The Blues and Crusaders have emerged from another bruising round of Super Rugby Aotearoa as the only two sides in the league still yet to taste defeat following their respective wins against the Highlanders and Chiefs over the weekend.
Playing in front of a healthy crowd of around 30,000 at Eden Park, the Blues have now recorded an impressive seven straight victories dating way back to their last-minute win over the Bulls in Pretoria way back in February.
It’s a similar situation for the Crusaders, who continued their charge towards a fourth consecutive title with an opportunistic 18-13 win over the Chiefs in slippery conditions in Christchurch.
The results leave both sides in first and second place on the Super Rugby Aotearoa standings as they remain on track for a collision course meeting at Orangetheory Stadium on July 11.
With all that in mind, here are five of the best performers to grace the field in the weekend’s most recent round of action.
Caleb Clarke (Blues)
Building on his exceptional return to the competition from the All Blacks Sevens environment, Caleb Clarke strengthened his case for a full All Blacks call-up with a dazzling performance in the Blues’ 27-24 win over the Highlanders.
In an emotionally charged display in the wake of his grandfather’s death, the 21-year-old wing produced arguably his best performance in a Blues jersey.
Clarke’s explosive showing is reflected in the 77 running metres he accrued – the second-most of the round – which contributed to the four defenders he beat, two lines he broke, two offloads he threw, the one try he assisted and the other try he scored.
He has proven to be no fluke on defence either, as he completed seven tackles from nine attempts and snared two turnovers for his side.
With Ben Smith now gone and Rieko Ioane plying his trade in the midfield, there are two outside back spots available in the national set-up, and Clarke must surely be leading the charge to fill one of those holes.
Dalton Papalii (Blues)
After missing out on last year’s World Cup squad, Dalton Papalii is showing the All Blacks selectors what they missed out on with a string of energetic outings that have contributed heavily to the Blues’ run of success.
The 22-year-old loose forward has come into the starting side for the club following the first round injury to Blake Gibson, and it would come as no surprise to see him stay there even if the more experienced openside flanker returns fit and firing.
Papalii’s off-the-ball persistence and work rate was enough to earn him two tries, 41 running metres and two clean breaks – all of which are figures that can’t be toppled by any forward throughout the round.
Couple that with a defensive accuracy that saw him miss just one tackle from 10 attempts, and the three-test All Black is making a compelling case to return to the international arena.
Will Jordan (Crusaders)
Included in last week’s iteration of this series after his whirlwind efforts against the Hurricanes in Wellington, Will Jordan is named as one of the competition’s top five players again today after his match-winning performance against the Chiefs.
Renowned for his incredible finishing ability, the 22-year-old fullback paired up with All Blacks wing Sevu Reece to score a pair of expertly-taken tries on either side in half-time to ultimately win the Crusaders the match in dire conditions.
Prior to the two long-range scores started by Reece and finished by Jordan, the game had been devoid of any attacking excitement, but that’s a quality that either one of those two speedsters can offer in bucketloads.
While Reece has already been capped for New Zealand, Jordan’s international debut must not be too far off, especially if he continues to play like he did on Sunday, when he ran for a round-high 98 metres, beat four defenders, broke the line twice and didn’t miss a tackle.
Whether he gets a look-in for the All Blacks – with Beauden Barrett, Damian McKenzie, Jordie Barrett and David Havili all in competition for the No. 15 jersey – remains to be seen, but it will surely be too cruel to exclude him come the end of the year.
Marino Mikaele-Tu’u (Highlanders)
It’s been a steady rise to national recognition for Highlanders No. 8 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, who first joined the Dunedin franchise in 2018 and had limited opportunities throughout the past couple of years.
That was until this season, where he has been granted a starting role in the absence of Luke Whitelock and Elliot Dixon, and there’s no doubting he has taken his opportunities with aplomb.
The 22-year-old’s fierce attacking demeanour was again on show at Eden Park over the weekend, as he ran for 36 metres – second to only Papalii of all the forwards – and broke a tackle to register a line break.
Standing at 1.91m and 115kg, Mikaele-Tu’u’s physicality was beneficial for the Highlanders on the other side of the ball as well, as he made six of his eight tackles and snaffled two turnovers for his side.
His Blues counterpart Hoskins Sotutu may have been stealing the limelight in recent weeks following some barnstorming matches of his own, but with Mikaele-Tu’u nipping at his heels, the All Blacks No. 8 isn’t sewed up just yet.
Shannon Frizell (Highlanders)
Amid all the hype about the next generation of talent coming through, it’s easy to forget about one of the less heralded All Blacks incumbents – Shannon Frizell.
For all the anticipation that surrounds the likes of Mikaele-Tu’u, Sotutu and Cullen Grace, it seems like nine-test loose forward Frizell has become an afterthought of sorts while the rookies and sophomores of Super Rugby Aotearoa take centre stage.
The 26-year-old sent out a firm reminder of his abilities on Saturday night, though, as he played a shining role in the Highlanders tightly-contested defeat.
On attack, he managed to bag himself a try to keep his scoring run against the Blues in Auckland alive – that was his fifth from three matches – while also beating one defender and running for 15 metres.
But it was on defence where his value was felt the most, as he completed 13 from 14 tackles to sit second in the round on the tackle count and send a message to Ian Foster’s team that he is still keen on his place in the national squad.
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