With Super Rugby Aotearoa now four rounds in, the new competition is beginning to take shape with many players having shaken off the rust to show their true qualities at this level. The year after the Rugby World Cup often sees a changing of the guard at test level and with many experienced All Blacks having called it a day at test level following Japan, there are several openings available for the next generation to seize their moment in the famous black jersey. Here are a few of the names who have could well force their way into the reckoning at test level…..
Hoskins Sotutu (Blues)
The star of the show so far in Super Rugby Aotearoa, Blues No.8 Sotutu has caught the eye with some all-action displays so far proving to be a talismanic figure for a young Blues side that has took the competition by storm with their exciting brand of attacking, running rugby. A powerful athlete, Sotutu possesses an exceptional all-round skillset both in attack and defence and has shown as much this season.
Produced a man-of-the-match display against the Chiefs scoring a try and laying on another for winger Mark Telea with an exquisite left-to-right skip pass that allowed his team-mate to slide in at the corner to clinch victory, before showing the other side of his game against the Highlanders denying them a potential match-winning try at the death by holding up the ball-carrier in a driving maul close to the Blues try-line allowing his side to secure turnover ball and wrap up a narrow 27-24 win.
Recently signed a new contact with the Blues, and with Kieran Read’s test retirement leaving New Zealand’s No.8 jersey vacant, Sotutu is showing all the signs that he could be the man to fill that sizeable void left by the former All Blacks skipper.
Caleb Clarke (Blues)
The Blues are no strangers to pacy wingers and they may have unearthed another gem in young Caleb Clarke. With a deadly combination of pace and power the Blues winger is a hard man to stop as seen with tries against the Hurricanes and Highlanders using quick feet and strength to evade tacklers and power through them.
Not only is he delivering with his try-scoring ability, Clarke has been influential for the Blues in creating space and setting up tries for others none more so than against the Highlanders in round three where his mazy run from deep took out a couple of defenders before giving the pass for Rieko Ioane to run in and score.
A real game-breaker of a player, Clarke is capable of drifting off his wing to maximum effect and is often heavily-involved in many Blues attacks, and sitting amongst the top of the charts for stats such as clean breaks and defenders beaten his work will surely not be going unnoticed by All Blacks selectors.
Marino Mikaele Tu’u (Highlanders)
Another young No.8 who will have test aspirations in the wake of Read’s retirement is Highlanders’ Marino Mikaele Tu’u. An ever-present at the back of the scrum in this new competition for his club, Tu’u has been one of the stand-out performers in the competition’s early stages, including scoring a try in the win over the Chiefs in round one. Was also highly impressive in round three against the Blues where he went toe-to-toe with Hoskins Sotutu, especially in the second-half where his run and offload helped set up Mitchell Hunt’s try.
Another great all-round athlete Tu’u often registers high in stats such as metres made, carries and defenders beaten, whilst for a big man he is also highly effective at the breakdown securing four turnovers in this season’s competition – level alongside expert fetchers Akira Ioane (Blues) and Lachlan Boshier (Chiefs).
Cullen Grace (Crusaders)
After securing three Super Rugby titles on the bounce, you would think breaking into the Crusaders starting XV would be a tough ask for a 20-year-old. Yet in his rookie season in Super Rugby, blindside flanker Cullen Grace has forced his way into Scott Robertson’s all-conquering team with some mightily impressive displays.
An old-school abrasive forward, Grace’s work-rate is one of his biggest strengths particularly in defence where his tackling game, strength over the ball and presence at lineout time have really come to the fore. A dominant force in the tackle, Grace has registered 32 tackles across two matches in Super Rugby Aotearoa – including a match-high 21 in the Crusaders’ victory over the Chiefs in round three – with the young flanker dishing out some thunderous hits along the way.
New Zealand have struggled to find a natural successor to Jerome Kaino in the No.6 jersey with several players having a go in recent years but few being able to match the physicality that Kaino brought to the side for so many years, yet despite his tender age Cullen Grace is already showing attributes that suggest he could be a real force of nature at test level.
Quinn Tupaea (Chiefs)
The Chiefs may have struggled with four defeats from four so far in this competition, but in 20-year-old centre Quinn Tupaea they have a star of the future who is already catching the eye. Chiefs fans have had little to smile about since the resumption of the 2020 season but the performances of Tupaea will certainly give them hope.
Given his debut against the Blues by Warren Gatland in the opening match of the Super Rugby season back in February, Tupaea has not looked back becoming an ever-present in the Chiefs midfield alongside All Blacks centre Anton Lienert-Brown. The young centre has been a highly active performer in Super Rugby Aetoroa and is near the top of the charts for stats including carries (36), metres made (149) and defenders beaten (13).
Will likely have to bide his time before breaking into the All Blacks midfield with experienced players such as Lienert-Brown, Jack Goodhue and Ngani Laumape in his way but if he can maintain the level of performance he has shown so far selectors will soon take notice of his burgeoning talent.
Will Jordan (Crusaders)
The Crusaders have arguably the best back-line of any of the New Zealand sides, strewn with All Blacks internationals, yet it is an uncapped youngster who has shone brightest so far this season. 22-year-old Will Jordan has been a player of high promise within the Crusaders ranks for some time but a succession of niggly injuries had limited his progress until this campaign.
The fleet-footed back has quickly made up for lost time with four tries in three games so far to leave him as top try-scorer after four rounds of competition. Jordan also sits at the top of the charts for metres made (336), clean breaks (9) and defenders beaten (22) in a stunning start that has seen the reigning Super Rugby champions go three from three in Super Rugby Aotearoa including impressive wins in Wellington and Dunedin.
A smooth-running full-back who is also good under the high ball, Jordan’s style is reminiscent of recent All Black retiree Ben Smith, and the Crusaders back has a devastating turn of pace that often leaves defenders trailing in his wake as seen with his late try against the Highlanders last week. Will face great competition for a spot with the All Blacks with the Barrett brothers (Beauden and Jordie) and Damian McKenzie likely to be vying for the full-back jersey in the coming years, but Jordan possesses real x-factor and a player as talented as him will surely get his opportunity soon.
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