A_TW11102020NADFARAH072.JPG. Northland kicker Krystal Murray sends one towards the uprights. Photo / Tania Whyte
A_TW11102020NADFARAH010.JPG. The Kauri warriors prepare for battle. Photo / Tania Whyte
SUP100820NADsmith01.JPG. Kauri head coach Cheryl Smith. Photo / Debbie Beadle
A_TW11102020NADFARAH020.JPG. Northland's Aroha Savage was a dominant figure throughout the season. Photo / Tania Whyte
A_TW13092020NADFARAH102.JPG. Black Ferns Sevens star Tyla Nathan-Wong forces her way through the Auckland defence. Photo / Tania Whyte
A_TW11102020NADFARAH092.JPG. Portia Woodman showed her undeniable talent throughout the season. Photo / Tania Whyte
With two of the best women's rugby players in the world wearing Cambridge blue, expectations were lofty for the Northland Kauri in this year's Covid-impacted Farah Palmer Cup.
However, Portia Woodman, Tyla Nathan-Wong and the rest of the Tai Tokerau players will be watching this weekend's semifinals from the sidelines as the North pool's Waikato and Auckland progressed from round-robin play to meet Manawatū and Canterbury respectively to decide who will play in the final on October 30.
Northland's semifinal absence was not without drama as, after six round-robin games, Auckland, Northland and Counties Manukau all finished on 21 points.
Given their 107-3 win over Taranaki in the final round, Counties Manukau finished with a superior points differential, with Northland second and Auckland third.
However, as per competition rules, if three or more teams are tied on points, the team with the most competition points against the other tied teams advances.
The rule saw Counties Manukau out of semifinal contention as the team had only earned five competition points against Northland and Auckland, who each earned six points.
With just Auckland and Northland remaining, you'd be forgiven for thinking the team with the better points differential (Northland) would move on to the semifinal.
Alas, when just two teams are tied, competition rules state whichever team won during round-robin play advances, which in this case was Auckland - who triumphed over the Kauri in a 27-20 classic at Semenoff Stadium.
The outcome will be a tough blow for the Kauri, especially given how during that game in September, Northland dominated for large portions and had their chance to level the game in the final moments as they sat camped on Auckland's tryline but were unable to cross.
For head coach and former Black Fern Cheryl Smith, the pain is still fresh.
"It's quite deflating because we were having such an awesome year, but I suppose it comes down to you having to win every game," she said.
"The learning is you've got to play that game to win and [if we had], we wouldn't have been in this situation."
The Kauri's loss to Auckland was the second in two games to start Northland's season after a scrappy 18-5 loss to Waikato.
It seemed the close result against their Auckland rivals motivated the Northlanders to go on a four-game winning streak; stunning a strong Counties Manukau 32-20, cruising past North Harbour 65-5, smashing Taranaki 77-3 and cleaning up Bay of Plenty 32-0.
It resembled the Kauri's journey in 2019, also the team's first year playing in the competition, when the team suffered early losses before going on to record four consecutive wins and finish on the cusp of the semifinals.
However, this year showed significant improvement. The Kauri's wins last year were against less renowned teams such as North Harbour, Tasman and Taranaki, while this year, Northland announced themselves as true contenders by beating Counties Manukau and threatening Auckland.
Furthermore, this year's result against North Harbour was in stark contrast to last year's win, which required a last-minute try from Krystal Murray.
Much of this year's success could be attributed to the inclusion of world rugby stars Woodman and Nathan-Wong, who were released from their Black Ferns Sevens commitments due to Covid-19.
Woodman, whose whānau hails from Kaikohe, would be one of the most dangerous ball-runners in women's rugby, while Nathan-Wong's skill and stamina at halfback or fullback were rarely matched.
The side was also bolstered by former World Cup-winning Black Fern Aroha Savage, who starred as a dynamic forward for Te Rarawa in the Northland women's club rugby competition.
The three players simply added to the plethora of talent in the Kauri, which included Black Fern hooker Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate, New Zealand rugby league representative Krystal Murray, World Cup winner Victoria Subritzky-Nafatali, former Black Fern Kamila Wihongi and a range of skilful youngsters.
Smith, a double World Cup winner herself, said the unexpected inclusion of Woodman and Nathan-Wong was invaluable for the side.
"Portia and Tyla, just what they brought to this team, the girls got fitter, the girls really trained hard this year," she said.
Providing the global sevens competition goes ahead next year, the pair were expected not to feature again for the Kauri. Smith said while they would be hard to replace, she believed the remaining players would take valuable lessons into future seasons.
"It'll be a massive hole, but I think the [other] girls have seen the level now and they wouldn't want to drop the level."
While she couldn't be more proud of her players and the community for how the season panned out, Smith said not making the semifinals was still disappointing.
When Smith started as coach last year, she was clear she would give the team three years to be challenging for the competition title before reviewing her involvement.
Still committed to manning the helm next year, Smith had her mind set on a victorious 2021.
"This year I really thought we were going to give it a good nudge and I thought, by the third year, we should be winning so hopefully, I can take all my learnings from this year and as the old saying goes, third time lucky."