Although the first team that Allan Bunting will name is yet to be confirmed, New Zealand Rugby have confirmed that 34 players will receive full-time contracts for the 2023 season. There are a fair few questionable omissions, such as Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate, Kaipo Olsen-Baker (both Hurricanes Poua), Jaymie Kolose (Blues) and Georgia Daals (Chiefs Manawa). The likes of Les Elder, Kendra Cocksedge and Renee Woodman-Wickliffe have retired, six 7s players have returned to the circuit and the duo of Leilani Perese and Chelsea Semple, are taking parental leave from rugby.
24 of the 32 World Cup winners from 2022, have been contracted as Black Ferns for the 2023 season, including co-captains, Kennedy Simon and Ruahei Demant. Photo: Max Sharp.
We'll stick to the positives though, so we can create an introduction to the six new Black Ferns for the class of 2023. Grace Gago, Katelyn Vaha'akolo, Layla Sae, Lucy Jenkins, Mererangi Paul and Rosie Kelly, have all received their maiden full-time contracts as professional rugby players for their country. Let's get to know them all!
Date of Birth: 05/05/1998
Super Rugby Club: Blues
Having been named as the only Blues hooker in 2022 has had a few perks for Gago. After getting a go last year, 2023 then saw her average 77 minutes per game in her five starts for the Blues; she was recognised as a must-have in the set-piece. While Maia Roos, Eloise Blackwell, Tafito Lafaele and Liana Mikaele-Tu'u all featured heavily in the lineout, Gago was to thank for their steady flow of ball to begin the drives and strike plays. At 24 years old, she'll be stoked to have beaten Natalie Delamere (2022 World Cup winner) to a Black Ferns contract. Keep an eye out for Gago's offload game too!
Date of Birth: 30/11/2000
Super Rugby Club: Matatū
About time. I've never hidden the fact that I'm a Lucy Jenkins fan because of her strong defence. While Cindy Nelles, the top tackler of Super Rugby Aupiki, plays for Canada, her 73 tackles were only slightly ahead of Jenkins, with 71. What we got to see from the pocket rocket in 2023 was exactly what we wanted too, she added some muscle and worked on her carrying game to finish Aupiki with 170 metres off just 23 carries as well as 2 tries. The 22-year-old has long-aspired to make the team and has a great opportunity now.
Date of Birth: 22/10/2000
Position: Number 8
Super Rugby Club: Hurricanes Poua
Sae's Hurricanes Poua teammate and fellow number 8, Kaipo Olsen-Baker, is still on her way back from returning to her peak after injury, so the selectors have opted for form; knowing Olsen-Baker will eventually get even better. Sae spent a decent chunk of 2022 in the Black Ferns' 7s setup and it showed with her 179 metres off 22 carries in Aupiki. With a hunger for turnovers and a season tackle rate of 91%, there's no harm in giving her a look-in, to see how a full-time contract can grow her experience as a player. Sae may spend her test debut grafting from 6, as Charmaine McMenamin and Liana Mikaele-Tu'u have established themselves.
Date of Birth: 16/01/2000
Position: Utility Back
Super Rugby Club: Matatū
It'll be a bit of a headache as to which position Kelly will play for the Black Ferns when her inevitable debut happens, as she can cover 9, 10 and 15 but to an excellent degree in each jersey. Having played the full 80 minutes of every Matatū game in 2023, it's a definite that Kelly has grown immensely as a player since her link-up with Canterbury after leaving Otago. While not the most imposing, she'd be scary to tackle with her quick feet and incredible ability to read the space. Hopefully we see Kelly play at 10.
Date of Birth: 18/04/2000
Position: Winger Super Rugby Club: Blues
Sonny Bill Williams, Matt Duffie, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and now, Katelyn Vaha'akolo. The newest league convert will become the fourth in the last decade when she makes her Black Ferns debut. Having represented the Kiwi Ferns in 2022, she'll be excited to earn a second black jersey. Vaha'akolo was excellent for the Blues in 2023, with 3 tries, 455 metres and 6 clean breaks, so may look to fill the absence left by Ruby Tui and Portia Woodman-Wickliffe as the team's charismatic star try-scorer?
Date of Birth: 29/10/1998
Super Rugby Club: Chiefs Manawa
The exit of Stacey Fluhler, Ruby Tui, Portia Woodman-Wickliffe, Kelly Brazier, Renee Woodman-Wickliffe and Chelsea Semple from the Chiefs Manawa backline would always lead to the opportunities for fresh faces and Mererangi Paul's late-season surge has paid off big time. The 24-year-old's 6 tries were the second-most of the competition, while she amassed 10 clean breaks off just 30 carries. As a first-time Super Rugby player for 2023, it'll be very interesting to see exactly how high her ceiling is.