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Ex-All Black picks out the key signings from each NZ Super Rugby Pacific team

By Alex McLeod
(Photos / Getty Images)

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The announcement of each team’s squad list for next year’s inaugural edition of Super Rugby Pacific caught the eyes of fans across New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Islands earlier this week.

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From a Kiwi standpoint, the unveiling of each squad gave onlookers a chance to properly assess which of the five New Zealand franchises – all of whom have dominated the competition in recent years – look best-placed to challenge for the title in 2022.

Most neutrals will agree that the Blues and Crusaders stand as the early frontrunners to push for silverware after they picked up this year’s Super Rugby Trans-Tasman and Super Rugby Aotearoa titles, respectively.

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The star power and depth across both squads will make both teams a formidable threat to whichever team they come up against.

In the case of the Blues, the Auckland-based franchise have nine All Blacks who played test rugby in 2021 in their ranks, with a further three Kiwi internationals in the form of Caleb Clarke, Alex Hodgman and Luke Romano.

The additional signing of former NRL star Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has increased the hype and anticipation surrounding Leon MacDonald’s squad.

However, ex-Blues captain James Parsons believes the strength of his former side’s squad is underpinned by the competitiveness for starting spots in certain positional groups.

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Speaking on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, Parsons pointed to the recruitment of former Hurricanes hooker Ricky Riccitelli as an unheralded signing made by the Blues, but one that is significant due to the depth it gives their squad in the No 2 role.

The former two-test All Black suggested that the Blues will be a better team for the competition Riccitelli, who ex-All Blacks squad member, will provide for 2020 North Island representative Kurt Eklund and promising youngster Soane Vikena.

“I think there’s been some great signings by the Blues. One is Ricky Riccitelli,” Parsons told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.

“We know how awesome he’s been for the Hurricanes when he stepped into that role, and I think the competition between himself, Kurt Eklund and Soane Vikena will be awesome for their individual growth, but also for the Blues with everyone vying for minutes, which is great.”

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Parsons said the Chiefs are in a similar position at first-five following the arrival of one-test All Blacks playmaker Josh Ioane from the Highlanders.

With All Blacks star Damian McKenzie missing next year’s season to play in Japan, Ioane is set to compete for the No 10 jersey alongside the likes of Kaleb Trask and Bryn Gatland, which Parsons said is an exciting prospect for the Hamilton-based franchise.

“If you look at the Chiefs, first-five depth is pretty exciting. That competitive environment is a big thing,” he said before acknowledging the importance of Brodie Retallick’s return to the Chiefs for the first time since 2019.

“I just mentioned that with the hookers [at the Blues] there, but I think Josh Ioane played some fantastic footy towards the backend of this NPC. You’ve got Kaleb Trask there. He’s proven to perform really well there at Super level.

“Bryn Gatland, I don’t need to wax lyrical about him, because I’ve pretty much done that for the last two years, but I think that’s exciting for them, and with Damian heading off, bringing a guy like Brodie Retallick back into the mix is special as well.”

Similarly to their North Island counterparts, Parsons said the Hurricanes will benefit from the acquisition of ex-Blues flanker Blake Gibson, who will challenge incumbent Hurricanes openside flanker Du’Plessis Kirifi for the No 7 jersey.

“I think the Canes have done really well recruiting-wise. Tei Walden, Blake Gibson, some really solid, experienced guys to bring into that group to set the back three alight and maybe challenge a couple of players in there for spots,” he said.

“Du’Plessis Kirifi’s there [with] Blake, that competition is key, so I think most sides have recruited well.”

Further south, Parsons said the arrival of Los Pumas star Pablo Matera and three-test All Blacks halfback Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi has only made the Crusaders stronger as they eye their sixth title in as many years.

“Pablo Matera down at the Crusaders, and I think Triple T [Tahuriorangi] is a big one,” he told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, which featured long-serving Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall on the panel.

“We’ve spoken about him on here, but that depth at halfback is key because we know, and I’ll touch wood as I say this, but they’ve been very fortunate that Bryn and Drummy [Mitchell Drummond] have stayed fit for three or four years, but having that security of someone that’s represented the All Blacks in that third spot is massive.

“I suppose it’s not really fair for me to say third spot, is it? I suppose it’s straight away a blank canvas. You boys will be competing for that No 9 jersey from the get-go.”

As for the Highlanders, Parsons added that the arrivals of franchise legends Gareth Evans and Marty Banks gives the Dunedin club some much-needed experience as they continue their rebuild following the mass exodus of 2019.

“The Highlanders bringing back Gareth Evans, sort of replacing Liam Squire, I think players like that have been awesome, and Marty Banks, as well, I think is key for them.”

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