The Hawke's Bay Tuis women's rugby side's quest for a semifinal finish in this season's National Provincial Championship has received an early blow.
This season's NPC newcomers Waikato beat the Tuis 34-24 in a first-round encounter at Napier's Park Island on Saturday. The irony is Tuis coach Arthur Brown expected Waikato to be tougher.
"With all their Auckland-based players returning to play for them I certainly expected them to be stronger," Brown said.
Brown had every right to be proud of the character his troops displayed in recovering from a 27-12 deficit in the third quarter. This is an indication this season's squad is fitter than last year's team, which recorded two wins.
However, the Tuis' lack of patience and decision-making when under pressure left a lot to be desired. While their defensive line speed was adequate for most of the game, there were times when the Tuis backs moved up at the right pace but then players hesitated before making the tackle.
This was the case when Waikato centre Honey Hireme, who has been a long-serving New Zealand rugby league and Aotearoa Sevens representative, scored two tries within two minutes to give Waikato a 17-7 lead early in the second half. A player of her class should have been marked better.
There wasn't a shortage of positives for Brown and his coaching staff to build on. The Tuis scrum, spearheaded by props Jess Fibbes and Rachael McKenzie along with captain and hooker Natalie Cotton, functioned well.
Lock Amy Pettman had a phenomenal defensive workrate and also impressed with her carries. Openside flanker Chanel Huddleston gained valuable metres on the charge and also tackled tirelessly. First five-eighth Sylvia Bockman continued her classy club form with clever tactical kicking, some outstanding goalkicking and some superb bursts. It was disappointing she lacked the necessary support when she broke the Waikato defensive line.
Fullback Krysten Dufill again shone with her try-saving defensive work and enterprising attack. Halfback Gemma Woods was busy on defence and deserved her two tries, but she still needs to work on her patience and option taking.
This season's squad has more depth than last year's and the likes of frontrower Ruth Te Tonga and utility forward Jasmine Kemp provided valuable impact off the bench. It was a pity the New Zealand union hadn't completed the necessary paperwork to allow the Tuis to play their four secondary school players. Their input will be gauged with interest from this weekend.
Hireme and fullback Chyna Hohepa, who also scored two tries, were best of the Waikato backs, while blindside flanker Crystal Kaua and lock Baye Jacobs impressed in the visiting pack.
Saturday's first round, which also saw Otago upset Wellington 9-7, suggests this season's competition could be full with upsets similar to those seen in the ITM Cup. The Tuis need one against Wellington in the capital on Saturday to get their quest for a semifinal berth back on track.