A panel of RugbyPass writers have come together and brainstormed a series of fictitious awards as their way of celebrating the best (and worst) of Super Rugby so far this season.
Our writers – Alex McLeod from New Zealand, Australia’s Nick Turnbull, and the Japan-based Tom Vinicombe – give their opinions on who has been Super Rugby’s MVP, rookie of the year, most improved player of the year, coach of the year, best signing, worst signing, potential World Cup bolter and more at the halfway stage of the competition.
Nick Turnbull: Samu Kerevi (Reds)
Samu Kerevi of the Queensland Reds is my most valuable player of the competition thus far. Quite simply, the Reds would not be within striking distance of a finals berth if it were not for him. Kerevi is in potent attacking form scoring six tries thus far, carrying more times than any other Super Rugby player at 108 carries, making 14 clean breaks and beating 36 would be defenders along the way.
He can kick, pass, run and motivate which makes him such a valuable asset to both Queensland and Australian rugby. Kerevi can drop off a tackle, but weighing that up against his other skills still get him my MVP nomination thus far. No wonder Suntory in Japan and looking to pay him serious coin to get him to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Tom Vinicombe: Quade Cooper (Rebels)
I’d have to give it to Quade Cooper. In the Rebels’ most recent match, at home to the Stormers, Cooper had by far his worst game of the season. He missed tackles (some directly resulting in tries), kicked poorly, and didn’t offer much on attack. Unsurprisingly, the Rebels lost.
Every time the Rebels have won, however, Cooper has also been hugely instrumental. He’s kicking at 80%, top in the competition for try assists, and not far behind in linebreak assists. Without Cooper, I don’t think the Rebels would be doing anywhere near as well as they are – the team is dependant on him, making him my MVP.
Alex McLeod: Samu Kerevi (Reds)
There are plenty of players that could take this accolade on the basis of an outstanding opening nine weeks of Super Rugby, with the likes of Quade Cooper and Rieko Ioane among those.
However, going purely off how valuable any one player is to their team, the influence of Samu Kerevi at the Reds is hard to look past.
While still languishing in 13th place, the Reds are still just four points away from a play-offs berth after registering some unexpected wins over the Sunwolves, Brumbies and Stormers.
A lot of that has to do with the work done by head coach Brad Thorn, but without the power, pace, distribution, kicking game or leadership of Kerevi from the middle of the backline, the Reds could well be anchoring the competition standings.
Placing first in Super Rugby for runs (95), tackle busts (37), second for run metres (820), third-equal for offloads (13) and is in the top 10 for line breaks (10), he spearheads the Queensland attack and is poised to make a big impact for the Wallabies later this year.
Rookie of the Year
NT: Will Jordan (Crusaders)
Will Jordan of the Crusaders has been a delight to watch. His speed, athleticism, balance and nous has been a feature for me. I am not saying he is All Blacks-bound at this stage of his career, but hasn’t his rookie year in Super Rugby been quite special. Jordan currently is the leading try scorer in the competition crossing the line eight times for his native side.
It is acknowledged he is part of an exceptional playing roster and organisation, but Scott Robertson and the staff there in Christchurch have done a tremendous job with the Christchurch Boys’ High old boy, and Jordan has brought it accordingly when given the opportunity. What more would you want from a rookie?
TV: Will Jordan (Crusaders)
Does Will Jordan count? Technically he was in the Crusaders squad last year but injury meant that he didn’t see a minute of game time.
He’s not starting many matches admittedly, with only two to his name – but he’s still the equal top try scorer at this stage of the competition. He looks made for Super Rugby and were he at any other franchise he would probably be starting every single match.
If you’re a Super Rugby rookie and your name’s being thrown around as an All Blacks bolter then you can be pretty sure that you’re having a fine season.
AM: Will Jordan (Crusaders)
Tasked with trying to find game time at the Crusaders, who are ridiculously stacked with outside backs, can’t be an easy job, but Will Jordan has made the most of his opportunities, which have largely been from off the bench.
Nevertheless, the 21-year-old has been in fine form for the Crusaders, with his speed and athleticism enough to splinter almost every opposition defence that he’s come up against.
Sitting atop of the Super Rugby try scoring standings with eight tries from seven outings, his lethal and instinctive eye for the tryline is why many have called for him to be considered for All Blacks selection, which is a massive feat for someone not even starting at their own franchise.
Most Improved Player
NT: Luke Jones (Rebels)
What has impressed me about Luke Jones since his return to Super Rugby this season is his willingness to continue to work hard off the ball and in his defence. He is a machine!
If the Rebels are going to threaten at the business end of the competition, Jones will have to continue to assert himself against the New Zealanders and South Africans who probably are not used to an Australian forward enjoying the close-quarters encounters that Jones appears to discovered an appetite for whilst playing in France.
Australian rugby does not need another mercurial star but it does need a player like Luke Jones.
TV: Rahboni Warren-Voyasco (Sunwolves)
I’ve been very impressed by loose forward Rahboni Warren-Voyasco at the Sunwolves. He’s been a part of the team since 2017 but he’s only cemented himself as a starter this year, playing in all but 25 minutes of the Sunwolves’ season to date. He’s in the top 10 for tackles made and run metres, and the top 15 for line breaks – he’s a multi-dimensional player.
So multi-dimensional, in fact, that’s he’s going to be playing the midfield this weekend. It will be very interesting to see how he goes against the Hurricanes, as a spot in the Japan team for the World Cup could be on the cards.
AM: Akira Ioane (Blues)
The fact that Akira Ioane has been called into the All Blacks’ ‘foundation day’ camp is indicative of his improvement in the first half of the 2019 competition.
Everyone has been aware of his explosive ball carrying power, which has often been too difficult for teams across the southern hemisphere to withhold and contain, but it’s been his work rate around the park and defensive lapses that have ruled him out of higher honours.
However, a noticeable enhancement in Ioane’s game has helped the Blues surge into play-offs contention for the first time since 2011, and he’s been duly rewarded with an early indication that All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen views him as a strong World Cup candidate.
Coach of the Year
NT: Leon MacDonald (Blues)
Leon MacDonald of the Blues is my coach of the year thus far. With respect to those who have come before him, fixing Auckland rugby is a task that have defeated many who have tried. Coaching the Blues has long been a poison chalice of New Zealand rugby, so it was a risk to take on the role, but the former All Black and Marlborough cricketer has made a very encouraging start. He has given his team, supporters and adopted city hope.
Whilst I don’t think the Blues are serious title contenders this year, I liken them to where the Queensland Reds were in 2009 under coach Phil Mooney. So much hard foundation work was done that laid the platform for success two years later.
The Blues are playing a more effective running game under MacDonald and their work at the ruck has been exceptional. However, their lineout, kicking and defence are not yet at a level that will see them to a final in 2019. I predict if they continue with MacDonald at the helm, I am sure those long-suffering Ponsonby and Takapuna types will be enjoying finals rugby in either 2020 or 2021. Perhaps Ma’a Nonu might still even been playing then!
TV: Leon MacDonald (Blues)
Leon MacDonald has done pretty well so far in his first year as Blues coach. It’s still early days, and the Blues have tended to perform well in their first season under a new coach in the past, so I’m not going to say MacDonald was an inspired appointment just yet – let’s see if the Blues can win some matches away from home, first.
AM: Leon MacDonald (Blues)
The former All Blacks fullback has been instrumental in turning around the fortunes of the previously-struggling Blues.
The decision to switch head coach and assistant coaching roles with Tana Umaga has proven to be a masterstroke, as MacDonald has taken the Blues from the laughing stock of the New Zealand conference to a side with a genuine play-off aspirations.
He and his team still have eight games to prove their credibility to the rest of the competition, and the issue of winning New Zealand derbies away needs fixing if they’re to make it into the post-season.
However, if they keep tracking the way they’re going, then there’s every reason to believe Leon MacDonald, through his hard-nosed, no-nonsense attitude, has turned this underperforming franchise around.
Most Likely World Cup Bolter
NT: Lachlan McCaffrey (Brumbies)
Lachie McCaffery of the ACT Brumbies, the 29-year-old Sydney native is the journeyman’s journeyman playing for New South Wales, the Western Force, London Welsh, Leicester and now the Brumbies.
Another sport I love is horse racing, and McCaffrey reminds me of that horse that has got a few starts over the years, promised a bit but got hemmed in at the rail, had a crap jockey, was entered into races with distances that didn’t suit and owners with more dollars than sense.
Yet, when a horse can get the right trainer, the right jockey and stable around him they come to career best form in their later years. To me, that is McCaffrey in 2019.
If the Wallabies are going to threaten at the World Cup, they need a back rower who can damage a side with the ball in hand, link up with the backs on attack, offer a bit at the lineout, but also do a job over the ball and, most importantly, stop an attack on the gain line. McCaffrey has been playing that style of rugby this year.
I can’t see him getting a start, but the former political candidate is doing all the right things to get a ticket on the plane with the Wallabies come September.
TV: Quade Cooper (Rebels)
Prior to the start of the season, Quade Cooper hadn’t even played a game of Super Rugby for over a year – now he’s quite possibly going to be their starting 10. Michael Cheika may not get along especially well the Rebel, but without a guy like Cooper I just can’t see the Wallabies making much progress this year. Bernard Foley is simply not good enough to guide Australia to a World Cup title.
Sure, Cooper may make a complete fool of himself and return to his error-prone ways, but there’s also a chance that he completely revolutionises the way the Wallabies have played for the last few years. With Israel Folau, one of their most dangerous backs, likely gone, the Wallabies need to mix something up.
Live by the sword, die by the sword.
AM: Hayden Parker (Sunwolves)
It may be a stretch to suggest that Hayden Parker is the most likely World Cup bolter to come out of Super Rugby this year, but it’s one that could come to fruition given the All Blacks’ first-five predicament following the season-ending injury to Damian McKenzie.
All it would take is Steve Hansen and his assistants to tweak the New Zealand eligibility laws to allow the Sunwolves pivot to play for the national side under these exceptional circumstances, as they did for Matt Todd at the end of last year.
It wouldn’t be a bad pick either, as not only does Parker have far more experience most of the remaining first-fives in New Zealand, but he’s also one of the best goal kickers on the planet, and directs play for one of the most entertaining sides in the competition.
Whether it be his running game, kicking game or distribution skills, there is plenty to like about the 28-year-old, and he is someone he someone that Hansen and co should seriously look at as McKenzie’s replacement.
NT: Ma’a Nonu (Blues)
The Blues needed more than just an old hand to guide some of the younger backs like Otere Black and Harry Plummer around the park. Perhaps Sonny Bill Williams could have also been that player, but having a player of Nonu’s ilk in and around a side that is looking to bring a mindset of dominance and discipline has been crucial to the rise of the Blues this season.
The Blues always had the flash on a good day where players like Rene Ranger excelled. But on a bad day, they were horrible. Nonu dissolves much of that and I suggest he is not a spent force at international level either.
Like Samu Kerevi at the Reds, the Blues must play at him 12, not 13, if they want to obtain maximum value out their star singing.
TV: Ma’a Nonu (Blues)
Ma’a Nonu for me. Sonny Bill Williams is injury prone and it’s been important to have an experienced operator in the midfield for the Blues with such a young backline. Nonu has revitalised his career and could well be on the plane to Japan later in the year – maybe he should be Most Likely World Cup Bolter too?
Nonu has turned back the clock and although there were questions about whether he could still perform at this level after so many years away from New Zealand, he’s unequivocally put an end to those.
AM: Ma’a Nonu (Blues)
There’s not much more to write about the man who should surely be regarded as the best second-five of all-time.
His impact at the Blues has been second-to-none, as he and the barnstorming Ioane brothers have led the way to their current placing of sixth on the standings.
Nonu’s physicality, pace and power have not diminished at all during his time with Toulon in the French Top 14, and it has helped the Blues exponentially throughout 2019, especially in the absence of the injury-prone Sonny Bill Williams.
A World Cup call-up is certainly not out of the question, and if Williams can’t get himself fully fit by the time the global showpiece event rolls around in September, Nonu would have to be in prime position to attend his fourth tournament.
NT: Israel Folau (Waratahs)
Israel Folau of the New South Wales Waratahs. I won’t comment any further on the situation, but clearly the resigning of Israel Folau for the 2019 season is proving to be a significant distraction for both the Waratahs and the Wallabies, and both sides will suffer as a result.
TV: Reuben O’Neill (Chiefs)
After being picked out of the nether to join the All Blacks end of year tour in 2018, I’m disappointed that we’re yet to see any sign of Reuben O’Neill at the Chiefs. With so many props used by the Chiefs so far this year, this could have been O’Neill’s time to show the rest of the rugby world what the All Blacks selectors saw in him. Instead, he also hasn’t been sighted – due to an unknown injury.
AM: Andries Ferreira (Hurricanes)
The Hurricanes needed to replace Scarlets-bound Sam Lousi with an experienced Super Rugby lock to bolster their depleted, inexperienced second row stocks after he suffered a season-ending pectoral injury.
In an unorthodox move, the Hurricanes drafted in South African lock Andries Ferreira, who fitted the bill after having played over 60 Super Rugby matches for the Lions and Cheetahs, as well as having sporadic stints in France, Italy and Japan.
Intrigue surrounding his arrival to the Kiwi capital, but after just three weeks in Wellington, Ferreira was sent home without playing a single game after sustaining a knee injury.
Game of the year so far
NT: Highlanders v Reds (Round Two)
It was a high-quality match that was not decided until the final moments, how else would you want it? This encounter reminded me of the Bledisloe Cup affairs of the late 1990’s, early 2000’s as both sides enjoyed periods of dominance, but that dominance was wrested back by each side time and time again just when you thought it had been won.
Both teams just went at it no holds barred and played with passionate desperation, evidenced by Queensland Reds replacement hooker Alex Mafi’s try-saving tackle on Kayne Hammington, who had done everything to deserve a try late in the game. Brilliant rugby from both sides.
As you may recall Queensland and Wallaby lock Izack Rodda had lost his father earlier that week so emotions were high from a Queensland perspective. Furthermore, to see the young talent of centre Jordan Petaia on display against a quality outfit like the Highlanders illustrated his class, especially when he turn stilled All Black legend Ben Smith during a second half raid that saw Petaia turn defence into attack placing pressure back onto the hosts.
It was a memorable performance by the young Queenslander, and I think the match was proof both Petaia and Kerevi could be a damaging centre painting for the Wallabies in the future.
TV: Chiefs v Blues (Round Nine)
Chiefs vs Blues in Hamilton. Plenty of great tries and it was impossible to call a winner right up until the final whistle. Loses points for it being the catalyst for Damian McKenzie to be ruled out for the rest of the year, however.
AM: Sunwolves v Waratahs (Round Two)
There have been many enthralling spectacles over throughout the year, but one of the most eye-catching encounters was the clash between the Sunwolves and Waratahs at Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium in Tokyo.
The Waratahs were expected to dominate with a star-studded lineup featuring multiple Wallabies, but the Sunwolves had the New South Welshmen on their toes with an early Gerhard van den Heever try.
From there, the fast, dry track in the Japanese capital allowed for a helter-skelter game that went back-and-forth for the entire 80 minutes.
A 79th-minute drop goal attempt from Hayden Parker was swung astray, and that was what ultimately won the match for the Waratahs, who snuck back to Sydney with a slender 31-30 win.
Game you’re most looking forward to in the second half of the season
NT: Reds v Blues (Round 17)
I think both sides are at a similar place in their revival and are reasonably matched against each other. Historically, both sides have each laid claim to being the best provincial side in the world, and both no doubt are looking to re-establish such credentials.
I would really like to see the individual battles between Kerevi v Nonu, Salakaia-Loto v Tuipulotu and Tupou v Tu’inukuafe amongst the greater team clash. I am looking forward to a mild Brisbane evening, no rain with plenty of support for both sides. That is fertile ground for some really physical, fast paced rugby especially seeing that if both sides are within a sniff of the finals nothing will be left in the tank.
Queensland v Auckland, it’s a fixture that rarely disappoints.
TV: Hurricanes v Chiefs (Round 11)
Hurricanes v Chiefs next weekend. This should basically be Chiefs v Blues version 2. The first match ended in a draw and these matches always tend towards high scoring affairs – hopefully it’s another close game. Pity there’ll be no Damian McKenzie.
AM: Blues v Chiefs (Round 14)
Based off their round nine clash last week, their return fixture in Auckland has the potential to be just as exciting.
If both sides can continue their decent run of form over the next few weeks, they will both be in strong play-off contention, making this Eden Park showdown all the more important.
Every onlooker will be hopeful of a match as highlight-filled as their first fixture in Hamilton, and both sides have the ability to provide such a contest, so mark 18 May down on your calendar.
Pick to win title
You would be a brave person not to pick the Crusaders. I think they might get a scare or two from the Sharks and perhaps the Rebels if they can fix their defence. If the Bulls get a run on and could get a home final perhaps, but they travel like oysters so a bit of a long shot. The Waratahs are done.
However, for me the Crusaders are the most resilient side and they are the master of proving that it’s not what happens to you, it’s how you deal with it. I have great admiration for the Crusader organisation and can’t see that culture losing to what they are competing against presently. Crusaders for me.
Crusaders. They’re already running away with the competition – I can’t see anyone knocking them over at home.
As much as it pains me to say this as an Auckland-born Dunedinite, the Crusaders are romping away at the halfway stage of the season yet again.
They’re 11 points clear of the Bulls, Rebels and Hurricanes, and their only loss of the year against the Waratahs in Sydney was so uncharacteristic that such a result is likely to be seen again for the rest of the year.
In every other match, they’ve shown how dangerous they can be, and with such depth and quality throughout the entirety of their squad, it would take a brave person to bet against them bagging a third successive title.
Watch – Daryl Gibson speaks to media:
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