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Battle of the potential All Blacks flyhalves lands in Fergus Burke's favour

By Tom Vinicombe
(Photo by Martin Hunter/Photosport)

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Saturday evening’s fixture between the Crusaders and Hurricanes in Dunedin presented a wee glimpse into the future of New Zealand’s flyhalf stocks.

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With Richie Mo’unga enjoying an extended break from the game and Jackson Garden-Bachop still finding his feet after a long injury lay-off, Fergus Burke and Ruben Love were tasked with guiding their sides around the park in a game that was probably more decisive than the 42-32 scoreline would indicate.

Both Burke and Love boast exceptional potential and while it’s still far too soon to tell, the pair could one day both feature for the All Blacks if they continue to build into their careers.

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Burke was making just his second start at this level of the game, having understudied for Mo’unga and Brett Cameron since 2020, while Love chalked up plenty of minutes in his debut campaign with the Hurricanes last season.

Despite Love having more runs under his belt heading into the match, however, it was 22-year-old Burke who had the stronger showing under the roof of Forsyth Barr Stadium.

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Burke looked composed at first receiver and picked and chose his moments to take on the line, often making a half-break into space, while also guiding his team around the park with a trusty boot.

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Although far from poor, Love’s performance was more reflective of his recent time spent playing at fullback, a role that seems to better suit his natural inclination to run the ball.

Perhaps it’s Jordie Barrett’s role in the side that leaves Love sometimes in two minds, with the All Blacks fullback regularly stepping in at first receiver to help keep the attack humming. Despite all of Love’s obvious natural talents, the 20-year-old still doesn’t look quite at home with the No 10 on his back.

When Garden-Bachop entered the fray late in the piece, the Hurricanes attack looked more incisive and determined – but perhaps that was simply a product of their need to chase the game, given the 24-point deficit they faced just moments after Garden-Bachop joined the match.

Love could still develop into a first-class first five – he certainly has all the potential. Perhaps for the short-term, however, Garden-Bachop is the man to lead the Hurricanes around the park.

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Burke, on the other hand, was cool and collected at first five and will have reaffirmed to coach Scott Robertson that he’s the man to hold on to the No 10 jersey in Mo’unga’s absence. Undoubtedly, Burke will be a certain starter next week when the Crusaders tackle the Highlanders at the same venue.

“Very composed. Really sharp,” Robertson said of his young playmaker following the win. “Did his job and finished his job really well for the majority of it. We’re really pleased for him. He’s worked hard and been waiting for this opportunity.”

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Robertson had indicated prior to the match that the starting chance had been a long time coming for Burke and that even with the more experienced Simon Hickey in their ranks, Burke had been shoulder tapped to step into Mo’unga jersey well in advance of the season’s kick-off.

“He’s known for a long period of time that the 10’s going to be handed to him to take care of this team,” Robertson said on Thursday. “He’s done a great job so far. He’s mature. He’s 22 years old. He’s been in our group for three years so he’s had a good apprenticeship to be ready for it.

“We’ve got around him as much we possible can. [Assistant coaches] Scott Hansen and Andrew Goodman have put a lot of time into him to make sure he’s ready to go. And then just run out and play, trust his instincts when he gets out there. That’s the biggest thing and the message from us.”

The one blemish on Burke’s game was a yellow card for cynically playing the ball on the ground late in the match, but the game was done and dusted by then, with the Crusaders leading 35-13 at the time.

The late flurry of tries scored by the Hurricanes did, however, cost the Crusaders a bonus point, which means they sit level with the Chiefs on four competition points and the same points differential heading into Round 2 of Super Rugby Pacific.

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