Very rarely does a player come through and get the opportunity to put together a meaningful rookie year in Super Rugby.
Teams don’t often expect rookies to start straight away – young players are usually drip-fed game time, coming off the bench or given the odd start here and there as they develop.
We found that 2017 was the year of the outside backs for NZ Super teams, with very few rookie forwards locking down starting positions and getting enough game time.
To qualify, the player must have never played a Super Rugby match before 2017 and played a minimum of 8 games during the season.
This is our list of New Zealand’s best rookies of 2017.
5. Michael Collins (Blues)
Otago product Michael Collins has patiently waited for a shot at Super Rugby – he turned down NRL offers to join Otago back in 2012, becoming the first player to join the full-time squad straight from school.
After 5 seasons of Mitre 10 Cup Collins was picked up by the Blues this year and had a solid season, playing 13 games and becoming a valuable starting fullback. His passing game led to 10 line break assists and two try assists.
Collins will look to solidify a position in the Blues back three in 2018.
4. Manasa Mateale (Crusaders)
The Fijian native Mateale exploded early in the season for the Crusaders, getting regular starts while other wingers nursed injuries. He scored a hattrick against the Sunwolves and bagged six tries in eight games, as well as registering 10 line breaks.
On the end of a classy Crusaders backline, Mateale had one of the highest line break rates in Super Rugby, finding his way through on 27.78% of his runs. This is a testament to the inside backs at the Crusaders, giving the wingers the space to make things happen.
The 20-year-old Mateale will return to the Crusaders in 2018, where he will compete for game time against his uncle Seta Tamanivalu, George Bridge, new signing Braydon Ennor and potentially fullbacks Israel Dagg and Will Jordan.
3. George Bridge (Crusaders)
Another Crusaders winger also had a standout rookie season, local Canterbury product George Bridge. The 22-year-old had a standout year, playing in all 18 games of the Crusaders championship season and scoring eight tries.
Bridge’s first try of the season came against the Waratahs and he quickly backed that up with back-to-back hattricks against the Stormers and Cheetahs. His finishing qualities and speed gave the Crusaders a reliable wing option and he quickly established himself as a regular starter.
He also picked up the Crusaders Rookie of the Year award, affirming our pick as one of the top rookies of 2017.
2. Jack Goodhue (Crusaders)
It cannot be understated how good Jack Goodhue was in his first Super Rugby season – playing 14 games in the Crusaders championship season and establishing himself as a premier midfielder in attack and a solid defender.
The Crusaders were happy to start Goodhue at centre and have All Black centre Ryan Crotty play second-five at times.
Goodhue is a centre that just gets everything right. His balance as a runner and passer makes him one of the best in Super Rugby. Only two midfielders had a line break success rate and line break assist rate over ten percent in 2017– Goodhue and Matt Faddes (Highlanders).
He made a line break on 11.34% of his runs and a line break assist on 11.86% of his passes. If we compare that to the Lions power midfielder Rohan Janse Van Rensburg – 20.75% and 2.70% – we see that Goodhue is much more balanced yet just as effective at creating opportunities.
He finished third in the competition in try assists with eight and scored three for himself. He finished outside the top 20 in tackle efficiency (74%) but finished on par with his Crusaders and All Black midfield partner – Ryan Crotty – both making 106 tackles and Goodhue missing two fewer tackles with 21.
1. Jordie Barrett (Hurricanes)
Our rookie of the year is 20-year-old sensation Jordie Barrett, who put in one of the best ever seasons in the modern era by a rookie. The Hurricanes won his signature in 2016, convincing him to leave Canterbury and join his older brother Beauden in the capital.
An injury to superstar Nehe Milner-Skudder opened the door for Barrett to start a number of games at fullback, and he never looked back, playing 17 games.
He wasn’t physically blockbusting (averaging 0.28 tackle busts per run), but his freakish skill and astute line running made him one of the best attacking fullbacks in the competition.
He just seemed to make plays out of nothing – ripping the ball from Cheslin Kolbe in the in-goal and scoring millimeters from the dead ball line against the Stormers a perfect example of Barrett’s opportunistic instincts.
He finished second in the competition in try assists (9), scored seven himself (top five in his position), made 10 line breaks (top ten in his position) and assisted on 11 line breaks (top five in his position).
Barrett’s attacking production elevated him next to fullbacks like Damian McKenzie and Israel Folau, and he earned an All Blacks call-up as a result, starting against the British & Irish Lions at fullback.
It seems like Jordie Barrett has been around forever already but at just 20-years-old he will be one of Super Rugby’s next biggest superstars for years to come.
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