Few probably knew who Connor Garden-Bachop was at the beginning of 2021 – let alone whether he was any good at rugby.
Despite making his provincial debut in 2018 for Canterbury, the 21-year-old has made just seven appearances in the Mitre 10 Cup due to a run of troubling injuries, which also kept him sidelined for the entire 2020 Super Rugby season.
Highlanders coach Tony Brown admitted before the season kicked off that, much like many other folks in New Zealand, he hadn’t been lucky enough to catch any of Garden-Bachop’s seven professional appearances to date (plus two showings for the NZ Schools Barbarians side in 2016).
“Connor, I’ve actually never seen him play,” Brown said during the Aotearoa pre-season.
“So I’m excited to watch him go and he’s pretty excited to get out there because I know he’s had a tough year last year, and it’s going to be good to see what he can deliver first up.”
Despite his limited minutes, former Highlanders coach Aaron Mauger signed up Garden-Bachop last year on a two-season deal. A lower back injury suffered in the latter stages of 2019, however, quickly curtailed his season.
While he missed out on running out for the Highlanders and Wellington last year, Garden-Bachop has hardly looked rusty in the opening six rounds of this year’s competition, carving up opposition from the wing and at fullback.
That’s been helped by Tony Brown’s expansive approach to coaching, allowing players to take risks on the field and play what’s in front of them.
Brown made sure his young charge knew heading into the season that he had full trust in the 21-year-old to make decisions on the fly.
“Before my first game, I asked him,” Garden-Bachop told Stuff this week. “I said, ‘How much free licence do I have to attack and do what I want?’ and before I had even finished the question he said, ‘Free’.
“He backs us 100 per cent just to pull the trigger, and that’s one of my favourite things about playing for this team and playing for Tony.”
Highlanders halfback Folau Fakatava is out of rugby for the rest of the year after sustaining a knee injury on Friday night against the Crusaders.https://t.co/pq41cpvUzn
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 7, 2021
Garden-Bachop is one of just three Highlanders players to have started in all five of their Super Rugby matches played so far this season, alongside prop Siate Tokolahi and flanker Shannon Frizell.
He’s comfortably the youngest and least experienced of that trio, however, indicating just how superb his form has been to date.
Two of those starts have come in his preferred No 15 jersey – although an early-game injury to Jona Nareki in one of those matches saw him shifted to the wing.
Against the Chiefs this week, Garden-Bachop is expected to again be named to play at fullback, where he’s shown a deft pair of feet and some speed to boot.
No one was talking about the 21-year-old before Super Rugby Aotearoa had kicked off – few had even heard of him – but he could be the name on everyone’s lips come the end of the season if he can maintain his impressive form.
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