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Chiefs Manawa are into the final of Super Rugby Aupiki with a fortnight remaining in the regular season.

The 2023 runners-up have won all four matches and confirmed their place in the decider last Friday with a resounding 43-12 thumping of Hurricanes Poua in Palmerston North.

Black Ferns hooker Luka Connor has been instrumental in Manawa magic. She has scored a record 15 tries in 12 matches; an architect and benefactor of an imposing lineout drive.

In the 38-22 victory against reigning champions Matatu, Connor became the first forward in Aupiki history to score a hat-trick. All three tries were scored from mauls.

“The lineout is such a big thing. Everyone involved has to nail their role. The throw has to be on, the jump, the lift, everything tight,” Connor told Rugby Pass.

“As a forward pack, we’ve nailed those areas and that’s special. If the lineout drive is our weapon, we’re going to keep using it until we can’t,”

“We’re lucky we’ve got Charmaine Smith and Chelsea Bremner making the lineout calls. They share that responsibility and their chemistry and experience are huge.

“There are so many calls they have, we don’t know which one is coming, and sometimes you don’t hear it, but it’s all about nailing positions and working together.”

It’s perhaps ironic leading Black Ferns are embracing the lineout drive with such enthusiasm. England has come under fire from some New Zealand critics for their frequent use of the maul.

However in the 2022 Rugby World Cup final at Eden Park the Black Ferns scored twice from the maul themselves. Professional rugby demands the repeating of good habits.

“It’s unbelievable to think that rugby is my job. A couple of years ago we couldn’t believe we had a one-off Super Rugby game. Now we get paid as Chiefs Manawa and have two rounds of Aupiki,” Connor said.

“This competition is only going to get better. For the next generation, there’s a possibility that girls can leave school and go straight into professional rugby. It could be like the men where we play Super Rugby half the year with Australia and then play internationals.”

While Connor always has an eye on the future she is very much stuck in the present. She insists the Chiefs haven’t thought about the final which is likely to be against this weekend’s opponent, the Blues.

“We beat the Blues 17-10 a couple of weeks back. It was a messy game in not-perfect weather. Hopefully, it will be more entertaining this weekend.

“If you look at the Blues team they’re pretty much the Auckland Storm that won the FPC [Farah Palmer Cup] last year. They’ve been together a while and when they get it right, they’re a good team.

“It’s pretty wild to think that Matatu has been knocked out but that shows how the competition has evolved and how any team can win on the day. “

The Chiefs have shown they can win without Connor. Against Poua, Japanese international Seina Saito played hooker and scored two tries.

Backrowers Mia Anderson, Kennedy Simon, and Victoria Edmonds have impressed. The switch by Grace Steinmetz from wing to second-five has been a masterstroke. Black Ferns winger Ruby Tui has caught fire.

Connor will likely add to her 20 Black Ferns Test matches in the World Rugby Pacific Four Series against the USA, Canada, and Australia in May. Last year she made six appearances for New Zealand but it wasn’t always smooth sailing for the World Champions.

“We’re in a development phase, which is no excuse for not coming through against England. We had a few debutants who mixed well with the older players. That bodes well for the future,” Connor said.

“I enjoyed the Test against Canada. They have a different style of play, fit and fast. Typically they’ve replied on Sophie de Goede but they’re a growing threat across the park. Their home crowd was very passionate.”

The Black Ferns achieved their 100th Test win 52-21 in Ottawa in July, Connor scored one of their eight tries.

The penultimate round of Super Rugby Aupiki kicks off on Friday afternoon with Matatu hosting Poua in Christchurch. The Chiefs host the Blues at FGM Stadium in Hamilton on Saturday.



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