Waikato Women refreshed and ready
The Waitomo Group Waikato Farah Palmer Cup rugby team and coach James Semple are fizzing for their first match of the 2021 Farah Palmer Cup on Saturday. Waitomo Group have stepped up their support in 2021, moving from the sleeve sponsor they have been since 2019 to being the new major sponsor and will be displayed front and centre on the Waikato FPC team for the next two seasons. I caught¯up with the squad as they trained at Ohaupo¯ Rugby Sports Club and even former O¯ haupo¯ and Waikato fullback Andrew Strawbridge was part of the team’s training session. You could see the smiles across the Ohaupo¯ ¯ Memorial Park as the players prepared for the FPC season. This season’s squad features six 2020 Black Ferns squad members — Chelsea Alley, Carla Hohepa, Renee Holmes, Tanya Kalounivale, Cheyelle Robins-Reti and Kennedy Simon — plus two players who featured for the 2020 New Zealand Barbarians, Ariana Bayler and Grace Houpapa-Barrett. Seventeen players from the 2020 squad return to play in 2021; they are joined by six players who return to the Waikato squad after hiatuses of a season or two. Players from 2019 making their return are Jade Coates, Ryleigh Hayes, Rina Paraone, Kennedy Tahau and Awhina Tangen-Wainohu. “We’ve also got Vic Edmonds coming back who’s played 44 games Waikato, so she’s awesome to have back,” said coach Semple. “We really lean on those leaders to drive our standards and set the bar really high, more through their actions, but then holding other people accountable when it’s needed. “That was a real focus for us selecting the squad, selecting girls that actually really want to make a difference and want to get better and grow the jersey. We’re really happy with how that’s been going so far.” Coach Semple, a former player himself, having represented Counties Manukau and North Harbour, is excited to see what 2021 brings after Waikato’s strong form in last year’s FPC. “I didn’t coach club this year, just to focus on this team. I just love coaching. So, I’m just really looking forward to getting out there and seeing what we can do with this group. I’m really happy and excited with the team we’ve been able to pick this year,” he said. Waikato have had just the two preseason games — against the Hawke’s Bay Tui and the Taranaki Whio — but they both held encouraging signs. “Gabby Wainohu [Melville Rugby Club] is an awesome winger that we’re really excited to unleash on the comp. She’ll cause a bit of damage I think.” Semple and the team have selected two new halfbacks along with regular starter Ariana Bayler “to keep her honest”, while a few new props have also been selected from Melville, giving the team stronger ballrunning options. “We’ve got an exciting new centre, Nikita Porima. She’s a little bit older and mature which we’re excited about. She brings that cool head and a little bit of experience, having played for Harbour before, so we’re excited about the options that she can give us in the midfield too.” This season Semple will be partnered by new assistant coach Mike Rogers. Semple has a message for the loyal Waikato fans. “Your support is unreal. We definitely feel you and it grows better each year. Last year you helped us through some tough moments in a really tough comp,” he said. The squad will again be captained by Chelsea Alley, who has amassed 44 caps for the province and this year has a chance of reaching 50 caps for Waikato. This is similar to the milestone she achieved last season, where against Bay of Plenty she played her 50th provincial cap (Waikato, Auckland and North Harbour). “Leading Waikato is a massive honour for me, I love this team and I love how we’ve built it over the years. The girls are working really hard and I’m just looking forward to hopefully a successful season,” said Alley. Recently, Alley has been involved with the Sky Sport rugby panel with the likes of former All Blacks Sir John Kirwan and Jeff Wilson. “I’ve put a hold on the Sky TV work during the FPC season so I can focus fully on my team and in my role within this team because I don’t take the captain duties lightly. I like to be present 100 per cent.” Alley hopes to inspire any aspiring women’s rugby players. “If you really enjoy rugby, then it’s something that there is a career path for now. So, just get a good support system around you. Train hard, work hard, but have fun at the same time,” she said. “Get behind our red, yellow, black girls this year. We’ve been working really hard and we always appreciate hearing cowbells in the stands or any messages of support that come our way — we feel it every time we take the field.” Alley will again be joined in the leadership group by 2020 vicecaptain Chyna Hohepa. Chyna is one of six members from the Kihikihi club in the 2021 Waikato squad. Sister and former Black Fern Carla Hohepa, Emma-lee Heta, Merania Paraone, Rina Paraone and Kiriana Nolan all come from the small country club. Nolan is in her third year with the squad after debuting as a 17-year-old. She’s over the moon that so many players were selected from their Kihikihi club. “It’s awesome. Such a little club but so cool to see people like us making it.” A first five-eighth like Alley, Nolan is keen to get game time. “When I was 15, Chelsea was driving me to tournaments and now I get to train alongside her and learn off her so that’s pretty cool. “I want to start and compete with Chelsea,” she said jokingly. “It’ll be hard work, but worth it though.’ The Waitomo Group Waikato FPC team had a bye week last weekend, with their first match this Saturday at 1pm in a repeat of the 2020 final, this time hosting reigning champions Canterbury, at Hamilton Marist. “For us going against Canterbury, that’s a good benchmark for us to see where we’re at, but it’s more about us doing our stuff right, rather than who we’re facing at that time of the season,” said Semple.