2023 Test schedule with the Pacific Four Series and O’Reilly Cup. While we are playing the Pacific Four Series abroad, we will be challenging ourselves to build our team and encourage our fans to join us on this journey.”
Hamilton will host the Black Ferns for the first time since 2013 for final O’Reilly Cup Test.
“We are looking forward to returning to play the final O’Reilly Cup test in Hamilton. It will be a fantastic opportunity for whānau and fans to see the team in action for the first time on home soil this season.”

Black Ferns Debutants:

Esther Faiaoga-Tilo Bio:
Born: 26 September 1994
Position: Prop

Esther made the transition into the front row this season with the Blues following her inaugural season with Hurricanes Poua. Esther was a prominent feature of the Blues forward pack this year and impressed Black Ferns coaches. The mother of one, was called into the Black Ferns squad as injury cover. Despite being a prop, she also likes to dabble in a bit of Sevens and is a regular feature in the Matakesi Women’s side.

Grace Gago Bio:
Born: 5 May 1998
Position: Hooker

Grace Gago is a promising, hard-working hooker out of Counties Manukau. After a stint on the side-line with injury Gago produced a strong Bunnings Warehouse Farah Palmer Cup (FPC) season for the Counties Manukau Heat and earnt selection in the nib Blues Sky Super Rugby Aupiki squad. Gago debuted for the nib Blues against Matatū earlier this year.

Iritana Hohaia Bio:
Born: 1 March 2000
Position: Halfback

Iritana Hohaia hails from Ōpunake in Taranaki, and proudly plays for Taranaki Whio in the Farah Palmer Cup. The Hurricanes Poua halfback was called into the Black Ferns in 2021 for their Northern Tour but is still awaiting the opportunity to debut for the Black Ferns. She has also played representative basketball, Hohaia was a member of the gold medal winning New Zealand Sevens team at the Youth Olympics in 2018, scoring a try in the Final victory over France.

Kate Henwood Bio:
28 January 1989
Position: Prop

Loosehead prop Kate Henwood hails from Whakatane and has long been a notable player of the Bay of Plenty Volcanix Farah Palmer Cup side. The 34-year-old mother of two was called into the Chiefs Manawa team as an injury replacement player this year and grasped the opportunity with both hands. Henwood was soon identified as a standout player in Sky Super Rugby Aupiki, demonstrating her powerful strength and outstanding work ethic.

Katelyn Vahaakolo Bio:
Born: 18 April 2000
Position: Outside Back

Katelyn Vahaakolo had her first taste of Bunnings Warehouse FPC in 2022 with the Auckland Storm, having previously played rugby league for the Newcastle WNRL side. She returned to rugby league at the back end of 2022 to fulfil her dream of playing for the Kiwi Ferns at the Rugby League World Cup in the UK. However, the lure of a Black Ferns jersey has seen Vahaakolo return to rugby union where she has quickly learned her craft in the outside backs and midfield for the nib Blues during their Sky Super Rugby Aupiki campaign.

Lucy Jenkins Bio:
Born: 30 November 2000
Position: Loose Forward

Lucy Jenkins, 23, has been a consistent performer for Canterbury since her 2018 debut in the Bunnings Warehouse FPC. In her second season of Sky Super Rugby Aupiki for Matatū, the powerful loose forward was a stand-out across the competition. Known for her work-ethic and commitment to the game Jenkins has a bright future ahead of her.

Mererangi Paul Bio:
Born: 29 October 1998
Position: Outside Back

Versatile athlete and Counties Manukau first-five, Mererangi Paul, made her Sky Super Rugby debut earlier this year for Chiefs Manawa. She soon became an influential player maker for the side on the wing. Paul made her debut for the Northern Mystics in 2017 for the ANZ Netball Premiership and transitioned into rugby via the Ignite7 tournament where she was named as an MVP.

Rosie Kelly Bio:
Born: 16 January 2000
Position: First five-eighth

Inside back Rosie Kelly, 23, has been a stand-out and regular feature for Matatū in her second Sky Super Rugby Aupiki season. Kelly’s rapid speed has been showcased during the Sky Super Rugby Aupiki season and during her time in the Canterbury jersey throughout Bunnings Warehouse FPC. While studying physiotherapy at the University of Otago, Kelly was a standout for Otago. She is the current record holder for the most points scored in a season, which she achieved in 2019, before returning to Christchurch.

Tenika Willison Bio:
Born: 7 December 1997
Position: Outside Back

Tenika Willison has been a standout player since a young age, representing New Zealand in Touch. Debuting for the Black Ferns Sevens in 2016, Willison transferred her ball skills, footwork and pace to sevens seamlessly. She was a part of the gold medal-winning side at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and earnt a bronze medal at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. Earlier this year she debuted for Chiefs Manawa in Sky Super Rugby Aupiki and was a notable play maker for her team.

All matches of the Pacific Four Series will be broadcast live on Sky Sport.

Schedule (New Zealand times and dates listed)

Pacific Four Series:

Black Ferns vs Australia, Thursday 29 June, 9.00pm, Kayo Stadium, BRISBANE
Black Ferns vs Canada, Sunday 9 July, 11.00am, TD Place Stadium, OTTAWA
Blacks Ferns vs USA, Saturday 15 July, 8.00am, TD Place Stadium, OTTAWA

O’Reilly Cup:

Black Ferns vs Australia, Thursday 29 June, 9.00pm, Kayo Stadium, BRISBANE
Black Ferns vs Australia, Saturday 30 September, 4.35pm, FMG Stadium Waikato, HAMILTON


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