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'He's proven that he's got quality and that he can perform all around the world': the 'rookie' back-rower that upstaged the All Blacks

By Tom Raine

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The relentless nature of Super Rugby is a dramatically difficult environment for any newcomer to attempt to find their feet in, let alone thrive. And as the last ten weeks have illustrated, that intensity is only magnified in a competition as fast-paced and combative as Super Rugby Aotearoa.

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Yet as the old saying goes, diamonds are made under pressure, and in 2021 a vast array of new talent caught the eye, adding to the already overflowing New Zealand rugby jewellery box.

Certainly, looking back to the podium of Super Rugby rookies for 2019, Sevu Reece, Tom Robinson and Will Jordan remain undoubtedly three of the best players in the current competition. That shows that for young Kiwi talent, a breakout rookie season can do more than simply raise eyebrows and catch attention, sometimes fast-tracking a player to higher honours.

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In 2021, the bar was set as high as ever, with several standout young performers delivering throughout the competition. Sam Darry for one, showed great effectiveness week-in, week-out at lineout time and a tireless defensive work rate in five starts from lock, making good his move north to join the Blues.

Ruben Love was another who shone when given the opportunity to do so, and was crucial in the Hurricanes’ late-season win over the Highlanders from stand-off as well as putting in an exciting debut performance against a champion Crusaders side.

However, for many, including ex-Blues hooker James Parsons, it was 22-year-old Connor Garden-Bachop who produced the most notable impact in his rookie season. In what was a mixed year for the Dunedin franchise, Garden-Bachop proved a real point of difference with his versatility, guile and pace featuring prominently in the Landers shock victory over the Crusaders.

Speaking on the Aoteroa Rugby Pod, Parsons was full of praise for the young man’s season: “For me, he was outstanding and someone that is a genuine rookie of the year.

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“I think coming from where he was at Bunnings NPC, sort of unknown, to his performances where he pretty much fought his way [into the team]… I thought he was exceptional,” said Parsons. “He just bullied his way into that team and that form has just continued, until he got injured unfortunately.”

It was a fractured wrist in the Highlanders’ Round 7 clash with the Chiefs that halted Garden-Bachop’s rise, a season in which he showed equal ability from both fullback and on the wing, bagging three tries for his efforts.

For Bryn Hall, now a five-time Super Rugby champion with the Crusaders, it was Hurricanes halfback Luke Campbell that impressed with consistent performances both from the bench and as a starter.

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Making the most of TJ Perenara’s absence in the capital, Hall commented positively on Campbell’s game: “I thought he did really well for the Hurricanes… Him and Taumateine at the start of the year went back and forth with starts but he ended up winning that race and played really well.”

Most impressive for Hall were the rookie’s core skills, noting, “his passing, his kicking game, especially contestables, was really strong for the Hurricanes and was pretty big in their exit strategy.”

Hall’s overall pick for rookie of the year in 2021 however was for a young man already possessing 17 international caps, Highlanders and Japan back-rower Kazuki Himeno.

“He was outstanding coming in from Japan,” said Hall. “He came in a little late in the piece but with his performances with Shannon Frizell, who I thought was great for the Highlanders, and their one-two punch…[they] played really, really well.”

Making his first appearance halfway through the competition, Himeno, who played in every game of Japan’s home World Cup campaign, shone with his stamina around the park, tackle count and consistency and physicality.

Despite already being an international star in his home country, Himeno was far from complacent at the Highlanders and Parsons acknowledged the character of the 26-year-old to look for new challenges abroad.

“He is huge in Japan, in Japanese rugby,” Parsons stated. “He’s got a pretty strong name. I think that’s why he wanted to come down here and test himself and he’s certainly proven that he’s got quality that can perform all around the world. He’ll go back with a lot of confidence for international rugby.”

While the Highlanders had plenty of depth in their loose forwards, including All Blacks Frizell and Liam Squire, as well as experienced operators Billy Harmon, James Lentjies and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, it was Himeno who was perhaps the best of the best.

That relationship forged down in the deep south between Tony Brown and Himeno may indeed later pay dividends at international level.

Hall also viewed Himeno’s standout contribution to the Highlanders as potentially having a bonus side effect, providing a catalyst for those in Japanese rugby looking to test themselves in the New Zealand competition, “It’s great to see, not only for the Highlanders and himself but for Japanese rugby as well, being able to have a player of that calibre come in and play so well.”

Highlanders fans will certainly hope their rookie of the year hangs around for a bit longer.

Listen to the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:

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'He's proven that he's got quality and that he can perform all around the world': the 'rookie' back-rower that upstaged the All Blacks

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