Chiefs Manawa have bulldozed their way into the Super Rugby Aupiki final with a clean sweep of all opponents. In four matches, they have scored 194 points, but lock Kelsie Thwaites (nee Wills) warns the defending champions are capable of much more.
“I think the awesome thing about our team is that we really haven’t reached our potential yet. We’ve had games where the forwards have led the way, and games, where the backs got us over the line, so to find that balance where we are on form across the park, will be key this coming weekend,” she said.
At lock Thwaites has secured the third most lineout catches in the competition and has been in the engine room of a devastatingly effective rolling maul.
“The key to a successful maul is establishing a solid base with jumpers and lifters, then ensuring everyone slots into their allocated space and keeps connected. The connection is by far the most important point. Without this, defenders can easily get in a break it up.”
A former Commonwealth Games and national champion volleyballer, Thwaites took up rugby in 2018 where athleticism and height were apparent advantages. She was good enough to play two tests on the Black Ferns 2021 Northern Tour which proved to be a baptism of fire, New Zealand was heavily defeated twice by England with the rolling maul to the fore.
“We haven’t had to defend many mauls this season, but from the English tour experience, the most important thing is to just get stuck in, put your head in a dark place and work together.
“It would be awesome to get back into the Black Ferns environment this year, especially given my lack of game time last year injured. My key focus this year has been to make it onto the field for Aupiki. I have gotten through four games without any issues so far so am absolutely stoked with my Aupiki campaign.
"It has been awesome working with Chelsea Bremner in the locking department, with 'Chels' being the ‘calling lock’, a lot of pressure has been taken off me, and I feel like I can just get out there and play.”
Thwaites has matured considerably as a player adding a greater physical edge to her superior jumping and aerial skills. She has become something of a leader too. In 2022 she captained Bay of Plenty.
“It was a bit of a surprise to be honest when I got the call to captain. The Volcanix has so many experienced players who I look up to and seek advice from so to reverse this relationship was challenging for me. I’m not one to whip out many inspirational speeches. I lead doing. I like to work hard and hope my teammates see that and follow me.”
Manawa defeated the Hurricanes 43-21 in the semi-finals. It was a repeat of their first-round success over the Poua, a favourite game of Thwaites'.
“We were all so fired up to get out there and get the competition underway, and for some of us, it was the first game since FPC in September. Being a very physical game in the forwards, we were all drained by the final whistle, which always makes the win more satisfying.”
Manawa beat Matatū 48-36 in their third-round meeting. Thwaites believes emulating the physicality of previous wins while restricting the slippery Matatū outside backs will be key in the Chiefs repeating their 2022 triumph.