Black Fern wary of Super Rugby Aupiki young guns
World champion Black Fern Hazel Tubic is looking over her shoulder as she prepares for the second season of Super Rugby Aupiki to kick off.
Tubic is returning to the Chiefs Manawa backline with the intent of winning back-to-back Super Rugby titles.
The Chiefs Manawa were dominant in 2022, progressing through the season undefeated to secure the trophy with a 35-0 defeat of the Blues in the last game of the season.
Despite claiming the Super Rugby Aupiki title the Chiefs Manawa did not actually play in a final after Covid curtailed the season and New Zealand Rugby abandoned a finals format.
Tubic is pleased finals are on the schedule in 2023 as NZR committed to more games and knockout finals to decide the winner.
She wants future seasons of Super Rugby Aupiki to be a step-up again.
"The season is longer than last year but we'd love to see a bigger competition where girls can invest more time into the team because at the moment it's still not full-time gig with your Super teams it's come in every few days.
"So if there was an opportunity to grow it in the future to be more full-time and similar to the men I think will grow the game and the depth of girls wanting to play and take part."
Being able to focus on her role with the Chiefs Manawa over the coming months is something Tubic is grateful for, because she knows some of her teammates who don't have a national contract can struggle to juggle work, family and rugby.
"It is hard and the level required for Super Aupiki is a step-up from FPC so it does mean that you've got to put a bit more time and effort into things and to grow the game and get it to the level that we want I'm not sure how much longer you can expect players to do that."
In a first for a New Zealand women's Super Rugby side, the Chiefs Manawa will face off against the Super W runners-up the Waratahs in a pre-season hit-out on 17 February in Tubic's part of the region - Pukekohe.
Expanding Super Rugby Aupiki to include games against the women's teams from Australia is something Tubic hopes isn't too far away.
"At this stage it is probably not that easy to set up a trans-Tasman comp as it is just yet... but just to play them and get a gauge on what the level of rugby is like in that competition will be awesome.
"Because they could come along here and thrash us and [we will see] should we actually be playing them because [Super W] is quite a good competition.
"It's always cool to play someone you don't know quite as well because we get used to playing each other here in New Zealand but to play some club players from overseas is always good to have a different style of rugby that keeps you trying to work on all the things you usually don't come across."
Tubic has first-hand knowledge of being surrounded by a style of rugby that is different to what most of her Super Rugby Aupiki teammates will have been exposed to.
A stint playing sevens at a club in Japan opened Tubic's eyes to how sometimes New Zealand rugby players and coaches can be reluctant to change their ways.
"The contact side of it was not the same as in New Zealand, we're probably a bit bigger and like to carry it up through the middle but they were very fast and nippy and very good at getting quickly over the ball."
The enthusiasm of the Japanese players to learn the game also impressed Tubic.
"Taking on anything that was asked of [them] I think that was quite different to New Zealand. Sometimes we tend to be stuck in our ways that we only know and we don't want to learn anything else different."
Tubic has won world cups in 2017 and 2022 but her time in the Black Ferns has not always been easy.
After debuting in 2011 she didn't get game time between 2012 and 2017.
She headed for Japan thinking she didn't have a future in the black jersey.
However, she wanted her skills to force the Black Ferns selectors to consider her for the home world cup - and they did.
But she doesn't want the minutes she's played for New Zealand to define her rugby career.
Tubic is a contracted Black Fern, though she says she is still contemplating her future.
At 32-years-old she says she won't return to international sevens but isn't ruling out returning to sevens in Japan.
Some Black Ferns retired after the world cup but Tubic is still enjoying her 15s rugby - even if she still doesn't feel like she's cemented her spot in the national side.
"There's always someone younger and new coming along that's an awesome player as well so you can never really think it's my turn to have a go now."
Changes to many of the Super Rugby Aupiki squads means more women will get opportunities this season.
"Within our team we've got quite a few new young girls, some of them hopefully can push to get game time which maybe they didn't get last year but there is also some new girls to the team who have only been involved with FPC so for them get an experience at that higher level just even training and watching what girls that have come from Black Ferns do that's huge for them.
"Even within the Black Ferns they've had a few girls finish up so there's opportunity for girls to put their hands up for contracts in that sense as well so this season I think there's going to be a lot for the girls to play for."
Super Rugby Aupiki begins on 25 February.