As if the Guinness Six Nations, European club competitions and looming Rugby World Cup were not enough to tickle rugby aficionados’ fancies, the 2019 Super Rugby season kicks off this weekend, adding itself to the die-hard fan’s weekly schedule.
In a RWC year, all competitions take on added interest, with senior players jockeying for position ahead of the tournament, whether they are seeking to defend their spot in the national side or attempting to force their way into contention.
With players’ game-time and minutes managed particularly stringently, due to unions wanting to peak in the months of September and October, the presence of the RWC can also create plenty of opportunities for younger players, eager to make their marks and fill the voids created by senior players’ absences.
We have put together seven of the top talents to watch in Super Rugby this season, all of whom could enjoy breakout years.
The electric full-back is in line to make his Super Rugby debut on Saturday, after being named on the Crusaders bench for their visit to Eden Park to take on the Blues. Jordan was a teammate of Braydon Ennor at the 2017 World Rugby U20 Championship and he will be looking to recreate the chemistry the pair had at that tournament should he make it on to the field in Auckland.
His breakthrough stalled last season when he picked up a head injury and the Crusaders wisely opted for a cautious and patient approach, but he was coping extremely well with the transition to the senior game at the Tasman Makos. This should be the season that he shows he has what it takes to succeed at the Super Rugby level.
Ataata Moeakiola, Chiefs
Moeakiola lit up the World Rugby U20 Championship in 2016 for Japan, helping them cause plenty of problems for the more established nations at that level. He was part of the Sunwolves squad in 2017, without seeing the field, as well as reportedly being tried out in the back row with Tokai University.
Now based in Hamilton with the Chiefs, Moeakiola will get an opportunity to shine on the wing and push his way back into contention with Japan’s senior side, for whom he already has three tries in three appearances. His power on the outside will be quite the weapon for the Chiefs this season and he is likely to make his debut on Friday, after being named on the bench for his side’s home opener against the Highlanders.
Tupou actually made his Rebels debut in 2017, when he was still an U18-eligible player, and after getting more of a taste of rugby at the senior level in 2018, the 2019 season could be the one that sees him truly announce his arrival. He starts the campaign on the bench, for the visit to Canberra to take on the Brumbies, but the Rebels will need to be versatile with their back line this season, with their starting back three of Jack Maddocks, Dane Haylett-Petty and Marika Koroibete all likely to be involved with the Wallabies.
Tupou brought hard-running and an ability to straighten the line at 13 to the Australian U20 side last season and could do so again this year, with the 19-year-old eligible for another season. That said, it will be a surprise if the Rebels let him go to the U20 Championship at the end of May, when they will be finishing their season off against the Waratahs, Crusaders and Chiefs.
Phendulani Buthelezi, Sharks
Another U20-eligible player, Buthelezi could see involvement for the Sharks this season as they prepare for, if you believe the reports, the impending departures of Dan and Jean-Luc du Preez. The twin back rows have been linked with multiple clubs in England following Jean-Luc’s loan stint at Sale, a loan stint which saw him pick up an injury which has ruled him out of the first month of Super Rugby.
Buthelezi has a shot in his absence and has been named on the bench for the Sharks’ opening game of the season against the Sunwolves in Singapore. A versatile second and back row in school and representative rugby, Buthelezi will likely play solely in the back row at the senior level. With impressive mobility, handling and footwork, the Shark fits the Warren Whiteley mould of number eight in South Africa.
Harry Plummer, Blues
The New Zealand U20 fly-half from 2018, Plummer is going to be hot on the heels of Otere Black at the Blues this season. Black, having impressed at the Hurricanes but struggled, understandably, to dislodge Beauden Barrett, has made the move to Auckland to try and establish himself as a starting Super Rugby fly-half and he will get first shot at it, lining up in the 10 jersey against the Crusaders.
Plummer will get his opportunities this season, though, and should make his debut from the bench in that match with the Crusaders. It’s an important season for Plummer, who is not only competing with Black for the 10 jersey, but also Stephen Perofeta, another former New Zealand U20 fly-half, with the Blues amassing talent at the position, if not experience.
From one promising 10 to another, Stewart is one of the brightest prospects in Australian rugby. With three of the four starting Australian franchise fly-half positions taken by established players in Bernard Foley, Quade Cooper and Christian Lealiifano, Stewart’s playing time with the Reds will give the ARU a valuable look at one of the future prospects at the position.
The Reds and Brad Thorn notoriously parted ways with Cooper last season and there will be a fair amount of expectation on Stewart’s shoulders to make that look like a good move. He has shown he has what it takes to succeed at the U20 and NRC levels, and a more prominent role in Super Rugby beckons for Stewart this season.
Wandisile Simelane, Lions
As a number of South Africans prepare for post-RWC moves to Europe or Japan, blooding the next generation of players has never been more important for franchises like the Lions. In Simelane, Swys de Bruin has one of the most naturally-gifted players to come out of the South African U20 pathway in recent years. His speed, footwork and ability to read the game regularly separated him at that level.
He has been included in the 23 for the Lions on Saturday, when they head to Buenos Aires to take on the Jaguares, and he can provide an effective one-two punch with Lionel Mapoe at the 13 position this season. The Lions are far from afraid of putting the ball up the jumper and mauling teams to death if that’s what required in a game, but their free-flowing style is a comfortable fit for Simelane, who is at his best when running at the opposition in space.
Watch: Brumbies coach Dan McKellar speaks ahead of the season opener.
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