Rugby: Counties Manukau look to topple Auckland in Farah Palmer final

By Campbell Burnes

New Zealand Sevens star Portia Woodman will be looking to give unbeaten Counties Manukau a spark in the Farah Palmer cup final. Photo / photosport
New Zealand Sevens star Portia Woodman will be looking to give unbeaten Counties Manukau a spark in the Farah Palmer cup final. Photo / photosport

Cast your mind back to 2006.

A decade ago, the Black Ferns won their third Rugby World Cup. On the domestic scene, that season marked the last time any side other than the Auckland Storm have won the women's NPC.

That was the Wellington Pride, who edged Auckland 11-10 in the final at Eden Park.

Since 1999, Auckland have won no less than 15 of the 16 finals, an astonishing level of success, let alone dominance. Often laden with Black Ferns and with plenty of depth through the ranks, the Storm have dropped only a handful of games in those years.

But the year is 2016 and there is a young, vibrant team who have gone through the Farah Palmer Cup unbeaten. They are the Counties Manukau Heat. They feature a sprinkling of Black Ferns and some experienced campaigners who would love nothing more than to beat up on big sister.

Just weeks ago, they defeated the Storm 7-3 in the wet in Papakura, so Auckland will be smarting to have lost the match and home advantage for the final, to be played in Pukekohe.

Neither coach was keen, naturally, to assume the favourites' tag, and there are fair arguments for either the Heat or the Storm to take that mantle into the decider.

But one would think there will not be much in it, judging by two fine semifinals displays by the sides. The Heat cleaned up the Pride, who knocked them out of the 2015 semifinals, 60-7, while Auckland's staunch defence and power pack accounted for Canterbury 33-3.

Heat coach Davida White knows the score. A former Black Fern and Storm player, she also coached the Storm and has been at the helm of the Heat since 2013, when they entered the women's NPC. The improvement in three years has been palpable.

White has the luxury of choosing from a full strength squad, and has made just one change to her bench from the side that won their semi so decisively.

That win over the Pride looks like the best display of the season, on the face of it, but White says there were areas to tidy up around both defence and attack.

As for the 7-3 win over the Storm, White sees no relevance from that to what will transpire in the final.

"The weather was pretty crappy. The match could have gone either way. The ball was like soap and it was windy. It taught us how to play wet weather rugby, but it's not our game," she says.

White casts the Storm as favourites.

"They've got the tradition and a long-standing pedigree of players coming through the Auckland union. This is our fourth year in the competition and we've got nothing to lose."

Their game plan will not just be as simple as getting the ball to Portia Woodman on the left wing in space, because they have a physical pack and a smart 9-10 spine in Victoria Subritzsky-Nafatali and captain Arihiana Marino. Forwards Aroha Savage and Rawinia Everitt carry well and can win ball. The Heat, drawing all their players from the Manurewa and Ardmore-Marist clubs, can bring the experience of Justine Lavea off the bench.

In the back three, with much of the focus on Portia Woodman, do not forget the talents of Hazel Tubic and Renee Wickliffe.

White, who forms, with Darryl Suasua, the sole New Zealand husband and wife NPC coaching duo, says she and Suasua, who takes the Steelers, swap notes on occasion.

"We chat about things. We don't always agree, which is a good thing," says White.

Auckland coach Dean Bickerton, in his second season at the helm of the Storm, says the big loss is centre Theresa Fitzpatrick, who scored three tries in the 2015 decider against Wellington. She hurt her shoulder in last weekend's semifinal and will be out for six weeks. Other than that, the Storm look like a well-balanced mix of youth and experience, with firepower out wide via Tyla Nathan-Wong and Mele Hufanga, and in the pack, where they can bring the likes of Aldora Itunu and Doris Taufateau off the bench.

"The girls are in a good frame of mind and preparation has gone well this week. They're looking to put out a good performance on Sunday," says Bickerton.

But he was unwilling to declare the Storm as favourites.

"They've performed well all year. Their defensive record is pretty good," he says of the 40 points the Heat have conceded in their seven games. The Storm have leaked 87.

"The Heat are a well-drilled, big and powerful side. Sometimes a loss works to your advantage and it probably came at an opportune time for us. We think we've done our homework."

Whilst the Storm will be on high alert when Woodman receives the ball, Bickerton says he is looking at how his side as a whole can shut down all the Heat runners.

If the going gets tough, the Storm will look to the likes of captain Fiao'o Fa'amausili, who has been in sparkling form at hooker this season. Debuting in this competition in the year it kicked off, 1999, she will suit up for her 97th game for the province on Sunday.

Counties Manukau Heat: Hazel Tubic, Renee Wickliffe, Badinlee Munro-Smith, Shontelle Woodman, Portia Woodman, Victoria Subritzky-Nafatali, Arihiana Marino (c), Krystal Murray, Sharnita Woodman, Aroha Savage, Rawinia Everitt, Hanna Brough, Aotearoa Matau, Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate, Leilani Perese; Reserves: Victoria Meki, Hinewai Pomare, Stacey Brown, Justine Lavea, Timara Leaf, Arzania Watene, Cynthia Ta'ala

Auckland Storm: Tyla Nathan-Wong, Teuila Fotu-Moala, Naite Faitala-Mariner, Onjeurlina Leiataua, Mele Hufanga, Kiritapu Demant, Emma Jensen, Charmaine McMenamin, Lydia Crossman, Charlotte Scanlan, Charlene Gubb, Eloise Blackwell, Aleisha Nelson, Fiao'o Fa'amausili (c), Karina Stowers; Reserves: Aldora Itunu, Doris Taufateau, Malia Tova, Shannon Willoughby, Nora Baltruweit, Aeron Warbrooke, Lose Mafi

Farah Palmer Cup final
Counties Manukau Heat v Auckland Storm
ECOLight Stadium, Pukekohe
Sunday, 2.30pm

Road to the 2016 final:
Heat

Waikato W 29-0
North Harbour W 42-3
Otago W 58-10
Bay of Plenty W 45-12
Wellington W 37-5
Auckland W 7-3
Wellington (SF) W 60-7

Storm
Wellington W 34-27
Manawatu W 30-25
Bay of Plenty W 62-0
Canterbury W 29-25
Otago W 62-0
Counties Manukau L 3-7
Canterbury (SF) W 33-3

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