As we near the halfway stage of Super Rugby Aotearoa, the Crusaders have reinforced their dominance over the rest of the country as they narrow in on a fifth consecutive title.
Their 43-27 triumph over the Blues in Auckland on Sunday was a statement of intent from Scott Robertson’s men as they outclassed their biggest threats to the Aotearoa crown in typically clinical fashion.
As a result, they sit nine points clear of their Auckland rivals at the top of the standings heading into their bye week, while the Hurricanes languish in last place with just one point to their name after falling to the Chiefs in Wellington on Saturday.
The defeat means the Chiefs have picked up their first win since March 6, 2020, and the Hamilton franchise should now have ample amounts of confidence to push on and mount a challenge for a place in the competition’s final later down the track.
With all that in mind, here are five of the best performers from the latest round of Super Rugby Aotearoa:
Codie Taylor (Crusaders)
Undoubtedly the form hooker of Super Rugby Aotearoa this season, Codie Taylor carried his magnificent stretch of form into his side’s clash with the Blues at Eden Park.
Aside from a penalty conceded for shoving an opposing player in the face following a successful scrum, there was little Taylor did wrong as he again proved to be an immense presence across the park for the reigning champions.
Stamping his authority on the league in the opening round largely via his attacking exploits, it was the way in which the 29-year-old operated on the defensive side of the ball that impressed in Auckland.
With the Crusaders forced to make almost double the number of tackles the Blues made, Taylor registered 13 tackles and missed none of his tackle attempts – a tackle success rate that was only bettered by Chiefs midfielder Quinn Tupaea (14 out of 14) of those who posted double-digit defensive figures throughout the weekend.
Taylor also snatched an important turnover for his side, was faultless in his lineout throwing and even bagged a try off the back of a rolling maul to continue his bid to reclaim the All Blacks’ No 2 jersey.
Damian McKenzie (Chiefs)
Perhaps a bit withdrawn from the first half of his side’s drought-breaking victory over the Hurricanes, as many of his teammates were, Damian McKenzie burst into life in the second stanza to help guide the Chiefs to their first win in over a year.
The Hamilton franchise’s 11-match losing run is over and a large part of that came down to the attacking brilliance of the 25-year-old, who started the match at fullback but proved his value as first-five following a positional switch later on in the piece.
The arrival of Chase Tiatia in place of Kaleb Trask in the 52nd minute saw McKenzie thrust into the main playmaking role, and the 27-test All Black flourished as he set-up a try for Tiatia and played a key role in Brad Weber’s spectacular counter-attacking try.
Running for a match-high 80 metres, McKenzie added an extra 10 points off the kicking tee and was defensive astute where need be. The already difficult discussion of who fits into the All Blacks selection frame at first-five and fullback just got even tougher.
Richie Mo’unga (Crusaders)
In back-to-back weeks, Crusaders first-five Richie Mo’unga has exemplified why there are a raft of supporters eager to see him in the No 10 jersey for the All Blacks on the back of some exceptional work in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
He was the competition’s MVP last year, but the 26-year-old could well go back-to-back for the award if he keeps performing to such outrageously good levels on a consistent basis, as he did last year and is beginning to do this season.
Mo’unga’s efforts against the Blues were so good, in fact, that they can be described as record-breaking as he broke his own record for most points scored in a Super Rugby Aotearoa match by knocking over 23 points off the tee and scoring a superb try.
His try was arguably the highlight of his match, as the 22-test All Black jinked and jived past the helpless Kurt Eklund to cross over from close-range in a piece of play that showed why he was regarded as such a highly-touted touch player in his youth.
Mo’unga’s unblemished goal-kicking record of four conversions and five penalties from nine attempts were crucial to the Crusaders’ success, as was his try assist, two clean breaks and five defenders beaten.
For as long as the four-time title-winner remains in this rich vein of form, it’s difficult to imagine any other franchise across New Zealand usurping the Crusaders as the best team in the country.
Tupou Vaa’i (Chiefs)
The selection frame of locks for the All Blacks is beginning to look a little clustered as the likes of Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock and Patrick Tuipulotu are all heavily involved an well in-form for their respective Super Rugby franchises.
Weigh in the imminent return of Brodie Retallick from Japan later this year and the injury comeback of highly-regarded Highlanders second rower Pari Pari Parkinson, and it could be argued there is little room for Chiefs youngster Tupou Vaa’i.
After all, it was New Zealand’s shortage of locks that effectively opened the door for Vaa’i into the national set-up last year, but what the 21-year-old has shown since his rapid ascent through the professional ranks is that he’s good enough to foot it with the best.
Sure, it was fortuitous that he made the All Blacks in the wake of injuries to Barrett and Parkinson, and Retallick’s sabbatical, but Vaa’i is a strong contender to make Ian Foster’s squad in his own right, as he showed against the Hurricanes on Saturday.
Few players worked as hard with ball in hand as the four-test international, and he did so with a positive impact, carrying the ball a whopping 13 times for 25 metres to constantly keep the Hurricanes’ defence on the back foot.
It was a workman-like display from the youngster, who showed his desire to keep the Chiefs in the hunt for their first win since last March as well as to further establish himself as one of New Zealand’s top second rowers.
Ricky Riccitelli (Hurricanes)
With both Dane Coles and Asafo Aumua at the Hurricanes, game time has become a bit scarce for Ricky Riccitelli in recent seasons.
That’s not to say he lacks the talent to start at this level, but with two All Blacks hookers in his way, it’s become difficult for the 26-year-old to rekindle the sort of form that earned him a call-up to the national squad at the backend of 2018.
When handed a rare starting chance last weekend, though, the South African-born rake took the opportunity with both hands to put in a standout performance that will certainly put Coles and Aumua on their toes once they return from injury.
Capitalising on the good work done by Ngani Laumape, Riccitelli scored his side’s second try inside the opening quarter of an hour, crashing in over in the corner in what was the pick of the moments of an eye-catching display.
That effort contributed to his 48 running metres, by far the most of any forward in the round, while he also beat a solitary defender, made two clean breaks and threw all of his lineouts with aplomb.
Capable of breaking into the All Blacks’ ranks but stuck behind two of New Zealand’s leading hookers at the Hurricanes, should a move to another franchise be on the cards?
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