Matatū staged a remarkable comeback to clinch the first Super Rugby Aupiki final with a dramatic 33-31 victory over the Chiefs Manawa in Hamilton.
In something of an upset, Matatū surged back from a 19-0 deficit and a pulverising Manawa scrum to score four tries and then hang tough late to edge out the favourites in a pulsating encounter.
Manawa’s Tenika Willison, one of her team’s best this season, pushed a late penalty goal attempt from a handy position wide to send the underdogs into raptures.
A smallish but vocal crowd was in full voice early as the Manawa flexed their muscle, going straight to their forward strengths to take a 19-0 lead in as many minutes.
Tighthead prop Tanya Kalounivale was irrepressible early, both in the scrum and on the carry, scoring two tries. Halfback Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu scored off a lineout in which hooker Luka Connor, who usually drives off the back of the maul, acted as a decoy.
Matatū appeared hamstrung. The likes of Kelsie Thwaites were disrupting their lineout, and they were having to soak up a lot of tackling while being forced to take taps instead of kicking for lineouts off penalties.
But no one should doubt the southerners’ heart and determination.
Tighthead prop Amy Rule, who had a busy game, scored the first try for Matatū after a quick tap. Swiftly on those heels came a superb try to fullback Renee Holmes, a long-range breakout in which centre Amy du Plessis, who gave a tremendous performance, delivered the last pass.
Holmes then banged over a 40m penalty goal into the breeze. The comeback was on, and alarm bells were ringing for the home side when Martha Mataele scored an intercept try from 75m for the first of three lead changes.
Yet it was Manawa who entered halftime with a slender lead due to a sweet scrum move finished by wing Mererangi Paul.
Matatū had the second half wind and the initiative, partly due to Manawa's ill-discipline, and when Holmes crossed for her second try in a 23-point haul, it was 27-26. The visitors even started to drive back the vaunted Manawa lineout maul.
There were two last twists. Connor scored her seventh try of this competition, crashing over from the usual lineout drive to pull the margin back to 33-31 Matatū. Then came the dramatic late call at the ruck, which lock Cindy Nelles looked to have won. Thoughts of the Rugby World Cup semifinal sprang to mind when Willison pushed the kick wide.
There were several heroines for Matatū, but blindside flanker Lucy Jenkins was ubiquitous, while the midfield pairing of Grace Brooker and du Plessis was impressive. Rule and Nelles were prominent in the forward battle.
Manawa looked to its powerful front row while Kennedy Simon and Hazel Tubic had good moments.
This was the first defeat for the Manawa in official matches dating back to 2021, while this was a sweet campaign climax for Matatū, which lost all three of their matches in last year's inaugural Aupiki season.
The final scoreline was uncannily similar to the Rugby World Cup final, 34-31 last spring, in case it had escaped your mind.
Black Ferns head coach Allan Bunting was on hand, and he will have a job to sift through all the Aupiki talent for his first training camp squad.
Matatū 33 (Renee Holmes 2, Amy Rule, Martha Mataele tries; Holmes 2 con, 3 pen)
Chiefs Manawa 31 (Tanya Kalounivale 2, Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu, Mererangi Paul, Luka Connor tries; Tenika Willison 3 con) HT: 26-22 Manawa