With the Six Nations resuming this weekend, the battle for a place on the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand will continue with Scotland and Wales going head-to-head, whilst Irish and English players will look to impress Lions coach Warren Gatland in their matches against France and Italy respectively. On the other side of the world, this weekend also marks the start of a Super Rugby season which takes on greater significance for New Zealanders. Having completed a 3-0 series whitewash when the Lions last visited in 2005, the All Blacks class of 2017 will be desperate to replicate the achievements of the likes of Richie McCaw and Dan Carter from 12 years ago. With Steve Hansen having vast riches of talent to choose from a nation that have won the last two rugby world cups, the stakes could not be higher for the players who are likely to have just one opportunity to represent their country against the fabled touring side.
All of which means that none of the players from the five New Zealand provinces should be lacking in motivation as the Super Rugby season gets under way. So here are the ones to watch from each of New Zealand’s Super Rugby sides.
Rieko Ioane – Blues
Having caught the eye of national selectors in a struggling Blues side in his debut Super Rugby season, 19-year-old Rieko Ioane became the eighth-youngest All Blacks test debutant when he came off the bench against Italy in November. A prolific try-scorer with pace to burn, it came as no surprise when Ioane marked his first cap with his first All Blacks try as New Zealand ran out convincing 68-10 winners in Rome. No stranger to national honours, the young midfield back has played for both the Maori All Blacks and New Zealand Sevens team representing the latter at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Having been eased in last season by Blues coaches with two tries scored from five Super Rugby matches, Ioane really came to the fore in the Mitre Cup with Auckland where he led the competition in tries scored, defenders beaten and metres made. Having already gained two caps for the All Blacks, Ioane will be more of a marked man this season for Tana Umaga’s side and whilst he faces stiff competition for a spot in the test team, any back who manages to impress in a side that doesn’t dominate matches is someone to watch.
Damian McKenzie – Chiefs
One of the star performers in Super Rugby last season, Damian McKenzie enjoyed a superb 2016 and Chiefs fans will be hoping for more of the same from the versatile back. Equally comfortable playing at fly-half or full-back, McKenzie spent most of the 2016 season occupying the No.15 jersey for the Waikato-based franchise and it was his performances in that position that saw him called up to Steve Hansen’s All Blacks squad, winning his first cap as a replacement against Argentina in the Rugby Championship before starting at full-back against Italy in November. An elusive runner from deep with great handling and offloading skills, McKenzie excelled last season in an exciting Chiefs backline and was a prolific points-scorer whether it be scoring tries or his nerveless goal-kicking. Given his age and the options at fly-half for the All Blacks it may well be a few years before McKenzie gets to marshal a back division from the No.10 jersey. However the 21-year-old is more than capable of challenging the likes of Ben Smith and Israel Dagg for the full-back slot and if he can replicate last season’s form he could well be featuring in the coming test series. With Steve Hansen hinting that All Blacks squad members could be available for their clubs with the Lions due to play all five Super Rugby franchises before the test series kicks off, McKenzie is likely to be a prominent figure in this Lions series whether it be for club or country.
Scott Barrett – Crusaders
The Christchurch-based franchise have a history of producing top-class international forwards – Richie McCaw, Owen Franks and Sam Whitelock to name a few – and this man could well be the next off the conveyor belt for the seven-time Super Rugby champions. Younger brother of 2016 World Player of the year Beauden Barrett, Scott joined his brother in becoming an All Black in November 2016 when he came off the bench in the defeat to Ireland in Chicago. A further three caps came on the European tour, starting against Italy and coming on as a replacement for the victories over Ireland and France respectively. Barrett is an athletic lock forward who is equally comfortable packing down in the back-row, and has been an ever-present in the Crusaders squad since making his Super Rugby debut in 2015. Anyone who saw the angle he ran for his try against Ireland on his test debut will tell you that the big man has more to his game than just expert tackling and dynamic ball-carrying, and packing down alongside World Cup winner Whitelock in the boilerhouse for the Crusaders will only improve the 23-year-old’s game. With Whitelock and Brodie Retallick looking nigh on impossible to dislodge as a second-row partnership, Barrett’s best chance in the test series may come from the bench, but despite his age with a good deal of experience already under his belt he could yet leave his mark on Gatland’s side in the summer.
Malakai Fekitoa – Highlanders
A big year for the man given the huge responsibility of succeeding All Blacks legend and dual-World Cup winner Conrad Smith. A powerful, skilled runner and aggressive defender who knows his way to the try-line, Malakai Fekitoa has been a regular fixture in All Blacks squads since making his test debut against England in 2014. Capped at international level just four months after making his Super Rugby debut, the young centre’s impact on New Zealand rugby was clear to see, as he finished that year with two tries in eight All Blacks test matches. Having burst on to the scene for club and country in 2014, the following year would see Fekitoa hit even greater heights. As one of a handful of All Blacks internationals in the Highlanders squad Fekitoa’s responsibilities grew for his club with many of his team-mates looking towards the talented youngster to inspire the team to glory, something he proved more than capable of as the Highlanders secured their first ever Super Rugby title. Having played 16 0f the Highlanders 19 games in their title-winning campaign, Fekitoa was key to his side’s success with their attacking game thrilling supporters and pundits alike, no more so than when running reigning champions Waratahs ragged in the 2015 semi-final. As if things couldn’t get much better for the Tonga-born athlete, a few months later Fekitoa returned from his first Rugby World Cup with a winner’s medal as New Zealand became the first nation to secure back-to-back World Cup titles. With Smith playing most games as first-choice outside centre, two tries in two appearances at the tournament marked a healthy return for a man who seemed destined for a long stay in the No.13 jersey. However since then things haven’t gone quite as planned with the Highlander struggling to fill the void left by Smith. Despite starting the international season as first-choice centre for the test series against Wales, poor form eventually saw him dropped from the side in favour of Anton Lienert-Brown. Whilst he regained his starting spot towards the end of the season when Ryan Crotty suffered an injury, Fekitoa will know he must rediscover his best form over the next couple of months in a Highlanders shirt if he is to reclaim his All Blacks jersey for the Lions series.
Ardie Savea – Hurricanes
Younger brother of All Blacks winger Julian, Ardie Savea has been one of the most exciting performers in Super Rugby since his debut in the competition as a nineteen-year-old in 2013. An all-action openside flanker who is equally comfortable running around opposition defenders as well as through them – anyone who saw his sublime try against Wales can vouch for that – Savea has made the No.7 position his own at his club over the last few years and was in imperious form last season in helping the Hurricanes secure a long-awaited Super Rugby title, having also been part of the side beaten by the Highlanders in the 2015 final. With Steve Hansen having resisted the temptations of some All Blacks fans to throw him in the squad for the 2015 World Cup, the retirement of Richie McCaw paved the way for Savea to get his opportunity in 2016, winning his first cap in the first test against Wales at Eden Park. 11 more caps followed in 2016 with the flanker scoring a try in victories over Wales and South Africa, however just two of his 12 international appearances have come as starts. With Sam Cane occupying the starting jersey at openside flanker for most of those games Savea will need another big year in Super Rugby if he is to usurp the Chiefs man. With opinions split amongst New Zealanders on who should start at No.7 ahead of the summer series much may depend on how the opposition back-row line up. Should Gatland go with the bulk and power of the likes of Stander, Warburton and Vunipola, Hansen might well decide to go with the physicality and defensive work-rate of Cane. However should the Lions go with the more subtle handling skills and pace of players such as Tipuric and Faletau, Savea is likely to get the nod due to his skills ball-in-hand and running ability out wide. Whatever happens it is more than likely that Savea will have a big say in this year’s test series whether it be as a starter or off the bench.