In the opening round of Super Rugby Aotearoa for 2021, last year’s two most impressive teams flexed their muscles while some potential long-term superstars also made a statement.

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Friday’s clash saw the Highlanders host the Crusaders in Dunedin and while the hosts were able to keep the contest tight in the first half, the visitors pulled away late in the piece to secure a 26-13 victory.

On Saturday, Ardie Savea’s 100th match for the Hurricanes was the only cause for celebration in Wellington as the Blues managed 31-16 win after capitalising on the home side’s errors.

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Ardie Savea and Jason Holland of the Hurricanes and Leon Macdonald of the Blues speak to media after their round one match of Super Rugby Aotearoa.

Despite the losses, plenty of Highlanders and Hurricanes players put their hands up for selection in RugbyPass’ first team of the week for Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021 while the Crusaders dominate the side.

15. Jordie Barrett (Hurricanes)
Jackson Garden-Bachop may be wearing the No 10 jersey for the Hurricanes but the key lynchpin in the backline is certainly Jordie Barrett. Things happen when the fullback gets his hands on the ball and it was his ability to blast kicks over from a distance that kept the Hurricanes in the hunt. His 53-metre penalty shortly before half-time was about as good as they come.

Key stat: 9 ball carries – third amongst backs

14. Sevu Reece (Crusaders)
In-goal antics aside (though that’s always going to be a product of introducing goal-line drop-outs), there was little to criticise about Sevu Reece’s performance against the Highlanders. Rarely was a first-up solo tackler able to bring the All Black to the ground and Reece kept his opposition on their toes throughout the match. His in-field kick to Bryn Hall was a thing of beauty.

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Key stat: 89 metres run – third amongst all players

13. Rieko Ioane (Blues)
It wasn’t until the second half that Rieko Ioane really started to make an impact on attack against the Hurricanes, but the former wing was safe as houses on defence throughout the game and was able to cut loose as the match progressed. 91 metres run and four beaten defenders make for solid viewing – but it’s the fact that Ngani Laumape and Billy Proctor were so well-contained that has helped earn Ioane a spot in the team this week.

Key stat: 8 tackles made – second amongst backs

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12. Dallas McLeod (Crusaders)
The Crusaders always have a few token injuries before the season kicks off, but they always finds replacements who, more often than not, look like they’d walk into almost any other side’s starting team before the season comes to an end. Dallas McLeod, in just his third match for the Crusaders, was a rock in the midfield and stood up well to the physicality of Ngatungane Punivai and Patelesio Tomkinson – whether it was on attack or defence. Keep an eye on this 21-year-old.

Key stat: 30 metres run – second amongst midfielders

11. Jona Nareki (Highlanders)
Jona Nareki sometimes has flashes of brilliance followed by moments of complete despair. He was all brilliance on Friday evening, however, threatening the line with every touch of the ball and eventually setting up the Highlanders’ second try of the evening. His reliable boot also got the Highlanders out of trouble on a handful of occasions and would be a huge asset for any outside back.

Key stat: 5 defenders beaten – first amongst backs

10. Otere Black (Blues)
With Beauden Barrett in Japan, Otere Black has again stepped into the No 10 role and handled the pressure with aplomb. His field kicking was pin-point while he nailed all five of his attempts on goal. Importantly, Black also regularly challenged the line – which created space for his backline on attack and forced the Hurricanes defenders to commit.

Key stat: 10 runs – first amongst first fives

9. Bryn Hall (Crusaders)
Few players emerge from a head-to-head with All Black Aaron Smith knowing they’ve outplayed their opposite, but that’s exactly what happened on Friday night. While Hall’s passing wasn’t at Smith’s level, his general support play and kicking game were exceptional. He also knew exactly when to send the ball out to the backs and when to let his forwards take control.

Key stat: 32 passes – second amongst starting halfbacks

8. Marino Mikaele-Tu’u (Highlanders)
The man who was unlucky not to earn an All Blacks cap last year was a threat across the park on Friday, especially when he popped up in the outer channels. His work-rate on attack was also exceptional, notching up the most carries of any player for the period that he was on the park.

Key stat: 59 metres run – second amongst forwards

7. Ardie Savea (Hurricanes)
While Ardie Savea wasn’t able to captain his side to victory in his 100th Super Rugby match, he was a massive presence on the field and was arguably the top-performing forward from the weekend. Was there a breakdown that Savea didn’t contest or a contest that he didn’t disrupt?

Key stat: 10 carries – first amongst forwards

6. Akira Ioane (Blues)
This time last year, Akira Ioane wasn’t even a starting player for the Blues. Now, he’s perhaps the most formidable blindside flanker in the country. Ioane was devasting on attack on Saturday but was also reliable – and physical – on defence, making the most tackles of anyone on his team. No one should be questioning Ioane’s work-rate anymore.

Key stat: 65 metres run – first amongst forwards

5. Sam Whitelock (Crusaders)
As one of the oldest players running about in Super Rugby Aotearoa, Sam Whitelock could be forgiven for not having the biggest engine anymore – but Whitelock has seemingly defied Father Time and looked as sprightly against the Highlanders on Friday as he did in his debut season, way back in 2010. Whitelock was instrumental in the final stages of the game and while he wasn’t the captain on the day, you can guarantee that he was a vocal leader as the Crusaders closed out the match.

Key stat: 13 tackles – second amongst all players

4. Josh Dickson (Highlanders)
Somewhat unheralded by those outside the Highlanders region, Josh Dickson is a key cog in the Highlanders pack. The 26-year-old was the primary option for the Highlanders at lineout time and impressed with his overall work rate.

Key stat: 21 metres carried – first amongst locks

3. Michael Alaalatoa (Crusaders)
If there was one area where the Crusaders obviously had the wood over their counterparts it was in the scrums, with Michael Alaalatoa earning a handful of penalties for his side as well as always helping to supply his team with solid front-foot ball. On defence, Alaalatoa also helped keep the Highlanders honest, making 10 tackles for the Crusaders.

Key stat: 10 tackles – first amongst props

2. Asafo Aumua (Hurricanes)
Two tries is a handy return for Asafo Aumua – but it’s not like he was simply dropping over the line from a lineout maul or burrowing over from close range. Perhaps more importantly, Aumua nailed his lineout throws and ensured the Hurricanes had plenty of attacking opportunities. What a performance.

Key stat: 6 defenders beaten – first amongst all players

1. Joe Moody (Crusaders)
The rock. Solid in every aspect of his play but it was his dash for the line in the first half that would have received the most plaudits – had he actually managed to cross for a try!

Key stat: 16 metres run – first amongst props

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