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Five of the best: The top five players from round one of Super Rugby Aotearoa

By Alex McLeod

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Super Rugby Aotearoa is back for another year, which means our ‘Five of the best’ series returns for another season as we highlight the best five players from each round of the competition.

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Many key figures stood out in the opening weekend of the new campaign, most of whom flourished in the first-up match between the Highlanders and Crusaders at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Friday.

Ill-discipline from the visitors and the hosts’ inability to score from multiple rolling mauls deep inside enemy territory were the major talking points of a game that was eventually won 26-13 by the Crusaders.

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Hurricanes vs Blues | Press Conference | Super Rugby Aotearoa

The following day, the Crusaders’ biggest threat to retaining their Super Rugby Aotearoa crown, the Blues, dispatched the Hurricanes 31-16 with a composed and accurate performance at Sky Stadium in Wellington.

With all that in mind, here are five of the best players from the first round of Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021.

Codie Taylor (Crusaders)

In his first outing in the season after losing his place as New Zealand’s No. 1 hooker to Hurricanes counterpart Dane Coles, Codie Taylor was simply outstanding for the Crusaders against the Highlanders.

His involvement across the park was unparalleled as he dominated the stat sheet like no other player in throughout Super Rugby Aotearoa.

Busting through the Highlanders’ defensive line to score a scintillating 40 metre try, Taylor also assisted Sevu Reece’s try, all while running for a total of 53 metres (second-equal most of any forward in the round), beating two defenders, breaking the line twice (equal most of any forward in the round) and throwing an offload.

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He was defensively sound too, as he completed 11 of his 12 tackle attempts, won a round-high three turnovers and hit all 10 of his targets at the lineout.

It’s no surprise, then, to hear Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson describe Taylor’s efforts as “special”, and it may have given All Blacks boss Ian Foster some food for thought selection-wise early on in the year.

Asafo Aumua (Hurricanes)

In saying all of that, it isn’t exactly as if Taylor is in a one-horse race to challenge for the All Blacks’ No. 2 jersey – not if Asafo Aumua’s display on the weekend is anything to go by.

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Named in the Hurricanes’ starting lineup in the absence of seasoned veteran Dane Coles, Aumua took his rare starting chance with both hands has he bulldozed his way through the Blues’ defence on numerous occasions.

One of the times he wreaked havoc with ball in hand led to an impressive try that left four defenders reeling in his wake, while he fought off another two throughout the remainder of the game.

Furthermore, Aumua equalled Taylor’s figures of 53 running metres and two clean breaks, produced an unblemished tackle count of six completions from six attempts and was equally as tidy at the lineout as he hit all nine of his targets.

“He was powerful, wasn’t he? He was destroying things,” Hurricanes head coach Jason Holland said of Aumua post-match.

“He’s had a good pre-season and so that’s what we expected … with a guy of his talent. He was outstanding, I thought.”

If Taylor stood out as arguably the best player of the weekend, then Aumua can’t have been too far off of him, leaving New Zealand’s hooker stocks in good stead should Coles retire at the end of the year, as he has hinted at.

Sevu Reece (Crusaders)

Crusaders star Sevu Reece showed exactly what the All Blacks missed out on last year after he was limited to just one appearance in an underwhelming test season in 2020.

Under-utilised by the national side, it’s highly unlikely the Crusaders will opt to play without the fleet-footed 24-year-old any time soon given how well he played for the reigning champions on Friday.

Reece’s best highlight of the night was his sensational finish to score a wonderful try in the corner early in the second half, but he was similarly instrumental in the first half as it was his chip kick that assisted Bryn Hall’s try.

Both of those plays illustrated how good he can be with ball in hand, which is also reflected in his stat sheet, which reads 89 running metres, four defenders beaten, one clean break, two offloads and one turnover won to accompany his try and try assist.

“His work off the ball was incredible, his running metres will be off the charts, his precision and finishing… That’s a world-class finish in the corner,” Crusaders boss Robertson said post-match.

“He’s pretty unique. He left his mark out there tonight.”

Connor Garden-Bachop (Highlanders)

As tempting as it was to include both Connor Garden-Bachop and Jona Nareki in this week’s top five, there is only enough room for one of the two wings, and it’s gone to the man who starred on debut for the Highlanders.

After both missing the whole of last year’s Super Rugby due to injury and hardly setting the world alight at provincial level, Garden-Bachop has exploded into life from out of nowhere for the southerners.

Highlanders boss Tony Brown admitted just over three weeks ago that he had never seen the 21-year-old play, but the youngster impressed so much throughout pre-season that he earned starting honours for the season-opener against the Crusaders.

He didn’t disappoint, as he capped off a brilliant try that was orchestrated by his side’s backline and assisted by Nareki, ran for 65 metres, beat three defenders, made two line breaks, registered two offloads and didn’t miss a tackle.

“It was everything I could have ever dreamed of,” Garden-Bachop told media of his debut post-match.

“The energy was unreal. To be honest, I was just thriving off it. I was dancing, I was just having the time of my life.”

Considering his efforts in recent matches, the prospect of Garden-Bachop dancing through or around defenders across New Zealand over the coming weeks seems very likely.

Akira Ioane (Blues)

It wouldn’t have taken much convincing to include Hurricanes captain Ardie Savea, playing in his 100th match for the franchise, on this list, but to exclude any Blues players would have been criminal.

There were plenty of names from the Auckland side who stood out during their win in the capital – Rieko Ioane was fit and firing, Caleb Clarke looked as his blockbusting best and Otere Black pulled the strings very well from first-five.

However, it’s blindside flanker Akira Ioane who gets the nod after he carried last year’s form into the 2021 campaign as he busted through tackles at will and didn’t shirk away from his defensive duties.

 

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Running for 65 metres (the most of any forward in the round), Ioane also beat three defenders, made two clean breaks, completed nine of his 10 tackle attempts, won a turnover and even won a lineout throw for good measure.

Part of an extremely competitive group of Kiwi loose forwards, Ioane probably has the inside running to join Savea and Sam Cane in the All Blacks back row on the basis of how he finished last year and how he has started this one.

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Five of the best: The top five players from round one of Super Rugby Aotearoa

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