Crusaders wing George Bridge is a curious case.
The 23-year-old is a genuine Super Rugby star that hasn’t quite broken out, despite having a breakout year on paper.
If you watch him regularly you’ll know just how good he is, but to the casual fan, Bridge has a tendency to slip under the radar.
Perhaps it’s a result of the surplus of star power already present in his 12 All Black teammates. Maybe the winger is viewed simply as the beneficiary of a finely-tuned Crusaders machine – a machine that has pumped out gaudy numbers and lost just three games across Bridge’s first two seasons.
If you watch Bridge play for long enough, you’ll know that he isn’t simply the product of a system. You’ll see everything you want in an outside back. In just his second Super Rugby season, he already has the on-field polish and astronomical numbers that place him up there with the best of the best.
When the first All Blacks squad of the season was named, all of the buzz was surrounding Hurricanes wing Ben Lam’s impressive frame, skill set and above all else, mind-boggling strike rate. Lam’s eventual omission from the national side drew headlines, while Bridge continued to silently build his case.
The youngster showed flashes in his first season with the Crusaders, scoring hat tricks against the Stormers and Cheetahs as he carved out an eight-try debut year. Bridge’s efforts earned him the Crusaders’ Rookie of the Year award and a four-year contract extension.
In his sophomore Super Rugby campaign, Bridge is already repaying the faith shown by his side and has quietly put together one of the most impressive individual seasons in recent memory.
His numbers alone speak volumes about his talents on the park. Through 17 games, Bridge has chalked up 1571 metres with ball in hand, broken the line 21 times, and busted through 54 tackles. He leads the Crusaders – Super Rugby’s best team – in all three of these categories, and is near the top when ranked against all Super Rugby players (fourth overall in run metres, third overall in line breaks). He also leads the Crusaders in both games and minutes played.
His 15 tries would have tied the Super Rugby single-season record had the aforementioned Lam not eclipsed the mark last weekend, though Bridge will get another shot at history when his side meets the Lions in the Super Rugby final this weekend.
While Bridge’s numbers impress without context, once context is added they shine even brighter.
Bridge more than holds his own when compared with the five outside backs the All Blacks carried for their June Test series against France – Rieko Ioane, Waisake Naholo, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Jordie Barrett and Ben Smith. While it will be incredibly tough for the 23-year-old to usurp one of the incumbent outside backs, the statistics show that he isn’t far off the pace and should be the first cab off the rank if injury strikes.
When compared with his Kiwi counterparts, Bridge ranks second in metres gained, first in line breaks and third in tackle busts. While he has played one more game than Naholo and Barrett, and two more games than Ioane and Smith, his per game figures still hold up.
Once averaged out, Bridge – who has played both wing and fullback this season – carries the ball just over nine times per game, and runs for just over 92 metres per game, both of which would rank second among All Blacks outside backs. He would also rank second in line breaks per game at 1.2, just behind Rieko Ioane. While his distribution falls behind when compared with the current All Black crop in terms of offloads and try assists, his nose for the line and competition-leading strike rate more than proves his attacking prowess.
But Bridge is more than just a finisher. On the other side of the ball, the Gisbornian has emerged as a superb defender statistically. Bridge ranks third among Crusaders backs in terms of tackles made, and converts his tackle attempts at 85.5%. His tackle completion percentage ranks only behind Ben Smith (86%) when compared to current All Blacks outside backs, and is more than ten percent higher than the next best defender, Jordie Barrett at 75%.
After impressing during the Crusaders’ run to their second consecutive final, Bridge will have one last chance to make a statement before the Rugby Championship.
At just 23 years old and locked down with the Crusaders until 2022, George Bridge’s scintillating form and continued development should place him firmly in the All Black frame for years to come.
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