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Gazing into the crystal ball to predict the Super Rugby MVP and breakout star

By RugbyPass
Damian McKenzie, Dalton Papali'i, Tom Lynagh. (Photos by Getty Images)

Super Rugby Pacific is set to return at the end of the month with the Crusaders and Chiefs kicking off the proceedings on February 24 in Christchurch.


The opening match is a repeat of last year’s semi-final, while the top two Australian sides, the Brumbies and Waratahs, will square off later that evening.

Five RugbyPass writers, Ben Smith, Finn Morton, Hamish Bidwell, Nick Turnbull and Tom Vinicombe, have run their eyes over the new squads and the upcoming schedule and have dusted off their brains after a long off-season to answer some of the most important questions for the year ahead.

Who will end the season as MVP?

BS: This year’s top MVP candidate is Blues captain and No 7 Dalton Papali’i.

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The All Black was immense in the final half of the year in 2022 when given the chance to start in Sam Cane’s absence. He may not be rested as much given he does not hold as much priority with the All Blacks, giving him the chance to play a full season.

FM: Every NFL team is nothing without their star quarterback, and the same can be said about the champion Crusaders.

Throughout their dynasty, flyhalf Richie Mo’unga has consistently steered his team to glory; showcasing a skillset that very few players share. Before he heads overseas, Mo’unga will want to add to his legacy once again his beloved Crusaders. If the reigning Super Rugby Pacific champions are to win it all once again, then the 28-year-old has to standout once again – and he will. He’s the best; Mo’unga will be the MVP.

As for a dark horse, Damian McKenzie will shine bright for the Chiefs.


HB: I’m going to go with Damian McKenzie.

I’m not a big fan, I wouldn’t pick him in the All Blacks ever again but at this level and in this Chiefs team I can see him doing some quite miraculous things. You can carry mercurial guys at Super Rugby level. You can give them lots of ball and plenty of licence and let them play without fear of any consequences. McKenzie often excels in that situation.


NT: I can’t split Anton Lienert-Brown and David Havili.


Whilst they are not carbon copies of each other, the value I see in both is their decision-making in possession. More often than not, they’ll take the option that will deliver the greatest momentum for their respective sides. This, coupled with the work they do off the ball – be it a cleanout, a block run, maintaining line integrity and communications – is probably not heralded enough. I think they are players who make those around them play better.

TV: With so many top-line players set to spend a few additional weeks on the sidelines thanks to the impending Rugby World Cup, it could be that one of the less heralded players stands up as the most valuable player this year.

Billy Harmon hasn’t exactly been operating under the radar – he did spend time with the All Blacks on last season’s end-of-year tour, after all – but he certainly isn’t in the same category as a Richie Mo’unga or Ardie Savea. As a player on the edge of Test selection, Harmon has everything to play for this year and will undoubtedly giving 110 per cent every time he takes the field.

The Highlanders have some classy players scattered throughout their squad, especially in the loose forwards, but Harmon’s abilities over the ball are as good as any other fetcher in the competition and he boasts exceptional strength both on attack and defence. If the Highlanders are to have any hopes of making a play for a title, Harmon will have to be in the thick of things.

Who is your rookie to look out for this season?

BS: Young Hurricanes loose forward Peter Lakai who was New Zealand’s age-grade player of the year in 2022 and completed a title-winning NPC season with the Wellington Lions.

The ball-carrying workhorse is likely to get an opportunity when All Black No 8 Ardie Savea is rested.

FM: The Queensland Reds are a team on the rise. Under the tutelage of Brad Thorn, a squad full of young talent is bound to be successful for quite some time yet. And there’s one rookie at the Reds who, when given the chance to play, could quickly become a mainstay of their matchday 23.

There’s a familiar surname at the Reds which should intrigue Australian rugby fans. Tom Lynagh, the son of former Wallabies captain Michael Lynagh, signed for the Reds a few years ago. He hasn’t played a Super Rugby match yet, although he donned Reds colours during pre-season matches.

Queensland have a few players to choose from at first five, including James O’Connor and Lawson Creighton. There’s every chance that Lynagh, who is another option, gets a run this year – and you don’t want to miss it if he does play.

HB: I like Hurricanes loose forward Peter Lakai, as I assume most people do.

This is one of those categories where I don’t really want to put a tag on someone. You’d prefer they come in without expectations and try and learn their trade. Lakai looked good at provincial level, but that’s often populated by boys, has-beens and battlers. I’ll be interested to see how he’s developed in two or three years’ time.


NT: Connor Anderson out the famous Wests Bulldogs club in Brisbane Queensland.

The versatile back-row forward earned a full-time Reds contract after an imperious 2022 club season where Anderson led his side to a premiership. Anderson could be described as an ‘effort’ player whose work ethic covers for what may be perceived as a lack of skill in other areas but don’t be fooled by that line of thinking, the 26-year-old is a shrewd operator in the lineout, at the breakdown and has natural leadership qualities. He will maximise any opportunity he gets in 2023 and is a mature-aged rookie to look out for.

TV: While a number of players have been given opportunities on the wings for the Chiefs in recent years, no one has managed to regularly lock down a starting jersey. Etene Nanai-Williams and Shaun Stevenson might enter the season as favourites to don No 11 and No 14, but new recruit Peniasi Malimali could make a big splash if he’s given a few chances early in the season.

The 26-year-old Fijian was in storming form for Counties Manukau during the NPC. He’s quick as a flash and deceptively powerful and he’ll undoubtedly make a fool out of a few opposition defenders in 2023.

Which departed player will leave the biggest hole in 2023?

BS: There are very few players of notable experience who have departed before the end of the 2023 World Cup cycle. Bryn Hall and George Bridge from the Crusaders are of note, while not a player, the loss of Tony Brown for the Highlanders is a big one.

Arguably the biggest hole will be left by Hurricanes wing Wes Goosen, who provided reliable and consistent finishing for six seasons in the nation’s capital. Whilst wingers are a dime a dozen in New Zealand, it will still be difficult to provide similar production.

FM: The Western Force will field a new-look side this season, with a number of talented stars having taken up deals elsewhere ahead of the upcoming Super Rugby campaign.

Kyle Godwin and Richard Kahui will both leave a big void in the Force’s midfield, while Byron Ralston and Jack McGregor are other big losses. But the Force will struggle to replace Fergus Lee-Warner the most.

The utility forward has been phenomenal at Super Rugby level for a few years now, and was a glaring omission from a Wallabies camp about eight months ago. Lee-Warner signed a three-year deal with Worcester Warriors in the English Premiership, and left Australian shores at the end of last year’s Super Rugby season.


HB: Luke Romano. That guy was a winner.

Romano is a guy with grunt and guts and a good rugby brain, who did the less glamourous work that lots of the pretty boys don’t fancy.

The Blues didn’t see the absolute best of him obviously, given his increasing age and declining fitness levels, but I reckon he would have brought a huge amount to the group and I’ll be intrigued to see how they go without him. Again, there’s no doubting the Blues’ talent, but it takes more than that to be a winner.

NT: I think the Queensland Reds will really miss Hamish Stewart who has departed Ballymore for Perth for the opportunity to play 10.

Whilst Queensland have some wonderful talent to play in the No 12 jumper that Stewart leaves vacant, not one of Isaac Henry, Hunter Paisami or Josh Flook has the support play and in particular the breakdown prowess of Hamish Stewart who was a ‘mortar player’ who held so many of Queensland’s bricks together due his abilities in those areas. The Reds will have to adjust how they play accordingly due to the loss of Stewart.

TV: Josh Goodhue and Pablo Matera were both influential figures for the Blues and Crusaders respectively last year but both those franchises have ample depth to cover their shifts to Japan for 2023.

In Australia, there’s been a number of player movements between clubs but as with the NZ sides, there are generally some strong back-ups in place – except, perhaps, for Tom Banks at the Brumbies, who started 13 matches for the semi-finalists last year. With Banks out of the picture, the Brumbies will likely be relying on an unproven youngster or an aging journeyman to fill the gap left by the Wallabies fullback and his absence could be keenly felt.

Otherwise, Onisi Ratave’s decision to depart Super Rugby Pacific after a breakout season with the Fijian Drua means there’s one less exceptional speedster to get excited about but if anyone can cover an absence in the outside backs, it’s Fiji.


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RUGBYPASS+ How greater exposure to foreign clubs could rejuvenate English rugby How greater exposure to foreign clubs could rejuvenate English rugby