If the Crusaders’ iron grip on the Super Rugby Aotearoa crown was already firm, it just got a whole lot tighter after the latest round of the competition.
The reigning champions’ biggest rivals, the Blues, suffered a hiccup in their title aspirations as they were beaten at the death by the Chiefs in a surprise 15-12 defeat in Hamilton.
Likewise, the Hurricanes toppled the favourited Highlanders 30-19 in Dunedin as Jordie Barrett set the Super Rugby Aotearoa record for most points scored by an individual player in a match.
Both results shook the competition standings up and leaves the Blues holding onto their second-place spot by only two points as all three of the Chiefs, Hurricanes and Highlanders lie in striking distance of a top two spot.
With all that in mind, here are the five best performers from the most recent round of action in the league.
Jordie Barrett (Hurricanes)
As mentioned above, Barrett was the undoubted shining light in his side’s first-up win over the 2021 season as he bagged a hat-trick, three conversions and three penalties to score all 30 of his team’s points.
Not only was that enough to usurp Richie Mo’unga’s record for most points scored in a Super Rugby Aotearoa match, it also leaves the All Blacks selectors with an almighty conundrum in terms of who to pick in the national No 15 jersey.
In addition to his point-scoring feats, the 24-year-old behemoth was a constant presence in many other facets of the game, as evidenced by his try-saving tackle on Freedom Vahaakolo and his huge spiral punts that eventually forced a knock-on out of Mitch Hunt.
Standing at 1.96m and 96kg, Barrett also offers a hefty physical frame that few other fullbacks across the country can boast, and that may be enough to give him an edge over his fullback rivals such as Damian McKenzie and Will Jordan.
Although he was used as a wing by All Blacks boss Ian Foster last year and has been seen at first-five and in the midfield in recent seasons, Barrett made it clear post-match he wants to remain a fullback, and going off this performance, it would be hard to deny him the No 15 jersey of any team.
Shannon Frizell (Highlanders)
In spite of the fact he dropped the ball cold while reaching out to score what would have been a spectacular try, Shannon Frizell was immense in the Highlanders’ defeat to the Hurricanes.
Like at fullback, spots for a place in the national squad in the loose forward contingent will be hard to come by given the sheer talent and enviable depth across New Zealand in that position.
However, Frizell has done his chances of retaining his place in the national squad little harm with his bruising efforts with ball in hand that frequently had the Hurricanes on the back foot.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) March 28, 2021
It was just a shame for him that he couldn’t capitalise on his destructive work with ball in hand as he could have closed the scoreline gap by five points, but he still managed to punch hole after hole in the opposition’s defence.
This was reflected in a stat sheet that read 20 carries (the most of any player in the round), 49 running metres (the most of any forward in the match), seven defenders beaten (the most of any player in the match) and four offloads (the most of any player in the round).
Akira Ioane, Hoskins Sotutu, Luke Jacobson and Ardie Savea all remain likely prospects to make the cut for Foster’s next All Blacks squad, but if Frizell can continue this type of form over the coming weeks, the national No 6 jersey is as good as his.
Josh Ioane (Highlanders)
Earlier last week, Highlanders head coach Tony Brown sprung a surprise when he named Josh Ioane at fullback rather than in his preferred first-five position while Mitch Hunt was thrust into the No 10 jersey.
Brown validated his decision by saying that, after the previous match’s lacklustre defeat to the Blues, he wanted to see Ioane relieved of some of the playmaking responsibility that comes with the first-five role and express himself fully as a ball-running talent.
That is exactly what the one-test All Black did under the roof of Forsyth Barr Stadium as he seemed to flourish with the extra time and space that came with playing from the back.
The added luxury of not being bogged down by the pressure that comes with the primary playmaking role also played its role in Ioane’s standout performance that saw him run for a round-high 103 metres, beat five defenders, register a clean break, throw two offloads, set-up a try and knock over two conversions.
Although it wasn’t enough to get the Highlanders over the line, the deployment of the 25-year-old at the back, where his attacking promise can be realised, might be a tactic that Brown may look to utilise for the remainder of the season.
Dalton Papalii (Blues)
Blues openside flanker Dalton Papalii was the living definition of not going down without a fight in his side’s defeat to the Chiefs on Saturday.
The 23-year-old was the heartbeat of the franchise’s defensive output as he registered an impressive 20 tackles from an 21 attempts and pinched four turnovers. Both figures were unbeaten by any player throughout the round.
He also proved his value as an attacking player as well, as he provided the assist for Tom Robinson’s try and made 26 metres with ball in hand off just six carries.
As has been often reiterated by this scribe, much of the focus when it comes to the discussion around loose forwards in the All Blacks set-up is centred around other headline figures, a la Cane, Savea, Ioane, Frizell, Sotutu, etc.
But, Papalii, a four-test All Black, remains an underrated contender that is capable of wreaking havoc on either side of the ball, and it’s only a matter of time before he gets regular game time at the next level.
Quinn Tupaea (Chiefs)
Long regarded as one of the more promising young players coming through New Zealand’s age-grade ranks, it’s taken about a season-and-a-half at Super Rugby level for Quinn Tupaea to begin to stand out.
A 2017 New Zealand Schools representative, Tupaea burst onto the scene the following year with Waikato and it was with the Mooloos where he dominated the Kiwi provincial scene for a few seasons before earning his Chiefs debut last year.
Not until Saturday night, though, did the 21-year-old look like he truly belonged in the Chiefs backline as he used his 102kg frame well to break through the Blues’ defensive line many times.
All-in-all, he finished with a match-high 89 running metres, a round-high nine defenders beaten, a round-high four clean breaks, two offloads and nine tackles from 10 attempts.
It bodes well for the youngster, who could, in time, become a realistic challenger for a place in an All Blacks midfield that is anything but certain at this point in time.
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