While most rugby fans in the Northern Hemisphere are getting ready for the return of the Six Nations, the Southern Hemisphere is getting ready for the beginning of the next phase of Super Rugby. Kicking off on February 24ᵗʰ when the Crusaders host the Chiefs, this will be the second edition of the new format, which sees the 5 Australian franchises, 5 New Zealand franchises and 2 Pacific Island franchises fighting out for a title that has generally found its way to Christchurch since the 2017 tournament—Crusaders won all of the full competitions and both Super Rugby Aotearoa competitions, but were not in either season of Super Rugby AU (won by the Brumbies in 2020 then the Reds in 2021) or Super Rugby Unlocked (won by the Bulls) and just missed out on a spot in the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final, won by the Blues.
And so, as usual, it’s time for me to look at the players who have transferred into the competition or to a new team in the competition ahead of this season and select 7 players who I think you should be keeping your eye on this season for one reason or another. Who would be your picks? Let me know in the comments!
Starting with a very recent transfer as it was announced just last weekend that Freddie Burns would be released from his contract with Leicester Tigers in order to join the Highlanders. Having originally come through and made his name at Gloucester, Burns is a player who I have always kept an eye on and enjoyed watching. Considered somewhat of a maverick fly half early in his career, he has matured over the years into a solid and reliable 10 who can vary up the attack. Has years of experience in the Premiership with time spent at Gloucester and Bath and 2 spells at Leicester, while he also spent a year in Japan with the Shokki Shuttles and picked up 5 senior caps for England early in his career. Something makes me feel that Burns’ style of play will work nicely down in Dunedin, and teams should watch out for his tried and tested chip and chase in and around their 22.
The 43-cap All Black returns from Toyota Verblitz, and boy will the Blues need him with Luke Romano retiring and Josh Goodhue going the other way to join Black Rams Tokyo. A strong but dynamic carrier, Tuipulotu was a key part of the Blues’ rise up the table in recent years and a leader in the team. But more than anything, this season could see him competing with the younger Tupou Vaa’i for the final second row spot in the All Blacks’ World Cup squad.
Maybe a bit of a surprise that I have picked a front row over Damian McKenzie, but the scrum is such a key part of rugby at the moment, both as a platform to attack off and a weapon to win penalties. As such, the loss of Angus Ta’avao for the season with a neck injury could have been huge, but the Chiefs have reacted well with the addition of John Ryan. Boasting over 200 appearances for Munster and 24 Ireland caps, Ryan will provide an experienced and solid option to help secure the scrum and put the Chiefs on the front foot.
How do you improve one of the strongest teams in rugby? Well the Crusaders look like they have managed to do so once again by adding to their depth on the wing with Melani Nanai. The Samoan did not have the most successful of times at Worcester, but he is a proven threat in Super Rugby, having played 5 seasons for the Blues before their recent upturn in results. With Braydon Ennor and David Havili having both transitioned from the back 3 to centres, Nanai adds some depth to the back 3 to allow a rotation alongside All Blacks trio Will Jordan, Sevu Reece and Leicester Fainga’anuku.
Another player making the return from Japan, the former Melbourne Rebel arrives from the Hino Red Dolphins. Capable of covering 10 or 15, Debreczini can help Noah Lolesio by being a veteran presence to learn off, while also providing a second playmaking option as a 15 with regular fullback Tom Banks going to one of Debreczini’s old clubs, Honda Heat.
A major loss for the Azzurri’s Six Nations campaign, Montanna Ioane was released from his Benetton contract for mental health reasons and chose to return to Australia, eventually being picked up by the Melbourne Rebels. The nephew of former Wallaby Digby Ioane, Monty Ioane frequently impressed in poor Italian sides with his strong carrying and good footwork creating metres despite them having few other weapons to take the defence’s focus off him, and will surely benefit from the space opened up by the hard carrying of Cabous Eloff and Pone Fa’amausili.
And we finish off the list with what I believe (without going back to check) to be an historic moment on this site by selecting a player transferring from Major League Rugby. After amassing just 41 minutes of Super Rugby in 3 seasons with the Rebels, Goddard made the decision to move stateside and join the LA Giltinis, helping them win the MLR in their debut season and being named the team’s Most Valuable Player for their 2022 season—an impressive feat in a team that boasted players such as Billy Meakes, Matt Giteau, DTH van der Merwe, Dave Dennis, Adam Ashe and Hanco Germishuys. Now he’s back in Australia with the Waratahs, who are coached by Darren Coleman, who was coach of the Giltinis in their debut season, so will surely be given a chance to compete with captain Jake Gordan for the 9 shirt. If Goddard can propel himself into a successful career following his return to Australia, don’t be shocked to see other young players follow in his footsteps and using the MLR to gain some much-needed experience of regular professional rugby before returning back to fight for a starting spot in one of the top leagues.
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