Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

Tagata Pasifika

The Pacific voice on
New Zealand television
since 1987

2023 – A year of rebuild and growth for the Black Ferns

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

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Neueli Mauafu | Reporter

It was only a year ago that the Black Ferns achieved World Cup greatness in front of a sold out Eden Park. 

But a  year later they found themselves in a rematch of that game, in the final for the new WXV1 international tournament, this time at Go Media Mt Smart Stadium.

This time the result did not swing in favour of the Ferns as England were too strong and physical in all aspects of the game, coming out 33-12 winners.

It was a result that showed that, despite the Ferns being defending world champions, they were undergoing a process of change with a new management group and a raft of new players to work into their squad.

Yeah I’m really proud of the growth in the group. The management group as a whole; where we started,  where we are now. There’s a massive change,” new black ferns coach Alan Bunting says.

“We didn’t get the win tonight but we created many opportunities and hopefully we get another chance next year.” 

In 2023 the Black Ferns played seven tests, winning five and losing two. Both losses came in the WXV1 tournament against England and France. Outside of a World Cup year, it’s the most tests the Ferns have played in a season.

For loose forward Liana Mikaele Tu’u, the results may not have been perfect but she sees it as the start of something new for the Ferns. A key member of the team that claimed the World title against England last year, she’s still only 21 years old.

“As professional athletes we always aspire to be the best. I guess for us, it’s just building on what’s created for the Black Ferns and getting behind our new players,” she says.

“I’m still quite young and I have to pinch myself sometimes because I am still amazed at some of the idols I looked up to that I play with now.”

In finding their way through this season, the Black Ferns were able to showcase new and younger players who immediately made their impact known during the WXV1 tournament.

One of those players was wing Katelyn Vaha’akolo who also represented the Kiwis in rugby league. 

Vaha’akolo transitioned through to rugby and played for the Blues Aupiki team quickly impressing selectors and the new Ferns head coach.

Coming on in the second half in their loss to England, she made an impact by scoring in the corner to help reduce the England lead. Her efforts for this season were also rewarded as she received World Rugby’s Breakthrough Player of the Year award.

“I think I am a bit hard on myself because I didn’t think I had that much of a great season. But yeah I’m very grateful and feel very lucky,” Vaha’akolo says.

“Just to do what I want and be free. That’s when I play my best footy and just play with courage. Alan Bunting just tells me just go and do what I want and yeah that’s what I’m gonna do more of.” 

Looking back on the season, Bunting and his team are appreciative of what they have achieved and are looking forward to the future especially with the inclusion of the WXV1 tournament. 

“To be able to play different teams and a different style of rugby is massive for us. You know the Northern Hemisphere they’ve been playing in the Six Nations for quite a while and they play each other quite a bit so for us to play them a bit more often is great for women’s rugby,” Bunting says.

Liana echoed her coach’s thoughts but also proposed to World Rugby for the same opportunities for the smaller nations such as Fiji, Samoa and Tonga,

“I think for Black Ferns, something as simple as just, like, having more games really has developed our team,” she says.

“I would love to see that opportunity for our smaller nations to be able to come up against the best, because you don’t know what you’re really capable of unless you come up against the best.

“Ithink it will inspire all those girls to really reach for more if they are able to come up against harder teams, professional teams, so yeah that will be really cool.”

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