All week the players had tried to tell themselves it was just another game.
But there were moments in Thursday night’s inaugural Super Rugby Aupiki clash between the Chiefs Manawa and Matatū where their thoughts betrayed them. This wasn’t just another game.
You could sense it in the energy and excitement reverberating off the players as they arrived at the ground and walked the turf in the early evening sun, some taking a moment to themselves to soak up the occasion.
Later, after the sun had dipped behind the western stand, covering the ground in shade, you sensed it in the intensity and focus in the warm-ups.
You sensed it in the reassuring squeeze of the shoulder Matatū fullback Renee Holmes gave her captain Alana Bremner as they stood at the end of the tunnel waiting to run onto the field. You sensed it too in the look of determination worn by Bremner’s counterpart for the Chiefs, Les Elder, as she led her side on to their home turf and into a new era.
And you could see it, raw and unbridled, in the emotion in the wero laid down by the two sides in the pre-match formalities.
There must have been a point at which each of them wondered if they would get here at all.
Most of the air had leaked out of the hype balloon long before Thursday night’s opener through the constant tinkering with the scheduling, as a four-week competition shrunk to a 16-day tournament, and now, a 10-day one (or six days in the case of the Blues and Hurricanes Poua). A truncated season played amid public health crisis is not what the marketers would have dreamed of when a women’s Super Rugby season was first mooted.
But after years of conversations, months of preparation, weeks of uncertainty and scheduling disruptions, and five days turnaround since their preseason dress rehearsal, the Chiefs Manawa and Matatū finally marked the long-overdue entry of a professional women’s rugby competition in New Zealand.
Stripped of all but a few small pockets of spectators, and with it, the distractions of stadium announcers and gimmicky entertainment, there was a raw energy to the game.
In an evening of firsts, every tackle, line-break, ruck, line-out and scrum felt momentous, like new ground was being forged. Because it was.
Few of these moments will be remembered in the final wash-up, but what will remain the Super Rugby annals – and pub quiz trivia – is the name Angel Mulu. The young Chiefs prop became Super Rugby Aupiki’s first try-scorer when she powered over the line in the 10th minute after a frenetic start to the match.
Later a “fizzing” Mulu told stuff that her one goal for the game was to make her family proud. Mulu’s mother Karen had driven up from Porirua for the historic fixture. With the teams operating under strict bubble protocols, Mulu could only wave at her mum from the field after the match. It was undoubtedly still worth it.
It was a history-making night for props, with Black Ferns veteran Pip Love scoring the first try for Matatū, striking back for the visitors 10 minutes after Mulu’s opener.
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Soon opposing wings Ruby Tui (Chiefs) and Grace Steinmetz (Matatū) were in on the action, before impressive Chiefs loose forward Kennedy Simon rounded out the try-scoring action for the first half to see the home side lead 17-10 at the break .
That was where the score remained up until the final minute of the match, with the Chiefs Manawa forced to play the second spell almost entirely in their own half as they resisted wave after wave of attack. Amy Rule finally made the breakthrough for the Matatū in the dying stages, raising the prospects of the season-opener going to golden point, but Arabella McKenzie pushed her conversion attempt wide.
The error-strewn second half reduced to
“It’s in our name, Manawa. It means heart, and that’s what we showed out there,” Elder told stuff after the match.
While coaches Allan Bunting and Blair Baxter may disagree, in many respects it wasn’t really about the game. It was about what the game represents.
Aupiki – meaning the “ascent to the upper-most realm” – signifies the stepping stone the competition provides from Farah Palmer Cup level to the Black Ferns.
But there is also an aspirational element to the competition itself and what it can bring for the women’s game. It’s a starting point. Women’s rugby is only just commencing its ascent. There is difficult terrain to be scaled, but for the wāhine involved in this year’s competition, the journey means everything.