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. Starting on February 18ᵗʰ, Super Rugby Pacific will be the biggest tournament since the pandemic caused the early cancellation of the 2020 competition. The South Africans are now gone and a part of the United Rugby Championship, and we have also lost Argentina’s Jaguares and Japan’s Sunwolves, leaving us with 5 Australian teams (the 4 from the 2020 season, and the Western Force, who were axed but returned in Super Rugby AU and Super Rugby Trans-Tasman), 5 New Zealand teams and 2 new teams in Moana Pasifika and Fijian Drua.
Now I love watching Super Rugby—though I’m not sure if I’ll be able to this year as there is still no news on a UK broadcaster for the competition— as we get some wonderful attacking rugby, so as I like to do for most of the leagues that I can follow with some degree of regularity, I’ve picked 1 new signing per team who I think fans should be keeping an eye on this year. In some cases (most notably the Reds, who have only brought in a couple of new players) this was very hard, whereas for our 2 new teams, I was lucky enough to have the entire roster to pick from.
Starting with the Blues, and the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman Champions may have one of the most exciting signings of the year in Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. The 28-year-old has been a superstar in rugby league and now makes his move over to show what he can do in the 15-man code. Expected to play centre, he adds a real playmaking ability into the midfield—as if they needed more attacking quality! With the World Cup fast approaching and questions over the best All Blacks centre pairing, don’t be shocked to see him getting capped in the June Tests.
For the Brumbies, we look at a familiar face for fans in fullback Jesse Mogg. The 3-cap Wallaby returns to Canberra after 6 years in France with Montpellier and Pau. A dynamic runner with the ball, Mogg’s presence will force Tom Banks to play at the top of his game to keep the 15 shirt, while he can also appear on the wing to help alleviate the loss of Solomone Kata.
An easy pick here for the Chiefs, in Josh Ioane. Aaron Cruden was clearly never a long-term option when he returned to Hamilton, and with him gone, neither Kaleb Trask nor Bryn Gatland looked like the player who could lead the Chiefs to the very top. However in young Josh Ioane, they have a player who is entering his prime and will be keen to push for a spot in the All Black’s World Cup squad, or put himself at the forefront of the discussion for the next cycle. Could he be the guy to bring the Chiefs back to the top?
How do you improve one of the strongest teams in rugby? Well by adding Pablo Matera. The former Pumas captain is one of the best blindside flankers in the world, a monster on defence and a great carrier, who also isn’t afraid to put boot to ball with surprisingly good effect. If you want to create a strong pack who can also get around the park to keep up with the backs, this is the kind of signing you want to make!
Probably a surprise pick here as I go for prop Manasa Saulo. You wouldn’t expect me to look at a squad of Fijians and pick a prop as one to watch, but if you can’t hold your own at the scrum, it won’t matter how exciting the attacking talent in your team is. Well Saulo comes to Super Rugby with top flight rugby experience from his time at Toulon and London Irish, as well as 43 caps. With a relatively young and inexperienced batch of props on the roster, Saulo will be a great teacher to help take the new generation of Fijian players to the next level.
Another player returning to known pastures, my pick for the Highlanders is Marty Banks. With Ioane, Caleb Makene and Tim O’Malley all gone, it’s just Banks and Mitch Hunt left to cover fly half. The good news is that, now on his third spell at the club, it should be easy for Banks to slip straight in. But will he be there to provide cover for Hunt, or will he be a regular at 10, allowing Hunt to shine at 15?
While the return of TJ Perenara is huge, I’ve instead gone for Owen Franks. The ‘Canes roster is very young at prop, and so the arrival of a player of Franks’ experience (150 Crusaders appearances and 108 New Zealand caps from 2009-2019) will not just help shore up the scrum when he is on the pitch, but also greatly help the development of the new generation coming through.
Another returning player to make the list, Matt Philip comes back to Melbourne following a brief spell with Pau. While the Wallabies have been up and down over the last few years, Philip has been one of the more consistently good players. Reliable at the set piece and a strong carrier, Philip will play a key role in trying to put the Rebels pack on the front foot as the team tries to cope with the loss of Isi Naisarani.
There were so many ways that I could go with this pick, but I eventually landed on fly half Christian Leali’ifano. The Australian fly half is of Samoan heritage, and will help provide shape and stability to the team as they find their footing against much more experienced opposition, while helping William Havili and Lincoln McClutchie grow into players of Super Rugby quality.
While Michael Hooper’s return is the obvious pick here, I chose to look beyond the obvious and instead pick Jamie Roberts. Aged 35 and 5 years on from his last Wales cap, Roberts is still more than capable of excelling at the top of his game. His experience at centre will be vital in shoring up the defence, while his reliability and his picking of a line will be a real attacking boon for Will Harrison and co.
Without a doubt one of the hardest to pick, the Reds only have 4 incoming faces this season: 3 from Queensland Premier Rugby which is well beyond my scope of knowledge, and one from Harlequins’ academy. It is that academy player, Tom Lynagh, who gets the nod though. At 17 and with no top-flight rugby under his belt, he will surely be third choice at fly half, but if he possesses half the quality of dad Michael or brother Louis (who has been called in the England Six Nations squad), we may only be an injury or two away from seeing him come in at 15 to get some experience.
And last but not least, we reach the Force and their new signing, Izack Rodda. Rodda brings an impressive degree of experience and international quality to partner Jeremy Thrush in the second row, while proving a solid yet dynamic carrier in the loose. The Force have been steadily improving since their return in Super Rugby AU, and Rodda is just the kind of signing they need to step up against the quality of the New Zealand franchises.
Do you think I missed someone? Let me know who your picks would have been.