With the inaugural Super Rugby Pacific competition kicking off this weekend, Quintin van Jaarsveld identifies each franchise’s key player.
Blues: Beauden Barrett
There’s no one like Barrett when he’s in full flight. Mercurial doesn’t do justice to what a special talent the two-time World Player of the Year is and his return to the Blues after a sabbatical in Japan is a massive boost for the franchise. They’ll have to make do without him in the opening round due to concussion issues and much of their title hopes will hinge on the role Barrett’s able to play.
Brumbies: Nic White
The sage scrumhalf’s been the Brumbies’ general in recent years and his tactical influence has only grown since the introduction of the 50:22 rule. As intelligent as he is skilful, White forms a yin and yang halfback pairing with 22-year-old sensation Noah Lolesio, with the duo being the brains of the Canberra operation. James Slipper, Rob Valetini, Len Ikitau, Tom Banks and the returning Jesse Mogg are among the other key figures.
Chiefs: Brodie Retallick
Sam Cane, Brad Weber and Anton Lienert-Brown form part of the Chiefs’ core, which is complete once more with the return of Retallick. Arguably the greatest lock of his generation, Retallick’s agile, physical and dynamic. The 2014 World Player of the Year’s back to form the glue of the Chiefs pack, a role he fills for the All Blacks as well, whom he’s represented on 92 occasions.
Crusaders: Richie Mo’unga
Most of the rage in Canterbury centres on marquee signing Pablo Matera and while the Pumas captain will play an important role at his new franchise, Mo’unga remains the axis around whom the perennial champions resolve. A world-class conductor, the veteran All Blacks flyhalf reads the game like few others and is equally adept playing an expensive or tactical brand of rugby.
Fijian Drua: Nemani Nagusa
Expansion franchise Fijian Drua have loaded up on national Test and Sevens superstars, including veterans such as Manasa Saulo and Mesu Dolokoto, who’ll provide all-important grunt up front, and Olympic gold medallists Napolioni Bolaca, Meli Derenalagi, Kalione Nasoko and Kitione Taliga, who’ll dazzle with their flair. As the leader of the pack, however, experienced eighthman Nagusa – capped 18 times for the Flying Fijians – will be the key cog in the machine.
Highlanders: Aaron Smith
Smith has been the franchise player of the Highlanders for years and will pilot them again from the base. A visionary whose fast-twitch muscle fibres have made him an absolute menace, Smith pulls the strings with panache and doesn’t just know every trick of the trade, he’s perfected them all. With talented tens Mitchell Hunt and the returning Marty Banks to collaborate with, the All Blacks centurion’s primed for another prolific season for his beloved club.
Hurricanes: TJ Perenara
The Wellington-based franchise welcome back their most-capped player after he spent last season in the Japanese Top League. Ardie Savea, Dane Coles and Jordie Barrett are critical to the ‘Canes’ success, but Perenara’s stature as an icon with unrivalled experience (140 caps) will be invaluable, especially in guiding young pivot prospect Ruben Love, who’s expected to get more game time in the No.10 jersey. It’ll be a testy opening leg, though, as the star scrumhalf will miss the start of the tournament due to a knee injury.
Melbourne Rebels: Andrew Kellaway
Matt To’omua and Reece Hodge will play leading roles with the boot, while Rob Leota will be tasked with setting the standard for the rest of the forwards to strive towards. However, with Marika Koroibete and Dane Haylett-Petty among the stars lost, Kellaway’s flair – which saw him score a Rugby Championship-leading seven tries and nominated for the World Breakthrough Player of the Year award last season – will be more important than ever to give the men from Melbourne attacking sting.
Moana Pasifika: Christian Lealiifano
The other tournament newcomers have assembled an interesting squad that includes the likes of veteran flank Jack Lam, who boasts 40 Test caps for Samoa, and Tongan centre Solomone Kata, who represented both Tonga and New Zealand in rugby league before making the switch to the union.
Captain and Wallabies centurion Sekope Kepu will be the cornerstone of the team at tighthead, but Lealiifano will be the driver. A cool-headed tactician with an unrivalled heart, a world of experience and the ability to play flyhalf, centre and fullback, the Wallabies legend will be pivotal to Moana Pasifika‘s cause.
Reds: James O’Connor
Individually and as newly announced co-captains, Liam Wright (24) and Tate McDermott (23) will fittingly lead the Reds into the future as the two top young talents in the squad. Fellow Wallabies Taniela Tupou and Hunter Paisami are game breakers but O’Connor’s the driving force of the team. The Reds had him to thank for their Super Rugby AU triumph last year as he scored a last-gasp try to break Brumbies hearts in the final and the Wallabies stalwart will be expected to make big plays in the latest iteration of Super Rugby.
Waratahs: Michael Hooper
Who else? The Waratahs’ prodigal son returns following his stint in the Land of the Rising Sun last year and brings with him hopes of a brighter future after a nightmare 2021 season in which the Sydney side failed to secure a single win. Evergreen as highlighted by his record fourth John Eales Medal and 2021 World Player of the Year nomination, one of the game’s greatest workhorses’ set to carry an even bigger load than usual in a team desperately short on star power.
Western Force: Feleti Kaitu’u
Speaking of a lack of star power, the Force are even worse off. Wallabies giant Izack Rodda, who made his name at the Reds, is back in Australian rugby and beefs up the pack following a French stint, while fellow newcomer Manasa Mataele made his debut for Fiji last year. That’s about it aside from Kaitu’u, who takes over the captaincy from club legend Ian Prior. The Wallabies hooker’s been an instrumental figure for the Force since debuting in 2018 and it’ll be imperative that he leads from the front.
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