The Super Rugby Aupiki squads for the 2024 season have been announced this week. Trades have been made, notable amongst them is Renee Holmes heading back to her provincial roots, Kaipo Olsen-Baker flying south to Matatū and Krystal Murray planning to run out for her third franchise in three seasons. The churn doesn’t stop there, across the four squads we have around 30 new faces added to the competition next year.
Turnover each season remains high in this competition. Between season one and two, the Blues shed just above 60 per cent of their squad. The inaugural champions, the Chiefs Manawa, around 40 per cent and Hurricanes Poua, just over 46 per cent. Matatū were the only franchise that bucked the trend, holding onto 67 per cent of their original squad for season two. This continuity in their player base perhaps a factor in Matatū's championship.
Coming into the third season the Blues have steadied the ship, retaining over 65 per cent of their 2023 team. Manawa have turned over just shy of 50 per cent of their squad and the Hurricanes Poua aren’t far behind them. The Poua drew the short end of the recruitment stick though, having bled a lot of experience. The capital’s team now have the fewest capped Black Ferns in the competition. Matatū meanwhile, maintains the highest retention rate. Securing 70 per cent of their title-winning team ahead of next year.
That the Blues and Matatū hold on to their players at a higher rate might be in part due to the success of their feeder provincial unions. It is no secret that Canterbury and Auckland have long held dominance in the Farah Palmer Cup. Operating at a high level, they’re able to more seamlessly transition their talent across from Provincial to Super Rugby.
The Chiefs Manawa turnover appears to be driven by the fact that they are the team players want to play for. In year one, Alan Bunting pulled in all his sevens stars and in year two, Crystal Kaua picked up two Black Ferns, one Sevens player and a couple of Kiwi Ferns. This trend continues with Ruby Tui, Renee Holmes, Grace Steinmetz, Krystal Murray and Ariana Bayler all heading to Hamilton next season.
So that leaves the Hurricanes Poua. They were the home of defection last season, with the Northland Kauri contingent pulling in a number of Blues players to join them. They haven’t had such success in recruitment though this year. Coach Ngatai Walker, Victoria Grant’s maternity cover, is unknown in the women’s game which may explain why they were unable to attract established talent to the black and yellow.
A question that is underlined by all this churn is what this all means to the part that Aupiki plays in the women’s rugby pathway. While some transfers are fortuitous, allowing Black Fern combinations to get more game time together, this also prevents local talent from being able to break through. Meanwhile in other regions, this talent is being thrust forward, perhaps before it is ready, to cover for recruitment shortcomings. It’s not the stars so much as their understudies, where we are seeing a rolling cast of talent unable to establish themselves in these truncated seasons.
It’s on these edges, where we see this player group disengage after their Aupiki experience. Natahlia Moors, Olivia Ward-Duin, Pia Tapsell, all players that were built up and then disappeared almost as quickly. Aupiki’s promise was in giving us more time for players like these to develop but somehow it has provided us with less.
The statistics alone don’t tell us stories, they just suggest where we might find them. Turnover year on year, in an age of semi-professionalism isn’t yet news. But tracking this data can tell us who is holding tight to the stars as they emerge and which players can fight through the churn to shine. And those are the ones that should light our way forward.