The noble wāhine who claimed rugby’s newest prize

Auckland and Counties Manukau made history battling for a new taonga in the Farah Palmer Cup.

On a weekend stacked with historic moments in New Zealand sport, the Auckland Storm and Counties Manukau Heat quietly etched their own marks in the record books.

For the first time, the neighbours were contending for the 'Te Toki Mareikura' taonga (treasure) at Eden Park, in their round-robin clash in the Farah Palmer Cup.

In doing so, they followed in the footsteps of a legendary group of wāhine, who decided against sitting around waiting for men to do something they could easily achieve on their own.

The establishment of the taonga match marks the significant growth of a national provincial competition that's now in its 20th year.

The Wāhine and Rugby Collective, with the support of Auckland Rugby, coined a campaign to get ‘3000 fans in the stands’ for the match. Although they fell short, the 1700-strong crowd was more than had attended previous games this season.

“I’m proud to see that the work the Collective started earlier this year has come to life,” says Chantal ‘Shorty’ Bakersmith, a former Auckland Storm second-five, and instigator of the Wāhine and Rugby Collective.

“The power of a community-led initiative is really cool to see and hear up close. On the rugby side, it was perfect - the game was competitive and entertaining, and the feedback from fans in the stands was positive. So we just need to keep going.”

The idea of an annual challenge was sparked by Black Ferns legend and Auckland Storm coach Anna Richards, Counties Manukau stalwart and former Storm and Heat player Karla Matua, and Bakersmith.

Matua shared the idea of wanting to create a challenge to honour women in rugby, with local kaumatua.

Toi Katipa, a kaumatua from Tainui iwi, gifted the taonga the name ‘Te Toki Mareikura’ – which loosely translates to ‘champion noble female’. 

The name is linked to a local Māori legend, Bakersmith says, that signifies the resilience and mana needed from wāhine to work together to achieve a common goal, "like our wāhine in rugby".

The Storm's 16-year-old first five, Patricia Maliepo, slices through a gap against the Heat. Photo: Dennis Mansfield. 

According to legend, it was common for Māori to take the portage crossing from Ōkahu Bay in the Waitematā Habour, down into the Tāmaki River. To get from the west coast to the east coast, a waka would be carried along a 1km stretch of land and then placed into the Manukau Harbour.

On one occasion, there were no tāne (men) to carry and paddle the waka across, so the wāhine of the iwi took it upon themselves to get the job done - and did so in the same amount of time as the tāne.

This legend connects the land and water of different coasts of the Waitematā and Tāmaki harbours, which also relates to the connection between Tāmaki Makaurau and Counties Manukau regions.

Creating a space for women involved in rugby to come together, share ideas and form support networks was the main reason for starting the Wāhine and Rugby Collective.

With New Zealand hosting the upcoming Rugby World Cup in 2021, the space is needed more than ever.

Although it will be the first time New Zealand has hosted this event, the Black Ferns will be aiming for a record sixth world championship title – a feat no other New Zealand rugby team can boast. 

And it will boost the legacy and history of the Black Ferns and women’s rugby even further. Much like the Auckland Storm and Counties Manukau Heat did in the first of many battles for Te Toki Mareikura.

The Auckland Storm celebrate their 38-31 victory over the Counties Manukau Heat  Photo: Dennis Mansfield. 

Young girls from local rugby clubs and schools ran out on to Eden Park with the players, in another first for the women’s game. Maddison–Rose Motuliki, player number 23 and ball girl for the match, was recognised for having played over 100 games across nine seasons for the Marist Rugby Club.

“When we were waiting in the tunnel at half-time, I overheard Maddison’s aunty say that could be her niece one day, as the players ran back out on the field. You could see the excitement on their faces,” says Bakersmith.

With an average age of 20 in the Storm backline, the future of Auckland rugby is in young, skillful hands. The likes of Isla Norman Bell and Princess Elliott on the wings, and 16-year-old Patricia Maliepo at first-five, are the foundation for the rebuilding of the Auckland Storm. The team were almost relegated from this season's premiership - but were saved by the addition of Northland to the Farah Palmer Cup.

The Storm were knocked early, with the Heat opening on the scoreboard with a try to No. 8 and former Black Fern, Justine Lavea.

Auckland responded with a try to Black Fern Ruahei Demant to level the score, but Heat lock Temira Mataroa would push the visitors forward again just before 20 minutes, following a consistent pick-and-go phase of play.

But then the Storm piled on the points, mostly through the magic of playmaker Maliepo. By the 35th minute the score was 28-12 - with Black Fern Charmaine McMenamin scoring off a driving maul.

The momentum was with Auckland, until two tries to the Heat in the late stages of the first half saw the visitors go into halftime only trailing 28-24.

The Storm managed to hold on for the win, 38-31, setting themselves up for a home semifinal. And the history books will record them as the very first victors of the Te Toki Mareikura taonga.

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