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Picking the 2022 Super Rugby Pacific Team of the Season

By Alex McLeod
(Photos / Getty Images)

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The inaugural Super Rugby Pacific season has come to an end, with the Crusaders outclassing the Blues to claim their sixth piece of silverware in as many years at Eden Park on Saturday.

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That result capped off a campaign that kicked off in February and saw the introduction of two new teams as many players from across New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific starred for their respective franchises.

To celebrate the season that was, here is a selection of those who impressed the most in Super Rugby Pacific in a composite team.

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Using a combination of statistics and intuition, the following players have been selected in this (highly subjective) Super Rugby Pacific Team of the Season.

1. Alex Hodgman (Blues)

(Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Back to his best after a breakthrough campaign in 2020, Alex Hodgman can consider himself highly unfortunate to have missed All Blacks selection this year. Bouncing back from an underwhelming season last year, the four-test international finds himself behind the likes of Aidan Ross and Karl Tu’inukuafe in the national pecking order despite starring for the Blues with his industrious approach to the game. Produced arguably his best performance of the year in his side’s semi-final win over the Brumbies, where he made himself a menace at the breakdown, and can’t be too far off a test recall later in the year.

2. Samisoni Taukei’aho (Chiefs)

(Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

It wouldn’t surprise to see the All Blacks selectors thrust Samisoni Taukei’aho into a starting role at hooker ahead of Dane Coles and Codie Taylor for the first test against Ireland next Saturday on the basis of his performances for the Chiefs this year. The 24-year-old put his hefty 115kg frame to good use all season long, carrying with not only with power and intent, but also with quantity as well. The only front rower to register in Super Rugby Pacific’s top ten for ball carries (143), Taukei’aho often left a trail of destruction in his wake, and his lineout throwing was key in the Chiefs finishing the competition with the second-best lineout success rate.

3. Ofa Tuungafasi (Blues)

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Undoubtedly the best prop in New Zealand, Ofa Tuungafasi will prove to be a crucial key in the All Blacks cog, just as he was for the Blues en route to their runner-up finish in Super Rugby Pacific. Similarly to Hodgman, the experienced and sizeable 30-year-old was back to his best this season after a disrupted 2021, when injuries and suspension limited his output following an impressive campaign two years ago. In his best showing of the year in his side’s famous win over the Crusaders in Christchurch, Tuungafasi exemplified why he will be so valuable for the All Blacks as he carried strongly, defended powerfully and showed touches of class with ball in hand. A must-pick for the Blues and All Blacks in their respective starting lineups moving forward.

4. Cullen Grace (Crusaders)

(Photo by John Davidson/Photosport)
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Yes, Cullen Grace played almost exclusively at No 8 for the Crusaders this year, but his form – particularly at the business end of the season – was too difficult to overlook. An extremely unfortunate exclusion from the All Blacks squad, the 22-year-old must be in the reckoning to feature at test level again after a stunning Super Rugby Pacific campaign that drew the praise of Crusaders boss Scott Robertson, who criticised Grace’s output last year. Not only were Robertson’s claims that Grace is the best lineout loose forward in New Zealand reflected in his end-of-season stats, where he was the only loose forward to register in the competition’s top ten for lineout wins (39), but they were exemplified in his side’s win over the Blues in the final. Spearheading the Crusaders’ assault on the opposition’s lineout, Grace stole two throws and won four of his own to lead his side’s stat count in both of those areas. Elsewhere, Grace made the third-most tackles in Super Rugby Pacific (181), although it was how hard those tackles were felt that made him such a feared defender, while his two-try effort against the Chiefs in the semi-final was immense. Having played in all 15 games for the Crusaders this year, one of which he started at lock, Grace must be knocking on the door for an All Blacks recall.

5. Tupou Vaa’i (Chiefs)

(Photo by Jeremy Ward/Photosport)

In the absence of the outstanding Brodie Retallick, who was sidelined for large portions of the season through injury, Tupou Vaa’i stepped up admirably for the Chiefs. Pairing up with fellow All Blacks youngster Josh Lord to create a formidable second row, the 22-year-old showed a broad array of skills, varying from solidity at the lineout – finishing with the second-most lineout wins of any New Zealander (44) – to flashy ball-handling to a newfound ability to play at blindside flanker. Those traits, coupled with his consistency in executing the basics with accuracy, made him a vital figure for the Chiefs in their run to the semi-finals. He may not start for the All Blacks ahead of Retallick, Sam Whitelock or Scott Barrett, but Vaa’i has certainly put pressure on the national selectors to consider him for major test matches.

6. Rob Valetini (Brumbies)

Rob Valentini
(Photo by Jeremy Ward/Photosport)

Continuing the fine form he found himself in for the Wallabies throughout the course of last year, Rob Valetini was as threatening as ever for the Brumbies as they established themselves as a genuine powerhouse of Super Rugby Pacific. As was the case during last year’s Rugby Championship, the 23-year-old was at his athletic best, carrying fearlessly into contact and was often the driving force behind his side’s fortunes on either side of the ball. By doing so, Valetini should be rewarded with a starting role in Australia’s loose forward mix come their upcoming test series against England.

7. Dalton Papalii (Blues)

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

He’s always impressed ever since he burst onto the scene at Super Rugby level four years ago, but Blues captain Dalton Papalii enjoyed the best season of his career to date thus far in 2022. Leading his team from the front, the 24-year-old loose forward was pivotal in the success his side attained throughout the course of the year, even if they did fall short in the final. A standout showing against the Crusaders in Christchurch – where he made 23 tackles from as many attempts and scored a try that was as brilliant as it was crucial – underlined how good Papalii is at his best. It’s for that reason his injury-enforced absence for much of the playoffs was sorely felt by the Blues, and is why he earns selection over others such as Waratahs standout Charlie Gamble.

8. Harry Wilson (Reds)

(Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)
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There were a plethora of candidates who could have easily taken this spot, many of whom were vying with each other for All Blacks selection. Hurricanes captain Ardie Savea was his usual beast-like self, Pita Gus Sowakula was a revelation for the Chiefs, Blues powerhouse Hoskins Sotutu was back to his best, and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u was a leading light in a dismal campaign for the Highlanders. However, Reds behemoth Harry Wilson warrants selection on the back of a season where he had a point to prove to Wallabies selectors following his high-profile omission from last year’s tour of Japan and the United Kingdom. The 22-year-old did exactly that, illustrating his destructive ability on both sides of the ball. Making the most metres of any player in Super Rugby Pacific (202), Wilson also finished in the competition’s top ten for offloads (17) and tackles won (158), and was the only forward to register in the top ten for metres carried (1,036). An absolutely blockbusting talent who will surely start for the Wallabies against England.

9. Finlay Christie (Blues)

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

After breaking into the All Blacks following a couple of years where he found himself in good form, Finlay Christie continued to show why he will be a valued asset for both New Zealand and the Blues in the years to come this season. The livewire 26-year-old was a bundle of energy all throughout Super Rugby Pacific, and that was highly important for the Blues. Quick to the ruck and eager to find holes in the defensive line, Christie’s support play helped with the flow of his side’s attack and often led to eye-catching tries. Earning selection in this team ahead of Brumbies veteran Nic White, Christie was probably New Zealand’s form halfback in the competition, and it will be interesting to see how he is utilised by the All Blacks against Ireland.

10. Beauden Barrett (Blues)

(Photo by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

Back in blue following his stint abroad with Suntory Sungoliath in Japan last year, Beauden Barrett was simply mercurial for the Blues. Overcoming a couple of scary head knocks early in the campaign, the two-time World Rugby Player of the Year went on to deliver crucial performance after crucial performance as the Blues ended the regular season at the top of the table. A vital try against the Highlanders in Dunedin was followed by a pair of instrumental performances against the Chiefs and Crusaders in Hamilton and Christchurch, where he orchestrated two phenomenal wins. The best Blues player in a dire effort against the Fijian Drua, Barrett then produced back-to-back playmaking masterclasses against the Rebels and Reds, landed the match-winning drop goal against the Brumbies in Canberra and was outstanding in playoff wins over the Highlanders and Brumbies. While he was unable to replicate those efforts against the Crusaders in the final, Barrett’s contributions for the Blues were second-to-none.

11. Leicester Fainga’anuku (Crusaders)

(Photo by Peter Meecham/Getty Images)

Edging out Moana Pasifika powerhouse Timoci Tavatavanawai for a place on the left wing is Crusaders starlet Leicester Fainga’anuku. After years of good form at Super Rugby level, the 22-year-old has finally been rewarded with an All Blacks call-up, and it’s not hard to understand why when you look at his season stats. Finishing the campaign as the competition’s equal-top try-scorer (10), Fainga’anuku also came third for metres carried (1,278), third-equal for offloads (18), and was in the top ten for carries (143) and clean breaks (11). Expect explosive things when he takes to the field in the test arena.

12. Quinn Tupaea (Chiefs)

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Uncertainty continues to shroud who will fill the No 12 jersey for the All Blacks, even after the announcement of the squad for the Ireland series. If anything is for certain, though, it’s that Quinn Tupaea definitely put his hand up for selection with a string of compelling showings for the Chiefs. An All Blacks debutant last year, the 23-year-old is primed to play a more prominent role for New Zealand in 2022 after having crashed and bashed his way through defenders in Super Rugby Pacific. That much is reflected by figures that show he finished in the competition’s top three for ball carries (164) and offloads (18), top five for metres carried (1,204) and top ten for defenders beaten (40). A powerful prospect that has all the requisite attributes the All Blacks desperately need in their midfield, Tupaea will be in the running for starting honours at Eden Park next Saturday.

13. Rieko Ioane (Blues)

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

In his second year playing at centre on a full-time basis, Rieko Ioane has gone from strength-to-strength to assert himself as New Zealand’s top option of the No 13 All Blacks jersey. Everyone knew the 25-year-old had attacking qualities in spades, which he showed throughout the course of Super Rugby Pacific, but it was his improvements in the defensive areas of his game that was most impressive. Perhaps the most symbolic representation of Ioane’s growth as a midfielder came in the Blues’ win over the Crusaders, when he was joined by Papalii in making a desperate scrambling tackle to deny Crusaders lock Dominic Gardiner what would have been a late match-winning try in Christchurch. Ink him down as a starter against Ireland.

14. Sevu Reece (Crusaders)

(Photo by Peter Meecham/Getty Images)

Fijian Drua flyer Vinaya Haobsi and Brumbies wing Tom Wright came close to being included in this side, but the influence of Crusaders star Sevu Reece was too hard to ignore as his side clinched yet another title. At his electric best this season, the 25-year-old’s prowess as a hot-stepping threat yielded plenty of reward for the Crusaders as he finished Super Rugby Pacific with the equal-most tries (10) and most clean breaks (17). It’s fitting, then, that Reece capped off his side’s final win over the Blues with an opportunistic try to seal the victory, and he is likely to play a key role – possibly as an impact bench player – for the All Blacks this year.

15. Will Jordan (Crusaders)

(Photo by Martin Hunter/Photosport)

Departing Brumbies fullback Tom Banks and Hurricanes star Jordie Barrett both came into consideration for the final place in this team, but Will Jordan’s attacking brilliance for the Crusaders has earned him his place in the lineup. Joining Reece and Fainga’anuku at the top of Super Rugby Pacific’s try-scoring charts, the 24-year-old also ran the most metres in the competition by a long way (1,915), and also finished second for defenders beaten (63) and second-equal for clean breaks (14). It’s that game-breaking class with ball in hand that made Jordan the 2021 World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year, and it’s why he will be one of the most important figures for the All Blacks in the months ahead.

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