You could be forgiven for not realising that Super Rugby Aotearoa had come to an end based simply on the Wellington side that Leo Crowley has named for 2019 runners-up’s opening match of this season’s Mitre 10 Cup.
11 players who featured for the Hurricanes this year will run out onto Waikato Stadium on Saturday alongside Naitoa Ah Kuoi – who’s more than familiar with the ground thanks to his 12 matches for the Chiefs this year.
Perhaps Crowley’s most interesting selection is Julian Savea on the wing, despite the returning All Black indicating that he’d like to focus on the midfield. The blockbusting runner’s last match for Wellington came as captain in the successful 2017 Championship final.
Savea won’t be the only All Blacks representative in the side, however, with Asafo Aumua, Vaea Fifita, Ardie Savea and TJ Perenara all named to start. Perenara and the younger Savea have each played just one match for the Lions since 2015. Saturday’s match will mark the first time that the Savea brothers have played together for the Lions.
Aumua will partner Alex Fidow and recent Under 20s player Kaliopasi Uluilakepa in the front row while Ah Kuoi and James Blackwell will lock the scrum.
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Fifita, Savea and captain Du’Plessis Kirifi round out a forward pack that boasts seven players with Super Rugby experience.
In the backs, Perenara and regular Hurricanes partner Jackson Garden-Bachop will run the ship and Vince Aso and Billy Proctor will combine in the midfield. Savea, Highlander Connor Garden-Bachop and former Waikato star Trent Renata round out the side out wide.
It’s a frightening starting XV that will be well-deserving of their favourites tag but there’s also plenty to get excited about on the bench. Reserve hooker Tyron Thompson, utility forward Taine Plumtree and first five Aidan Morgan would have likely all featured significantly in New Zealand’s Under 20 campaign this year had it not been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic while Teariki Ben-Nicholas and Peter Umaga-Jensen are also set to make an impact late in the match.
“Obviously, the standard of the competition has gone up with the All Blacks involved,” Crowley said of his first team of the season.
“The whole squad is excited about the campaign. Unfortunately, they can’t all play every week so there was definitely some disappointment on Tuesday when the team was announced. The disappointment will bode well for us in the coming weeks as different players are given opportunities.”
Crowlet was excited to see what the young debutants off the bench could offer the stacked Wellington side.
“Taine and Tyronne have had two years in the Wellington academy and have impressed in their determination to get better, so Saturday is the next step for them.
“Aidan, on the other hand, is a first-year academy player who’s been a consistent performer through his first year of senior rugby and we’re excited to watch his development as a Lion moving forward.”
Wellington: Trent Renata, Connor Garden-Bachop, Billy Proctor, Vince Aso, Julian Savea, Jackson Garden-Bachop, TJ Perenara, Ardie Savea, Du’Plessis Kirifi (c), Vaea Fifita, Naitoa Ah Kuoi, James Blackwell, Alex Fidow, Asafo Aumua, Kaliopasi Uluilakepa. Reserves:. Tyrone Thompson, Morgan Poi, Josiah Tavita-Metcalfe, Taine Plumtree, Teariki Ben-Nicholas, Kemara Hauiti-Parapara, Aidan Morgan, Peter Umaga-Jensen.
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