After two weeks of Super Rugby Aotearoa, the Crusaders remain unbeaten, the Chiefs still haven’t won a match and the Highlanders might have unveiled New Zealand’s next big star.
That player, as profiled below, was almost the sole reason why the Highlanders beat the Chiefs 39-23 in Hamilton on Friday in a result that extends Clayton McMillan’s side’s winless streak to 10 games.
On Saturday, it ticked over a year to the day since the Chiefs last won a match, their 51-14 victory over the Waratahs in Wollongong on March 6, 2020. That streak could well be extended this weekend when they face the Crusaders in Christchurch.
It was at Orangetheory Stadium where the Crusaders put the Hurricanes to the sword, running out 33-16 victors in the Garden City to keep them atop of the competition standings.
With all that in mind, here are five of the best players from the second round of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Jona Nareki (Highlanders)
I don’t think anyone expected a performance quite as dominant as the one Highlanders wing Jona Nareki produced against the Chiefs, but it certainly made people sit up and take notice of the livewire 23-year-old.
The match probably didn’t start out as Nareki would have liked, as he made a meal of many of his tackle attempts as they Chiefs raced out to a 20-6 lead after half an hour of play.
Then Nareki clicked in to live. Not just clicked into life, he exploded into action. A 93-metre intercept try shortly before half-time, where was lucky to have beaten Jonah Lowe in a tightly-fought footrace, was the beginning of it. Then came the magic.
The best bit about the All Blacks Sevens representative’s performance was his try assist for Shannon Frizell, when he fielded a poorly-placed kick, burst through Tupou Vaa’i, Sam Cane and Brad Weber and deftly offloaded to his teammate for a scintillating 80-odd-metre try.
Impressive poise, vision and balance were all shown in the lead-up to his second try, where he beat Anton Lienert-Brown, Etene Nanai-Seturo, Reuben O’Neill and Damian McKenzie to crash over from 20 metres out, while his third was a much easer effort as he just had to run straight for the corner to score.
All up, Nareki topped the league for metres ran (192), equaled the clean break count (five) and beat the second-most defenders (nine) over the weekend to follow up his standout showing in round one and thrust himself into the national conscience.
Etene Nanai-Seturo (Chiefs)
Not to be outdone by his Highlanders opposite and All Blacks Sevens teammate Nareki, Chiefs flyer Etene Nanai-Seturo proved his worth in a losing effort in Hamilton.
While Nanai-Seturo’s exploits weren’t delivered to the same devastating effect as Nareki’s, the 21-year-old was at his elusive best at Waikato Stadium and showed just how dangerous he can be if given the time and space to get into his groove.
He doesn’t need much time or space either, and that’s probably the scariest thing about this highly-touted prospect. As one Twitter user said on Friday, Nanai-Seturo “could step you in a phone booth”. That’s how good he is on his feet, as the Highlanders found out.
There isn’t a stepper like him in New Zealand at the moment, and he used his happy feet to dance around 14 defenders – the most players beaten by anyone in any match this season – in entertaining fashion.
The Crusaders will no doubt have Nanai-Seturo – who also ran for 90 metres (third-equal most of the round), made all five of his tackles (including a controversial one on Connor Garden-Bachop) and won a turnover – on high-alert this weekend.
Codie Taylor (Crusaders)
A week after topping last week’s iteration of this column, Crusaders hooker Codie Taylor retains his place in the top five of all Super Rugby Aotearoa players this week.
The 56-test All Blacks rake has put himself in good position to reclaim the New Zealand No. 2 jersey after losing it to Dane Coles last year on the basis of his first two performances for the Crusaders this year.
The Highlanders fell victim to Taylor’s outstanding all-round effort in Dunedin little more than a week ago, but it was the Hurricanes who had to bear the brunt of the 29-year-old’s exploits in Christchurch on Sunday.
He grabbed a brace of tries (the first from a quick tap to catch the Hurricanes asleep at the wheel, the second from a overthrow from Ricky Riccitelli at a defensive lineout) to add to last week’s score and join Nareki at the top of the competition’s try-scoring leaderboard.
Taylor also played an influential role in Richie Mo’unga’s try, as it was him who broke the line from well inside his own half to charge into enemy territory and shovel the ball on to Mitchell Drummond, who set his halves partner free to score.
With a stat sheet that reads 63 running metres (the most of any Crusaders forward), five defenders beaten and an unblemished throwing record at the lineout, it feels like the All Blacks No. 2 jersey is Taylor’s for the taking.
Luke Jacobson (Chiefs)
After missing out on the 2019 World Cup due to concussion and a tough 2020 campaign where he was leapfrogged in the national pecking order by Hoskins Sotutu, Akira Ioane and Cullen Grace, Luke Jacobson looks ready to return to his best form.
The abrasive two-test All Blacks loose forward made a name for himself two years ago as a blindside flanker, but it was at No. 8 where he played a damaging role for the Chiefs, particularly in the first 30 minutes of their clash with the Highlanders.
The 23-year-old’s ability to pack a punch on either side of the ball was eye-catching and it was rewarded with a first half try as he and his teammates capitalised on Sio Tomkinson’s yellow card.
That wasn’t the only time he caused havoc for the Highlanders’ defence, though, as he always seemed capable of bursting through opposing defences to get over the advantage line when needed.
Jacobson was similarly uncompromising on defence, and – after finishing the match with 53 running metres, four defenders beaten (both figures the most posted by any forward in that match), one clean break and an offload – an All Blacks re-call may not be out of the reckoning just yet.
Folau Fakatava (Highlanders)
One of two players, alongside Aaron Smith, in the spotlight last week in the wake of the 97-test All Black’s re-commitment to New Zealand Rugby and the Highlanders, Folau Fakatava showed why he is in such high demand nationwide on Friday.
The 21-year-old in the No. 9 jersey in what appeared to be the Highlanders’ way of showing that he is good enough compete with Smith for a starting role as they try to convince him to stay at the franchise beyond this season.
What transpired was a performance that validated the Dunedin side’s decision to opt with youth over Smith’s vast experience which proved why so many other clubs are circling for the highly-rated youngster’s signature.
Using his footwork and vision to score his first career try in Super Rugby, Fakatava also showed flashes of finesse with some exquisite flick passing. He also wasn’t afraid to use his brutish strength on defence as he rocked some of the Chiefs’ big men where necessary.
Whether he keeps onto the No. 9 jersey this weekend when the Highlanders face the Blues in Auckland remains to be seen, but you wouldn’t be surprised to see it given how Fakatava fared against the Chiefs.
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now