Every edition of Super Rugby held in a World Cup year presents an opportunity for a young or previously unheralded player to stamp their mark and make a late, unexpected bid to force their way into their national side.
There have been plenty of eye-catching performances in the opening month-and-a-half of Super Rugby, but here are a select few that have started pushing for a spot on the plane to The Land of the Rising Sun in six months’ time.
Anyone who has watched Will Jordan play for the Tasman Mako or the New Zealand under-20 side over the past couple of seasons should have identified the 21-year-old as a potential All Black for this year’s World Cup.
The fullback has continued his electric form from the Mitre 10 Cup and U20 World Championship and carried it into Super Rugby with the Crusaders, where he has played a big role in leading them to the top of the table.
He has built himself a reputation as one of the most exciting youngsters to watch in the competition, and his attacking flair is reflected in his impressive stat sheet from the tournament’s opening six rounds.
Jordan sits inside Super Rugby’s top 10 for tries scored (four), clean breaks (eight) and metres carried (329), all of which he’s managed from just two starts – against the Reds and Chiefs – from four outings.
The impact he made when coming onto the park against the Waratahs last week illustrated the much-needed game-breaking ability he can offer, and with only Rieko Ioane and Ben Smith the certainties in the outside backs for Steve Hansen’s World Cup squad, there is definitely a chance for Jordan to make the cut.
Much has been made in recent days of Tom Robinson, who many believe to be the Blues’ long-term replacement for Jerome Kaino at blindside flanker.
Difficult to miss with his long, flowing red hair, he’s not exactly a like-for-like replacement for Kaino in that he’s not an enforcer-type of flanker who looks to bowl over opposition players and make bone-jarring tackles.
Those are the types of players Hansen looks for in his blindsides, with Kaino and Liam Squire recent examples of that.
However, Robinson offers an element of difference through his immense work rate that wears down opponents by attrition rather than brute force and strength.
That isn’t to say that there isn’t an element of x-factor about Robinson’s game though, as he showed a good turn of pace against the Highlanders last weekend to score a try that was eventually ruled out by the TMO.
With the ability to cover lock with a height of 1.98m, the 24-year-old is also a good lineout option, and given Hansen’s liking of players that can cover both the second row and blindside – ie, Scott Barrett, Jackson Hemopo, Vaea Fifita – Robinson could well be in the reckoning if he continues to impress with the resurgent Blues.
After missing out on a full-time contract following an impressive domestic campaign with Bay of Plenty, Tiatia was called into the squad as injury cover to fill the void left by James Marshall and Nehe Milner-Skudder.
He wowed the Palmerston North crowd with his flashy passing and electric ball carrying ability, and did well enough to maintain his starting spot for the following three matches against the Highlanders, Chiefs and Stormers.
For all the crowd-pleasing skills the former Samoa under-20 has put on display over the past month, he has also shown a sense of stability through his raking touch-finding boot which he developed as a first-five during his younger playing days.
Tiatia looks to have a strong all-round skill set, and, as is the case with Jordan, with only two outside back certainties locked and loaded for the World Cup squad, there is potential for Tiatia to stake a claim if he continues to perform.
After two seasons on the fringes of the Highlanders squad, Josh Dickson has finally cracked a regular starting role with the franchise, and he’s making the most of the opportunity.
A pair of solid outings to start the season against the Chiefs and Reds was followed by an head-turning performance against the Hurricanes where his previously unseen ball-running threat was in full effect, as was his top-end work rate and eagerness to make in impact with ball in hand.
In a recent interview with Stuff, Dickson said he attributed his burst of form to the additional 15kg of muscle he has packed on at the request of the Highlanders coaching staff.
“When you put on the weight it makes those contacts a lot easier,” he said.
“When you are bit lighter you do a hit or a cleanout you get up and you’re exhausted. When you’ve got that weight it makes it a bit easier. I get up from a ruck or a cleanout and I feel a lot better.”
His dependability at the set piece has also made him a key lineout option for the Highlanders, with the 24-year-old registering in the competition’s top 10 for lineouts won (18).
Through added size, solidity at the set piece, and a newfound strength in ball-carrying ability, Dickson has evolved his game to make himself one of the form locks of Super Rugby so far this season, and with Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett all certainties to go to Japan at the end of the year, a fourth-string lock spot could be Dickson’s calling if he continues to impress onlookers.
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