The Mitre 10 Cup is home to expansive and free-flowing rugby, with nearly eight tries scored per match last season. It’s where stars are born and pathways to higher honours are forged.
Few benefit more from this fast-paced and high scoring style of play than the outside backs, so we decided to look at each team and see how their respective back threes stack up to the rest of the competition.
The defending champions and winners of nine of the last 10 iterations of the competition have a simply loaded back three combination.
Led by young Crusaders stars George Bridge – who impressed with a 15-try Super Rugby season – and Braydon Ennor, Joe Maddock’s Canterbury side remain an absolute force.
Highlander Josh McKay will get most of the reps at fullback and build on the experience he gained from his debut Super Rugby season. The back three are bolstered by former Mako Caleb Makene and former Auckland schoolboy star Ngane Punivai, who is in his first year with the team.
2. North Harbour
You’re doing pretty well if you can field three established Super Rugby talents as your Mitre 10 Cup back three.
North Harbour’s combination of Highlander Tevita Li, Blue Matt Duffie and Chief Shaun Stevenson remains as one of the premier crops in the competition.
Last season Li led all try scorers with 11 and is already on the board in 2018, while co-captain Duffie earned a spot on the All Blacks’ end of year tour following his 2017 efforts with North Harbour and the Blues. 21-year-old Stevenson is coming off an injury-ridden Super Rugby campaign with the Chiefs and will be hoping to regain his form with a solid Mitre 10 Cup season.
The Tasman back three received a massive boost and cemented itself as one the competition’s best with the addition of Chiefs star Solomon Alaimalo.
22-year-old Alaimalo – coming off a breakout Super Rugby campaign where he led the Chiefs in tries scored (8), run metres (1727) and line breaks (19) – makes the shift from Northland and forms a blockbusting partnership with Crusaders youngster Will Jordan, giving the side must-watch value.
Jordan – devastating on the counter-attack and excellent in distribution – and Alaimalo will be likely be joined by a combination of brothers Leicester and Tima Faingaanuku and Jamie Spowart. All three are former New Zealand Under 20 representatives, with Spowart – initially named in the wider squad – earning the starting nod in week one.
The current Ranfurly Shield holders should once again be contesting for a finals spot, thanks in part to their outstanding outside backs.
In week one Taranaki have the luxury of fielding former All Black Seta Tamanivalu alongside Chiefs wing Sean Wainui and former New Zealand Sevens representative Beaudein Waaka. Wainui was a revelation as a Chiefs injury replacement player, scoring six tries in his 14 appearances and earning a two-year contract with the club.
Throw in the likes of Crusaders wing Manasa Mataele and schoolboy star Kini Naholo and you have one of the deepest outside back crops in the competition.
Long gone are the days of John Kirwan and Terry Wright, but Auckland’s outside backs are still presenting plenty of challenges for the opposition.
Blues backs Jordan Trainor and Melani Nanai alongside World Cup Sevens winner Salesi Rayasi earn the starting nods for week one, with budding star Caleb Clarke and veteran Joe Ravouvou waiting in the wings.
19-year-old Clarke, son of All Black Eroni, was the MVP of the 2018 Brisbane Tens and managed five appearances in his debut Super Rugby season.
Middle Of The Pack
6. Counties Manukau
All eyes will be on teen sensation Etene Nanai-Seturo once he returns from injury, but while he is on the mend the Steelers’ back three remains in good hands.
Chiefs wing Toni Pulu is back for another run before he joins the Brumbies next year, and Sevens hero Sione Molia is ready to make an impact after a successful World Cup campaign. Highlander Tevita Nabura is also in the frame.
Northland suffered a big blow after losing Solomon Alaimalo to Tasman, but welcome the return of former All Black Rene Ranger to their outside back corps.
Ranger will be joined by Jordan Hyland, whose elite combination of size and speed made an impact in his three appearances for the Blues. Northland veteran Matthew Wright remains a serviceable option at fullback for the Taniwha.
Waikato’s back three will be once again carried by Fijian flyer Sevu Reece, who will play his third campaign with the side before heading north to join Irish PRO14 club Connacht.
The return of Declan O’Donnell will provide a much-needed boost for the recently relegated side, while Highlander Fletcher Smith could prove to be a massive coup for the beleaguered province at fullback. Versatile Tyler Campbell provides solid cover at both wing, fullback and five-eighth.
9. Hawke’s Bay
Hawke’s Bay added a splash of young talent to their squad this season, but their back three will be anchored by now-elder statesmen Jonah Lowe, Mason Emerson and Samoan international Jamie-Jerry Taulagi.
Teenager Danny Toala will be one to keep an eye on as the Hastings Boys High product makes the jump to the Mitre 10 Cup in his first year out of school.
Hurricanes wing Ben Lam will be looking to build on his record-breaking Super Rugby season when he suits up for the Wellington Lions in 2018.
The loss of Julian Savea will be felt but the experienced Trent Renata will provide guidance from the back, while young Malo Tuitama and Losi Filipo are the wildcards at Chris Gibbes’ disposal.
Maybe Next Year
11. Bay of Plenty
Fa’asiu Fuatai’s return to New Zealand adds some flair to the Steamers back three, while provincial stalwart Chase Tiatia and former Magpie Matthew Garland will be looking to indoctrinate new man Kaleb Trask, a New Zealand Under 20 representative.
The Turbos will be aided by the return of All Black Nehe Milner-Skudder, though it remains to be seen how many appearances the fleet-footed star will make for the province.
Last year’s club Rookie of the Year, Te Rangatira Waitokia, will be hoping to build on a successful debut campaign, while diminutive former Queensland Red and Australian Sevens representative Junior Laloifi will be looking to make his own mark on the competition.
Once Milner-Skudder returns to the All Black fold the Manawatu outside back stocks may wear a little thin.
The marquee player at the back for Otago will be fullback Vilimoni Koroi.
The 20-year-old exploded onto the scene at the Condor Sevens tournament while at Feilding High School and was soon elevated onto the World Series Sevens Circuit. He has represented New Zealand at the Under 20 level and will be hoping to lift Otago up to the Premiership.
Koroi will be joined by fellow Sevens standout Jona Nareki and Josh Timu, son of former All Black John.
The Stags, winless since week eight of the 2016 season, are in desperate need of a turnaround.
New head coach Dave Hewett will be hoping the reunion of Jackson and Lewis Ormond is a step in the right direction, while the late addition of former New Zealand Sevens representative and “X-factor” player Isaac Te Tamaki could give the side a push that it needs.
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