Coach impressed by improvement in Aupiki players

Black Ferns assistant coach Tony Christie can already see the development in elite players through new Super Rugby Aupiki contracts this season.

New Zealand Rugby awarded Super Rugby Aupiki players new contracts, which included a paid eight-week individual preseason, followed by a four-week team preseason.

Christie, who was previously the assistant coach of Matatū before joining the Black Ferns, felt that had been a game-changer for the women’s game and resulted in a shift in the competition this season.

"It’s been outstanding and definitely a step up from last year," Christie said.

"I think the girls came back in better shape from their preseason training and we’re seeing that out on the field.

"Not only the Black Ferns, but the ability for those girls in the Super teams to do that preseason training . . . the girls are definitely fitter, faster, stronger and their skill set has definitely improved."

Some exceptional tries and attacking flair had been shown already but Christie, with one eye on the defence as the Black Ferns defence and counter attack man, said all teams defensively had gone from strength to strength.

Players were more physical in their tackles, and around the rucks, and having tracked their Black Ferns players, it was a good base for the international calendar.

"The standard and their skill set has grown exponentially.

"We’ll obviously need to go even further . . . when we play international, but I think we’re got some really good foundations to build on this year.

"Whereas last year, we were probably coming into camp trying to install a lot of the basics. So I’m really excited where we can take the team with those basics and fundamentals that the Super [teams] have done well in developing."

Super Rugby Aupiki needed to continue to develop to be sustainable and playing cross-over games against Australia’s Super Rugby W teams was something that could be looked into.

"It’ll be something in the future that would be exciting.

"Whether we’re ready for that now or not, I’m not sure about that.

"It’d come down to, I guess, the quality of football, but also, I guess, resourcing and the expense to travel over to Aussie every second week."

In an ideal world, Christie said Super Rugby Aupiki’s format would be longer — as would their preseason training — but this year helped bridge the gap for where the competition was heading.

It is another big year for the Black Ferns, who play the Wallaroos for the Laurie O’Reilly Cup and then again, alongside Canada and the United States, in the Pacific Four series. They round out the year at the WXV 1 in Canada.

The addition of WXV has been vital for the women’s international game and allowed the Black Ferns to test themselves against the best in the world regularly.

"We found that against France and England last year that we just need to be playing them more often.

"The ability to play [WXV] every year, which in a way is a little bit of a mini World Cup, is awesome prep and I know we’ll be using it as a little bit of a trial run for the next year’s World Cup."