PICKING THE SEMIS.
This weekend’s penultimate round could go a long way to deciding the top four and where those semi-finals are played.
Canterbury look well on course to host a semi and potential final again, but byes for Wellington this week and Auckland the following could have a massive bearing on the overall outcome. A win for Auckland at home against Counties Manukau on Saturday will secure a home semi-final for the Storm, but if the Heat take that match then Auckland’s fate is in the hands of others, unable to do anything but watch in round seven.
Bay of Plenty’s still not out of the reckoning either, and if they can beat Manawatu on Saturday the Volcanix will give themselves a shot at the top four in the final week. It’s a brutal run home for Waikato, with games against Canterbury and Counties to come. Second to last in the Premiership, a win in one of those two games might just be enough to hold off Manawatu in the fight against relegation.
The Championship match-up we’ve been waiting for has arrived, as Hawke’s Bay host Otago in a fixture that will decide top spot on the ladder. Both teams have scored points at will and will now have eyes on a place in the Premiership next year…this match may be the phony war before a potential final but it will give us an insight into just how good these two teams are.
WHO’S GOING TO STOP CANTERBURY?
The defending champions look sharp. Fast and fit, Canterbury is a well-drilled side where everyone knows their roles and how to punish their opposition. While they have plenty of points scoring ability, it’s their defence which has laid the platform for a shot at a three-peat, conceding just 55 points so far this season. They’ve seen off all-comers to date, with the 14-point win over Counties last week the narrowest margin of victory.
So, who can challenge them? My view is the team who can do it is Auckland. Canterbury were run-away winners 45-12 when the teams met in round two, but that was an Auckland side without Aleisha-Pearl Nelson, Eloise Blackwell and Charmaine McMenamin. Admittedly Kendra Cocksedge also sat out that match for Canterbury, but put those three back into the Auckland pack and all of a sudden it’s a team with six current or former internationals up front. Added to that, Auckland look to have settled on their best backs combination, with Patricia Maliepo at 10 and Ruahei Demant at 12. If they can give themselves a chance for another crack at the defending champions, Auckland may be the only team capable of tipping them up.
On a sour note, the injury toll for some teams is concerning. They’re a fact of life in sport across the board, but in the Farah Palmer Cup they’re massively testing the depth of the squads. The hits are bigger, contact harder, and there’s also a big discrepancy in the levels of some players, where internationals who are semi-professional (but play and train like pros) are coming up against schoolgirls. Some players also carry the ball quite high, making for a greater chance of a head-on collision.
Contact and collision sports the world over are grappling with how to make their games safer, and it’s double conundrum for women where bravery and big hits are lauded and in some eyes, earn female players “more respect”. Without in-depth research and data and given I’m also not a medical professional, I’m certainly not the person to draw conclusions, but merely making the observation.
THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT
But wow, how good are some of these young players? Just about every team has schoolgirls or teenagers who show just why New Zealand Rugby has for so long been world leaders and world beaters. Auckland’s 16-year old Patricia Maliepo has made my jaw drop week after week with her control, vision, ball skills and kicking game. She’s just one name of many, not to mention those who are slightly older like Ayesha Leti-I’iga or Kilisitina Moata’ane, who will carry the competition and sport forward into hopefully a truly professional era in years to come.
It’s a joy to watch.