Chiefs Manawa add flair and experience to squad ahead of Super Rugby Aupiki

By James Perry

Defending Super Rugby Aupiki champions Chiefs Manawa have added some firepower, including Kiwi Ferns rugby league stars to replace a number of unavailable players.

Harono Te Iringa rejoins the squad after an outstanding 2022 season with the team, while regular Black Ferns Sevens member Tenika Willison, Kiwi Ferns Rugby League World Cup squad members Abigail Roache and Apii Nicholls-Pualau bring a new skill set to the squad. They join the squad as replacement players for Renee Wickliffe (retiring), Pia Tapsell (ACL injury), Chelsea Semple (maternity leave) and Merania Paraone (playing overseas). 

Willison (Waikato) is a Black Ferns Sevens player, who was a part of the gold medal-winning side at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. She also earned a bronze medal at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

Willison has been a standout player since a young age, representing New Zealand in touch rugby and beginning her training with the Black Ferns Sevens team at just 16 years old. She has notched up an impressive 76 points for the Black Ferns Sevens from 42 starts since her debut in 2016.

Chiefs Manawa head coach Crystal Kaua says Willison will bring a special skillset to her squad. "She is a triple threat. Her skillset and ability to execute that under pressure will be massive for us.  She also adds so much off the field. She’s a real champion of the unseen māhi and we can’t wait to have her in our environment.”  

Ruthless addition

Willison, a former Hamilton Girls High student, can't wait to turn out for her hometown team, “I’m looking forward to jumping back into the home colours, getting among the team culture and seeing what the Waitomo Chiefs Manawa is all about.”

Counties-Manukau’s Te Iringa played impressively at lock last season to assist the team in taking out the inaugural Sky Super Rugby Aupiki title. This form saw her selected to attend the Black Ferns training camp ahead of the Rugby World Cup.

Kaua says Te Iringa brings brutality and ruthlessness to the field, which will be vital to the forward pack. "She was a massive contributor in the 2022 season and we’re excited to have her back with the Waitomo Chiefs Manawa this season. Her 1.83m frame, alongside her game awareness and ability to play what’s in front of her, makes her a fabulous signing for us.”

Harono is excited by the opportunity to play Super Rugby Aupiki once again. "I love this team, love the vibes and looking forward to going to war with my wāhine.”

Abigail Roache joins the squad off the back of a successful FPC campaign with the Auckland Storm that saw the team place third in the premiership.

Switching codes

Also a talented league player, Roache made her Kiwi Ferns debut in 2022 during the Rugby League World Cup against Australia, going on to start in the finals game too. The same season she won the Cathy Friend women's player of the year award for her outstanding performances with the Auckland Rugby League.

Kaua says Roache's ethic matches her talent. "She has a huge future in the game of league, sevens or XV’s - she plays what’s in front, is physical, smart and team first.  We think it’s really important we keep reopening the door to players like Abi and having played FPC and sevens at a young age, she is a massive asset.”

Roache said of her signing: “This opportunity was unexpected bu,t when Muz [Crystal] gave me the call, it wasn’t a hard decision. I’m grateful to be heading into an environment with so much experience to help me grow as an athlete. I’m excited about the challenge.“

Roaches Kiwi Ferns teammate Apii Nicholls-Pualau made her debut in 2017 winning the female rugby league player of the year award in the same season. She is now a key player for the Gold Coast Titans in the NRLW, previously playing for the Warriors.

'Fiercely competitive'

Like her Chiefs Manawa teammate Charmaine Smith, Nicholls-Pualau is a police officer outside of her rugby career.

"Apii brings a wealth of experience with the oval ball, taking possession of the fullback jersey for the Kiwi Ferns as well as being a phenomenal sevens and tag player. She is an athlete who plays instinctively and is a threat to any defensive line. As a policewoman and mum of two, she is fiercely competitive but with a deep care for people. We know her potential and we know she will add value to our squad on and off the field," Kaua said.

Nicholls-Pualau says she is grateful for her selection: "It’s a privilege and I’m honoured to be a part of such a special event. It's been a while since I’ve been involved with rugby union but I know there will be a wealth of knowledge and experience within the Waitomo Chiefs Manawa. I’m very lucky to be in that space and I look forward to absorbing it all and having fun."

Super Rugby Aupiki begins on February 25 with the Chiefs Manawa travelling to Taitoko/Levin to face the Hurricanes Poua.