Three weeks into the second edition of Super Rugby Aotearoa and there are only really two sides in contention for the title.
As evidenced on the weekend, the Blues and Crusaders are another level above the rest of the competition as they dispatched the Highlanders and Chiefs with ease to maintain their top two places on the standings.
That’s handy given both sides will square off against each other for a juggernaut encounter at Eden Park on Sunday in a clash that will really show who deserves to be favourites to take out the all-Kiwi crown.
There are still six days before that match takes place, though, so now seems the right time to reflect on the last two days of action that saw the Auckland and Christchurch-based franchises shorten their already low odds of making the competition’s final.
It should come as no surprise, then, that this week’s edition of this column is dominated by those from the Blues and Crusaders.
Richie Mo’unga (Crusaders)
Headlining the stars on show in Super Rugby Aotearoa over the weekend was Crusaders first-five Richie Mo’unga, who played with the same vein of form that made him the league’s MVP last year.
It took a couple of weeks after slow starts against the Highlanders and Hurricanes, but the 26-year-old was in inspired form in his side’s 39-17 victory over the Chiefs in Christchurch on Saturday.
Mo’unga’s dazzling footwork, exquisite playmaking touch and excellent kicking was outstanding and the influence he wields over his side is so immense that one would have to wonder if the Crusaders would have even beaten the Chiefs had he not played.
Most would say they probably would have, but the presence of Mo’unga ensured Scott Robertson’s men had a much easier time of clinching victory as he ran for a round-high 101 metres, beat a round-high 11 defenders, made three clean break (the second-most of the round), bagged a try assist and kicked 10 points.
Undoubtedly the best first-five in New Zealand at the moment, it’s hard to imagine the Crusaders securing a fifth straight title without Mo’unga on hand to guide them to further success.
Akira Ioane (Blues)
Like Mo’unga, Blues loose forward Akira Ioane has burst out of the blocks in 2021 to re-establish himself as one of the premier back rowers in the country.
Last season, after years of below-par performances where he failed to adjust his all-round game and meet the standards required of him by the All Blacks selectors, the 25-year-old became a bona fide star of the Blues squad.
His enhanced work rate, improved ability at the set piece and stronger commitment to his defensive chores were key to the Blues’ revival, as were his attacking traits, and it’s looking again that he will be crucial to the franchise’s chances of success this season.
The two-test powerhouse exploded into action in his side’s season-opener against the Hurricanes just over a fortnight ago and stepped it up a notch against the Highlanders in their 39-17 win at Eden Park on Sunday.
Ioane finished the match 54 running metres (second-most of any forward in the round), three defenders beaten (equal-most for the round), two clean breaks (joint-most of any forward in the round), eight tackles from 10 attempts, a turnover, two lineout takes and a try.
He also would have had a try assist – and a spectacular one at that – were it not for a dodgy officiating call, but Ioane’s outstanding output in all facets of the contest has to be recognised and it wouldn’t be out of the question to say he’s in pole position for the national No 6 jersey.
Otere Black (Blues)
While Mo’unga is certainly the best first-five in New Zealand at the moment, Blues pivot Otere Black has also been nothing short of sensational for his side in the opening weeks of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
The 25-year-old doesn’t quite pose the same threat as Mo’unga does as an individual attacking threat, but the impact he has as a composed figure in a backline jam-packed with talent has been significant for the Aucklanders.
Showing his ability to unleash the talents of those outside of him, Black has become a vital piece of the jigsaw head coach Leon MacDonald as thrown together.
That much was on show against the Highlanders this weekend, as the Maori All Blacks veteran was constantly seen putting teammates into holes while popping up where need be as well.
With a try, a clean break, an unblemished tackle count and a total of 19 points to his name in that clash, an All Blacks call-up could well be in the offing should he keep up his good work for the Blues.
David Havili (Crusaders)
After having indicated his preference to play at fullback during pre-season, Crusaders vice-captain David Havili was thrust into the midfield for his side’s clash with the Chiefs to accomodate for the selection of Will Jordan at No 15.
It’s understandable why Scott Robertson wants Jordan on the field in his best position, which has in turn forced Havili into his secondary spot, but the way in which he conducted himself at Orangetheory Stadium was second-to-none on Saturday.
The 26-year-old carried the ball with aplomb, with his best run of the match coming in the opening quarter when he burst through the defensive line and slipped a quality ball into the mitts of Leicester Fainga’anuku who controversially scored in the corner.
Havili didn’t shirk away from his defensive duties either, as he completed all 10 of his tackle attempts and looks like a genuine long-term option at No 12, especially in the absence of the injured Braydon Ennor, which could open a return to the All Blacks.
Dalton Papalii (Blues)
Ever since he made his test debut in 2018, Blues flanker Dalton Papalii has often been a forgotten name when discussing the makeup of New Zealand’s loose forwards.
At the time of his arrival onto the international scene, the likes of Kieran Read, Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Liam Squire and Matt Todd had already established themselves.
Following the 2019 World Cup, the focus has shifted more towards the likes of Cane, Savea, Shannon Frizell, Hoskins Sotutu and Akira Ioane, but Papalii’s has frequently been absent from those discussions.
Why that is hasn’t always been clear given the prodigious talent Papalii possess, and there have been plenty of times he has shown what he’s capable of while playing for the Blues.
One of those times came on Sunday when he tore into the Highlanders’ attack like a seagull to a bit of stray food. Wherever the Highlanders players went, Papalii was there to stop them, and he did so in emphatic fashion.
The power he puts into his tackles is almost enough to grimace at just by watching it, and the 23-year-old’s work rate is just as astounding.
A head knock forced an early exit from the field at Eden Park, but with 12 tackles for the match – the equal-most along with Frizell – and a turnover to boot, Papalii ensured his presence was felt as he looks to build on his four tests caps accrued over three years.
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