When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, it brought a premature end to the biggest club rugby tournament in the Southern Hemisphere, Super Rugby. With conditions improving in Australia and New Zealand, they returned with more domestic versions of the competition, Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Aotearoa respectively.
The second season of Super Rugby AU kicked off on Friday – 10 weeks of rugby that will see each of the 5 Australian teams face each other home and away, with the teams finishing 2ⁿᵈ and 3ʳᵈ facing off in a Qualifying Final and the winner facing the 1ˢᵗ-placed finisher in the final a week later. This Friday will see the beginning of a slightly shorter Super Rugby Aotearoa tournament (which is just a 10-week round-robin tournament, without the playoffs), which is running concurrently with Super Rugby AU before all 10 teams face off in a new tournament: Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like those of us who live in the UK will get the chance to watch after no company picked up broadcasting rights, but for those of you who can watch, who should you be looking out for in these tournaments? I’ve looked at each of the New Zealand teams and picked one player per team to keep an eye on this year. If you missed my Australian picks, you can find them here.
If you read my thoughts on last year’s tournament, it’s probably no surprise that I’m picking Finlay Christie for the Blues. Having signed from the Hurricanes, the Scotland-born halfback put in some great performances to earn the starting spot in the latter half f the campaign, bringing quick ball to the attack and repeatedly getting himself in the right position to exploit a teammate’s break, while in defence he was a complete nuisance for opposition scrum halves. If he can put together another similar campaign, the All Blacks should come calling.
While Super Rugby Aotearoa may be best known for its stunning attacking play, you only get that due to the hard work f the tight 5. While Tupou Vaa’i was the one to earn an All Blacks call-up last season, it was his lock partner Naitoa Ah Kuoi who stood out for me. Ah Kuoi was a solid enforcer in defence and did a great job of carrying to help put the Chiefs on the front foot. He missed the middle of last year’s competition through injury, but if he can stay fit this season, he will add some much-needed clout to the Chiefs pack.
My initial pick here was Will Jordan, who got more minutes than expected due to David Havili’s injury issues, but after such a great season that also included his All Blacks debut, that seemed too obvious. Instead, I have gone for Tom Christie, who at just 22 already looks like he will be close to an All Blacks cap and potentially becoming the long-term option at 7 in the coming years. The flanker is already a top quality jackal and does a great job of making the important metres in attack. Have the Crusaders found their new Richie McCaw in Tom Christie?
The Highlanders had a disappointing 2020 Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign, but things certainly got better for them with the return of Josh Ioane from injury. Capable to play across most of the back line, Ioane is at his best at fly half and will be looking to take advantage of Beauden Barrett’s sabbatical to Japan to push his cause for an All Blacks call-up. A young and highly skilful player, he Highlanders should be building their team around him in the coming years.
While Peter Umaga-Jensen certainly deserves a mention here, TJ Perenara’s Japanese sabbatical has opened up the door for Jamie Booth to show his quality. The 26-year-old has made his way around the Super Rugby franchises, being contracted for the Blues (where he never made an appearance) and playing for the Highlanders, Hurricanes and Sunwolves. It was with the Sunwolves that I first noticed his quality, which he continued to show off the bench last year for the ‘Canes. Now, with Perenara gone, he will likely get much more of a chance to show his ability to generate quick ball, while his quick footwork makes him a real danger if given any space around the fringes of the ruck or following up a break.
During the competitions, I will be running predictions pools on Superbru. For each match, you pick who you think will be the winner and the margin of victory and get points depending on how close your prediction was. The pools are entirely for fun, so everyone is welcome to join and there is no buy-in!
Super Rugby AU: You can find my pool here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code: lidsbops
Super Rugby Aotearoa: You can find my pool here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code: harmgirt