The 24-12 victory at FMG Stadium Waikato broke a nine-year hoodoo in Hamilton for the Auckland franchise, and Leon MacDoanld’s men now look like genuine contenders to challenge for the New Zealand domestic title.
Scott Robertson’s side showed little sign of rust despite their prolonged lay-off in their five-tries-to-one showing, which exemplified their status as the alpha side of the competition as they search for another title for the fourth year running.
With all that in mind, here are five of the best performers to grace the field in the weekend’s most recent round of action.
Will Jordan (Crusaders)
It took four months for one of New Zealand’s most exciting young attacking talents to take to the field again, but Will Jordan returned to action in sparkling fashion for the Crusaders as they dispatched the Hurricanes in the capital.
Named to start in his preferred fullback position, the 22-year-old made himself busy with ball in hand throughout the encounter, registering a competition-high 111 running metres.
Constantly in support of teammates on attacking breaks, there were two or three times Jordan could have crossed the line, but he instead finished the match with a try assist, eight defenders beaten, three clean breaks and two offloads to his name.
He didn’t miss a beat defensively either, which sets up a selection headache for head coach Robertson as he welcomes back another star fullback – David Havili, who was impressive off the bench on Sunday – from injury.
Quinn Tupaea (Chiefs)
The youngster put in arguably one of his best performances at Super Rugby level in a losing effort to the Blues in front of 24,000 at FMG Stadium Waikato on a drizzly Saturday night.
Running for a total of 50 metres, Tupaea managed to beat seven defenders – the second-most of the round behind Jordan – and racked up two clean breaks, the equal-most of the match in slippery conditions.
His defensive tenacity also didn’t go amiss, as the Waikato product forced the second-most turnovers of the round (two) and made 10 of his 12 tackle attempts to cap off a well-rounded display that hinted at his extraordinary potential.
Hoskins Sotutu (Blues)
Probably the most hyped young player in Super Rugby this year, Blues No. 8 Hoskins Sotutu took his game to another level on Saturday.
Leading the charge as part of an inspired Blues forward pack, the 21-year-old picked up man-of-the-match honours in a clash that saw him score his side’s first try in ground-and-pound fashion in the first half.
Sotutu then went on to set up Mark Telea’s five-pointer with a delicate yet lethal pass late in the second half, but it was his defensive work that really added to his coming-of-age performance.
13 tackles from 13 attempts, as well as a lineout steal, illustrated his all-round ability, and it’s no wonder there are calls nationwide for the uncapped loose forward to be fast-tracked into the All Blacks squad come the end of this year.
Akira Ioane (Blues)
The weekend’s match against the Chiefs presented a rare opportunity for Blues veteran Akira Ioane to play this season as Sotutu’s spellbinding efforts have seen him dominate the No. 8 jersey all year long.
However, the one-time All Black took his opportunity with both hands, playing a starring role in the impressive Blues pack to send a message to head coach MacDonald that his talents warrant more game time.
Criticised in the past for his fitness and off-the-ball work ethic, the 25-year-old put those concerns to rest in Hamilton as not only did he make all 12 of his tackle attempts, but also he snatched three turnovers – the most of any player this round.
Should the Blues have dry ball when they face the Highlanders at Eden Park next week, Ioane’s attacking exploits could flourish to complement his enhanced defensive output, making for an intriguing selection battle for the No. 6 spot once Tom Robinson returns from injury.
Patrick Tuipulotu (Blues)
Ever since his career-best display for the All Blacks against the Wallabies at Eden Park last year, Blues captain Patrick Tuipulotu’s game has continued to grow from strength-to-strength.
He’s carried that physically imposing form into Super Rugby this year, and that’s certainly one of the reasons why the Blues have emerged as a serious title contender for Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Evidence of his outstanding efforts could be seen against the Chiefs two days ago, when he ran for 34 metres – the most of any forward in the round – beat four defenders, made one clean break and threw an offload.
Factor in his 14 completed tackles from 15 attempts and four lineout wins, and it’s clear to see why some pundits believe he could well be New Zealand’s first-choice lock by the end of the domestic campaign.
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