In the last game of her rookie Black Ferns campaign, scoring a try against England was a good way to cap off a strong first year in test rugby for Katelyn Vahaakolo.
But there was still more to come.
With World Rugby wanting to factor in performances through the WXV tournaments in their season awards for the women’s 15-a-side game, it wasn’t until after the final match of the tournament – England’s 33-12 win over the Black Ferns – that they announced the winners.
While the Black Ferns didn’t come away with the prize on the night, Vahaakolo did leave with an individual accolade.
The 23-year-old was named World Rugby’s Breakthrough Player of the Year for 2023, joining her All Blacks counterpart Mark Tele’a who picked up the award in the men’s category.
“It’s been outstanding from when she first came in and didn’t really know where to stand, didn’t know if she could leave the wing,” Black Ferns coach Allan Bunting said.
“She’s been obsessed with getting better and up early doing skills, just doing extra work and always asking how she can get better. She’s improved massively this year. She has been a standout player in our eyes.”
Vahaakolo played in six of the Black Ferns’ seven tests this year, scoring five tries. After starting her first four Black Ferns tests on the left wing, Vahaakolo provided some park off the bench against Wales and England over the last fortnight in the WXV 1 tournament.
She made her presence felt when she entered the game in the second half against England in Auckland on Saturday night, scoring the side’s second try which brought them back within seven points of the Red Roses after trailing 19-7 and halftime.
England were able to go on with the job, however, proving too strong for the New Zealanders and outscoring them five tries to two.
Vahaakolo edged out fellow Black Ferns rookie wing Mererangi Paul along with French first-five Carla Arbez and Scottish wing Francesca McGhie for the award, while England flanker Marlie Packer was named Player of the Year ahead of teammate Abby Dow, Black Ferns No. 10 Ruahei Demant and French midfielder Gabrielle Vernier.
The Black Ferns were also well represented in the team of the year, with six players named in the squad. In the forwards, loosehead prop Krystal Murray, lock Maiakawanakaulani Roos and No 8 Liana Mikaele-Tu’u were named, with first-five Ruahei Demant, centre Amy du Plessis, and right wing Ruby Tui. England had seven players named in the squad, with the other two from France.
Christopher Reive joined the Herald sports team in 2017, bringing the same versatility to his coverage as he does to his sports viewing habits.
Take your Radio, Podcasts and Music with you