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Super Rugby debutant XV: New Zealand's best movers and shakers of 2021

By Tom Vinicombe

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Unlike seasons gone by, 2021 didn’t offer up the slew of new players to Super Rugby that we’re used to seeing. That’s largely because of the high-stakes of the Aotearoa competition, with every game highly competitive and a must-win for both participating teams.

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There were, however, a few bright lights that made a name for themselves for the first time – especially once Super Rugby Trans-Tasman kicked off and coaches were willing to experiment more with their young players.

In total, over 30 players made their Super Rugby debuts for New Zealand teams throughout this year’s competition – and a handful of those debutants will likely line up in Saturday’s final between the Blues and Highlanders at Eden Park.

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Not all of this year’s debutants played major roles in their team’s campaigns, admittedly, but they all added value where needed. Across the whole country, which of this year’s newbies had the biggest impact for their sides?

RugbyPass has put together a XV of 2021 debutants to assess the strength of the new cohort:

1. Tamaiti Williams (Crusaders)
Debut: 24 April v Blues
Caps: 7

The Crusaders originally named just four new squad members in their team for 2021, including 20-year-old loosehead prop Tamaiti Williams.

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While Williams wasn’t rushed into action straight away, having to bide his time behind experienced operators Joe Moody and George Bower, the young front-rower was evidently quietly going about his business at training and managed to hold his own when finally introduced to the arena.

Williams, a converted loose forward, is still mobile around the field but has packed on the pounds to give him the bulk needed to make a huge impact in the scrums in the years to come.

2. Soane Vikena (Blues)
Debut: 24 April v Crusaders
Caps: 6

While Soane Vikena wasn’t able to earn any starts for the 2021 season, he added plenty of impetus when introduced regularly off the bench throughout the Blues’ campaign.

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Vikena spent time away captaining his franchise’s Under 20 squad, underlining his leadership qualities and the potential-long term benefits the Blues could gain from if they’re able to slowly acclimatise the youngster to the rigours of professional rugby.

Having spent a considerable amount of time sidelined due to a pec injury, Vikena will be hoping to take over the starting hooking role with Auckland in the upcoming NPC and boost his experience.

3. Joe Apikotoa (Chiefs)
Debut: 20 March v Hurricanes
Caps: 4

The Chiefs were hit by their usual batch of propping injuries early in the season which paved the way for Hawke’s Bay’s Joe Apikotoa to earn a handful of caps off the bench.

The 24-year-old rarely put a foot wrong in his debut season, helping to maintain an excellent Chiefs scrum that was able to foot it with the best of the best throughout the year.

4. Josh Lord (Chiefs)
Debut: 13 Mar v Crusaders
Caps: 5

Josh Lord wouldn’t have expected to earn too many minutes in 2021, with a number of players ahead of him in the Chiefs’ second row pecking order.

Per usual, however, a number of men went down with injuries and Lord quickly earned his first start, lining up against the Crusaders in the third round of the Aotearoa competition.

The Taranaki 20-year-old will benefit from adding some more bulk to his frame but he rarely looked uncomfortable clashing with considerable more seasoned operators throughout the season. Another NPC campaign will do the youngster a world of good.

5. Sam Darry (Blues)
Debut: 14 Mar v Highlanders
Caps: 5

Will Sam Darry be the one that got away from the Crusaders? The 20-year-old lock signed with the Blues knowing that his pathway to playing for the Crusaders was well and truly blocked thanks to the presence of Samuel Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Mitch Dunshea and Quinten Strange at the Canterbury franchise.

Darry has flourished since moving north and strung together four starts on the trot for the Blues at the end of the Aotearoa season. While minutes were hard to come by in the latter half of the campaign once the Blues’ locking stocks were back to full health, Darry will be pushing Joshua Goodhue for a starting role in the team next year if Gerard Cowley-Tuioti is heading to Japan, as rumoured.

6. Adrian Choat (Blues)
Debut: 1 May v Chiefs
Caps: 2

Despite the mouth-watering depth in the Blues loose forwards, former Bristol Bears flanker Adrian Choat was still able to clock up two starts for the Trans-Tasman finalists in the middle of their campaign.

Choat entered the season without a contract but fought his way into contention once the likes of Dalton Papalii, Blake Gibson and Dillon Hunt went down with injury and will be looking to use the upcoming NPC to springboard his way into a contract with one of the Super Rugby franchises for 2021.

7. Zane Kapeli (Chiefs)
Debut: 1 May v Blues
Caps: 7

Zane Kapeli made a huge impact for the Chiefs in the latter half of the season as swiss-army-knife, slotting into the second row and the loose forwards as needed.

The Tongan representative put in some shockingly powerful tackles and was also reliable with the ball in hand at and the set-piece – but finds himself without a contract for next season thanks to the Chiefs’ forward planning.

A spot with Moana Pasifika looks like an excellent fit for the 28-year-old in 2022 but Kapeli would be an excellent pick-up for any of the New Zealand franchises – including the Highlanders and Hurricanes, where he’s spent some time in the past.

8. Brayden Iose (Hurricanes)
Debut: 30 April v Highlanders
Caps: 5

Brayden Iose is absolutely lightning quick and wouldn’t look out of place in the backs – perhaps the Hurricanes will look to fill the gap in the midfield left by the departing Ngani Laumape next season?

 

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The Manawatu loose forward is a wrecking ball on attack and added huge impact off the bench for the Hurricanes during the latter half of their campaign. With a few experienced campaigners set to depart the team ahead of 2022, Iose could be looking at a regular spot in the reserves in the near future, where he’ll be able to continue to haunt tired defenders later on in matches.

9. Luke Campbell (Hurricanes)
Debut: 27 February v Blues
Caps: 12

With TJ Perenara in Japan and Jamie Booth sidelined through injury, an inexperienced Hurricanes halfback was always going to get a good crack at the starting jersey this season and it was Bay of Plenty’s Luke Campbell who emerged as the preferred option as the season went on.

While Campbell isn’t necessarily the most dynamic No 9 in New Zealand, he’s a safe pair of hands who provides a perfect foil to the full-speed-ahead mindset of the Hurricanes squad.

Campbell made 12 appearances in 2021 including nine starts – comfortably the most of any debutant.

10. Ruben Love (Hurricanes)
Debut: 26 March v Highlanders
Caps: 7

While Ruben Love was originally named as an outside back, it’s in the No 10 jersey where the 20-year-old has made a name for himself in his debut season with the Hurricanes.

After Simon Hickey went down in the pre-season and Jackson Garden-Bachop was lost early in the season, the Hurricanes made the decision to throw Love into the action and the youngster didn’t disappoint.

With Garden-Bachop still on the mend, Love could spend the provincial season continuing to develop his playmaking abilities for Wellington because although he didn’t look out of place at first five for the Hurricanes, greater ownership of the play will be needed for Love to grow into a great long-term No 10.

11. AJ Lam (Blues)
Debut: 3 April v Hurricanes
Caps: 8

The Auckland region is never short of outside backs and after impressing for the province in last year’s Mitre 10 Cup, AJ Lam eventually earned the chance to make a number of appearances for the Blues throughout the Super Rugby season and clocked up some impressive numbers on attack.

As the younger brother of former Hurricanes star Ben, there’s plenty of pedigree in the Lam family and with a few more matches under his belt for Auckland this year, Lam will be pressing the likes of Caleb Clarke and Mark Telea for a starting spot on the wing next season.

12. Scott Gregory (Highlanders)
Debut: 27 June 2020 v Blues
Caps: 13

Although Scott Gregory actually made his first Super Rugby appearance last season, 2021 marked his debut in the centres, where the former New Zealand Under 20s star looked infinitely more at home for the Highlanders.

There’s still plenty that the former outside back will need to work on if he wants to develop into a specialist midfielder, including his distribution and passing game, but when running full-steam ahead on attack and lining up runners on defence, Gregory looked perfectly at home.

He’ll have plenty more competition at the Highlanders in 2022 once Thomas Umaga-Jensen and Fetuli Paea return from injury, but coach Tony Brown will be content knowing he can drop Gregory back into the midfield if needed next season.

13. Rameka Poihipi (Chiefs)
Debut: 23 April v Hurricanes
Caps: 4

Rameka Poihipi was the last player added to the Chiefs’ 38-man roster for 2021 and while it took a little bit of time for the Hamilton Boys’ product to earn his first start, Poihipi was always a safe option when called upon by interim coach Clayton McMillan.

Having cut his teeth at No 10, Poihipi possesses all the necessary skills to be an excellent midfielder – including a handy kicking game to boot.

Poihipi will look to continue to build his game with the Maori All Blacks in the coming weeks before returning to Canterbury, where he’ll line up outside Crusaders first five Fergus Burke.

14. Connor Garden-Bachop (Highlanders)
Debut: 26 February v Crusaders
Caps: 6

Injuries have caused huge disruption for Connor Garden-Bachop over the years but as everyone found out in 2021, this man could be an absolute superstar if he can stay out on the park.

After bursting to life for the Highlanders at fullback and on the wing early in the season for the Highlanders, the 22-year-old was again sidelined thanks to a fractured wrist – but should be back in action for Wellington during the NPC.

Time is still on the youngster’s side and with one of the silkiest running games in New Zealand, the future is bright for Garden-Bachop.

15. Zarn Sullivan (Blues)
Debut: 1 May v Chiefs
Caps: 6

Many suspected Zarn Sullivan might start the year with the No 15 jersey on his back but it wasn’t until the final round of Super Rugby Aotearoa that the Aucklander was finally handed a spot in the Blues run-on team, and he seized the opportunity with both hands.

While Sullivan scored on debut, it was the calm control that he exuded at the back of the field that likely influenced coach Leon MacDonald’s decision to give the 20-year-old an extended run at fullback.

Sullivan hasn’t looked back since, wearing No 15 for the Blues last six games of their campaign – and he’s shoo-in to feature in the Trans-Tasman final next weekend too.

With Beauden Barrett returning to the Blues next year and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck also joining the franchise, Sullivan will find his spot under contention. All things going well, however, an All Blacks call-up could be in the cards for the utility back in the very near future.

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Super Rugby debutant XV: New Zealand's best movers and shakers of 2021

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