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Super Rugby Pacific 2024: Highlanders are the off-season champions

By Ben Smith
(Photos by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

The RugbyPass Round Table writers answer the big questions ahead of the 2024 Super Rugby Pacific season. Ben Smith (BS), Finn Morton (FM) and Ned Lester (NL) weigh in on a range of topics and make their predictions for the season.

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Who will be the best signing/transfer of the season?

Ben Smith: The Chiefs get an A for retention by locking in experienced players for the long haul. They didn’t have any ‘marquee’ signings on the open market, instead securing their key players like Damian McKenzie, Samisoni Taukei’aho, Anton Lienert-Brown, Shaun Stevenson, Quinn Tupaea, Cortez Ratima for 2024 and beyond.

The Crusaders went and bought the best gain line centre in the competition in Levi Aumua from Moana Pasifika who is a chance at being the best signing. Veteran Ryan Crotty is also back to provide stability in the midfield after they lost hybrid wing-centre Leicester Fainga’anuku and Jack Goodhue.

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The Hurricanes were not big winners on the market with any headline-grabbing transfers. Brad Shields might turn out to be a savvy signing, already named team captain, while former Highlanders prospect Ngani Punivai could find his footing in the capital. After losing Dane Coles to Japan, Julian Savea to Moana Pasifika, Ardie Savea to sabbatical and Owen Franks, the Hurricanes have been hit by high-profile departures.

The Blues weren’t splashy on the open market either, but they did snag All Black tighthead prop Angus Ta’avao from the Chiefs. Seven of their nine signings were under 23 years old, adding more youth to the roster. They have some sleepers on the books already, players who can turn into stars of the future like Zarn Sullivan, Corey Evans, Anton Segner, and Sam Darry.

There aren’t many players in the Blues squad in the middle tier age bracket between 25-28. Just 13 players fit that description. It’s either young talent or veterans turning or over 30.

The Highlanders get an A for their recruitment class of 2024 and are officially crowned the off-season champs after big wins through the pre-season.

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After a dreadful year last year they have gone to market and addressed many concerns on the roster, signed a bunch of young players coming through their development systems, while at the same time have brought back former head coach Jamie Joseph.

They required a clean out and didn’t shy away from doing so. Many players have moved on, including All Blacks Aaron Smith and Shannon Frizell.

The Mitch Hunt era didn’t pay off, now they have two New Zealand U20 prospects, Ajay Faleafaga and Cam Miller, to compete with Welsh international Rhys Patchell for the No 10 jersey.

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Former Crusaders No 8 Tom Sanders is an underrated signing, bringing the loose forward back from Japan. After losing Frizell and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u they needed to bolster the back row depth.

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Out wide they signed fullback prospect Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens and centre Tanielu Tele’a from the Blues, two impact players that have looked good in pre-season. But the boom signing is Fijian Timoci Tavatavanawai from Moana Pasifika, one of the hardest men to tackle in Super Rugby.

Tavatavanawai is the dark horse pick for best transfer of the year. At 25-years-old the winger has plenty in the tank and is already dominate at Super Rugby level. He finished second in defenders beaten last year but was on one of the worst performing teams.

On the end of the right backline Tavatavanawai will be one of  the top five try scorers. Time will tell if the Highlanders is that place, but early pre-season form suggests it is.

Finn Morton: The Highlanders’ new trio of Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, Timoci Tavatavanawai and former Wales international Rhys Patchell could all make some noise in their colours in 2024. Especially Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens and Tavatavanawai, who could both push for All Blacks honours on the back of a strong campaign with the Highlanders.

Across the Tasman, if you’d consider this a signing, Junior Wallaby Harry McLaughlin-Phillips could establish himself as a star of tomorrow after being promoted from the Queensland Reds Academy. There’s a lot to like about so many players.

But there’s one man who stands out above the rest; one player who has already proven himself to be a hard-hitting, no-nonsense kind of talent who could very well be an All Black in foreseeable future. That man is Crusaders centre Levi Aumua.

Aumua, who played two seasons with Moana Pasifika, scored five tries last season, including a double away to the Crusaders in Round Seven. With an imposing frame, a clean pair of heels and a frighteningly determined focus on the field, there’s not much to dislike about Aumua’s game.

Ned Lester: Brad Shields was the signing the Hurricanes needed. The fact that he’s been named the captain makes his the best signing of the season.

Without the leadership of Ardie Savea and Dane Coles, there wasn’t a clear cut favourite to lead the team in 2024, but Shields’ experience lends a needed voice to the playing group and specifically the forward pack.

While additions like Levi Aumua for the Crusaders, Timoci Tavatavanawai for the Highlanders and Ben Donaldson for the Force add plenty of firepower, Shields is taking on the most responsibility on and off the field and servicing the biggest need.

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1 Comment
h
h 151 days ago

hurricanes will have their worst season in recent history. the players they’re relying on to become future all blacks, like, love and lakai don’t seem to have enough structure to dominate at this level. i’m also not sure the culture will be helped by having shields as captain. 🙃

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Jon 3 hours ago
Six starters from the Drua named in Fiji team to take on the All Blacks

*Fiji team to play New Zealand:* 1. Eroni Nawa 28-year-old 1.89 m 131 kg - Rugby World Cup starter - 350minutes for Saracens back up to Mako Vunipola but has much better carry stats this year 2. Tevita Ikanivere 24 y/o 1.82 m 114 kg - RWC impact to Northampton Saints starter Sam Matavasi but won the starting spot for knockout qf match - Drua rake and much more lively stats on the carry that Matavasi but maybe more raw than the Saints veteran. Behind Asafo Aumua still in all stats (still very impressive). Got the starting spot over Asafo Aumua in Alun Wyn Jones testimonial 3. Mesake Doge 31 y/o 1.80 m 122 kg - RWC impact to Bayonnes starter Luke Tagi 4. Isoa Nasilasila 24 y/o 1.97 m117 kg - RWC and Drua starter 5. Temo Mayanavanua 26 y/o 1.97 m 120 kg - RWC impact to Drua Kiwi Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta - more dominant tackler and impact player for Northampton Saints behind Top 14 bound Alex Moon 6. Lekima Tagitagivalu 28 y/o 1.95 m 110 kg - RWC starter at both openside and blindside but has spent half his career locking - Pau everywhere man, started in their euro knockout loss 7. Kitione Salawa 23 y/o 1.92 m 95 kg - Drua’s new boy tearaway, one of the leading, if not the best per 80minutes turnover mechants in Super Rugby 8. Viliame Mata 32 y/o 1.96 m 116 kg - Fiji and European star 9. Frank Lomani 28 y/o 1.80 m 81 kg - RWC test 9 - Best try involvements 9 in SR for the Drua behind Ratima and TJP 10. Isaiah Armstrong-Ravula 20 y/o 1.75 m 86 kg - Test rookie comes in in place of Test and Drua star Ilaisa Droasese who might have had flight or visa issues I suppose.* * 11. Semi Radradra - enough said 12. Inia Tabuavou 21 y/o 1.85 m 101 kg - Youngster has had some good minutes and stats filling in at Racing 92 13. Waisea Nayacalevu 34 y/o 1.93 m 105 kg - RWC starter and captain - Dominant carrier for Toulon when asked to return early after the WC but injured for the season shortly after which saw Leicester . 14. Jiuta Wainiqolo 25 y/o 1.87 m 97 kg - Has some crunching numbers for Toulon on the wing along side his captain 15. Vilimoni Botitu - Promoted to flyhalf for the RWC quarter finals after injuries - Has mostly had minutes for castres as inside center Reserves 16. Zuriel Togiatama - Drua impact 17. Haereiti Hetet - Drua #1 18. Samu Tawake - Drua impact 19. Albert Tuisue - Fiji and Gloucester impact player 20. Elia Canakaivata - Late 20s in his second pro year (Drua) by the looks must have come through Fiji pathways or 7s 21. Simione Kuruvoli - Test backup and a player many though was best impact at RWC 22. Caleb Muntz - Seen as leader at 10 but regularly injured after coming from English Championship 23. Sireli Maqala - RWC player and Bayonne center Missing players Isefo Masi - Star center of Super Rugby for the Drua at the Olympics playing 7’s I think Josua Tuisova - Fiji’s inside center at RWC got little minutes this Top 14 season so suspect injured still only 30 - Reports about managing his minutes and his body, looks like Toulon have put the hard word on him not to play until November window (back from injury around June) Levani Botia - RWC star but getting on in years and injured toward back of Top14, hopefully not the same as above Vinaya Habosi - Another RWC star winger who finished his Top 14 season recently after having a 3 month (injury?) layoff in the middle. Not scoring any tries. Hopefully partaking in 7VNS and not blocked by Racing 92 as he’s just gone missing to my sluthing Mesake Vocevoce - Breakdown beast of a lock for a young fella in 2024 Drua Selestino Ravutaumada - Probably Drua’s best attacking back and one who I also confuse for his older captain, their RWC wing and at the Olympics as well Meli Derenalagi - Block buster 8 for the Drua Please add a reply if you know better about any of these players (and there wereabouts if not playing)

4 Go to comments
J
Jon 3 hours ago
All Black Ardie Savea close to joining Moana Pasifika – report

Would be a great move by Ardie, respect. *Fiji team to play New Zealand:* 1. Eroni Nawa 28-year-old 1.89 m 131 kg - Rugby World Cup starter - 350minutes for Saracens back up to Mako Vunipola but has much better carry stats this year 2. Tevita Ikanivere 24 y/o 1.82 m 114 kg - RWC impact to Northampton Saints starter Sam Matavasi but won the starting spot for knockout qf match - Drua rake and much more lively stats on the carry that Matavasi but maybe more raw than the Saints veteran. Behind Asafo Aumua still in all stats (still very impressive). Got the starting spot over Asafo Aumua in Alun Wyn Jones testimonial 3. Mesake Doge 31 y/o 1.80 m 122 kg - RWC impact to Bayonnes starter Luke Tagi 4. Isoa Nasilasila 24 y/o 1.97 m117 kg - RWC and Drua starter 5. Temo Mayanavanua 26 y/o 1.97 m 120 kg - RWC impact to Drua Kiwi Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta - more dominant tackler and impact player for Northampton Saints behind Top 14 bound Alex Moon 6. Lekima Tagitagivalu 28 y/o 1.95 m 110 kg - RWC starter at both openside and blindside but has spent half his career locking - Pau everywhere man, started in their euro knockout loss 7. Kitione Salawa 23 y/o 1.92 m 95 kg - Drua’s new boy tearaway, one of the leading, if not the best per 80minutes turnover mechants in Super Rugby 8. Viliame Mata 32 y/o 1.96 m 116 kg - Fiji and European star 9. Frank Lomani 28 y/o 1.80 m 81 kg - RWC test 9 - Best try involvements 9 in SR for the Drua behind Ratima and TJP 10. Isaiah Armstrong-Ravula 20 y/o 1.75 m 86 kg - Test rookie comes in in place of Test and Drua star Ilaisa Droasese who might have had flight or visa issues I suppose.* * 11. Semi Radradra - enough said 12. Inia Tabuavou 21 y/o 1.85 m 101 kg - Youngster has had some good minutes and stats filling in at Racing 92 13. Waisea Nayacalevu 34 y/o 1.93 m 105 kg - RWC starter and captain - Dominant carrier for Toulon when asked to return early after the WC but injured for the season shortly after which saw Leicester . 14. Jiuta Wainiqolo 25 y/o 1.87 m 97 kg - Has some crunching numbers for Toulon on the wing along side his captain 15. Vilimoni Botitu - Promoted to flyhalf for the RWC quarter finals after injuries - Has mostly had minutes for castres as inside center Reserves 16. Zuriel Togiatama - Drua impact 17. Haereiti Hetet - Drua #1 18. Samu Tawake - Drua impact 19. Albert Tuisue - Fiji and Gloucester impact player 20. Elia Canakaivata - Late 20s in his second pro year (Drua) by the looks must have come through Fiji pathways or 7s 21. Simione Kuruvoli - Test backup and a player many though was best impact at RWC 22. Caleb Muntz - Seen as leader at 10 but regularly injured after coming from English Championship 23. Sireli Maqala - RWC player and Bayonne center Missing players Isefo Masi - Star center of Super Rugby for the Drua at the Olympics playing 7’s I think Josua Tuisova - Fiji’s inside center at RWC got little minutes this Top 14 season so suspect injured still only 30 - Reports about managing his minutes and his body, looks like Toulon have put the hard word on him not to play until November window (back from injury around June) Levani Botia - RWC star but getting on in years and injured toward back of Top14, hopefully not the same as above Vinaya Habosi - Another RWC star winger who finished his Top 14 season recently after having a 3 month (injury?) layoff in the middle. Not scoring any tries. Hopefully partaking in 7VNS and not blocked by Racing 92 as he’s just gone missing to my sluthing Mesake Vocevoce - Breakdown beast of a lock for a young fella in 2024 Drua Selestino Ravutaumada - Probably Drua’s best attacking back and one who I also confuse for his older captain, their RWC wing and at the Olympics as well Meli Derenalagi - Block buster 8 for the Drua Please add a reply if you know better about any of these players (and there wereabouts if not playing)

5 Go to comments
J
Jon 3 hours ago
All Blacks name six debutants in team to play Fiji in San Diego

*Fiji team to play New Zealand:* 1. Eroni Nawa 28-year-old 1.89 m 131 kg - Rugby World Cup starter - 350minutes for Saracens back up to Mako Vunipola but has much better carry stats this year 2. Tevita Ikanivere 24 y/o 1.82 m 114 kg - RWC impact to Northampton Saints starter Sam Matavasi but won the starting spot for knockout qf match - Drua rake and much more lively stats on the carry that Matavasi but maybe more raw than the Saints veteran. Behind Asafo Aumua still in all stats (still very impressive). Got the starting spot over Asafo Aumua in Alun Wyn Jones testimonial 3. Mesake Doge 31 y/o 1.80 m 122 kg - RWC impact to Bayonnes starter Luke Tagi 4. Isoa Nasilasila 24 y/o 1.97 m117 kg - RWC and Drua starter 5. Temo Mayanavanua 26 y/o 1.97 m 120 kg - RWC impact to Drua Kiwi Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta - more dominant tackler and impact player for Northampton Saints behind Top 14 bound Alex Moon 6. Lekima Tagitagivalu 28 y/o 1.95 m 110 kg - RWC starter at both openside and blindside but has spent half his career locking - Pau everywhere man, started in their euro knockout loss 7. Kitione Salawa 23 y/o 1.92 m 95 kg - Drua’s new boy tearaway, one of the leading, if not the best per 80minutes turnover mechants in Super Rugby 8. Viliame Mata 32 y/o 1.96 m 116 kg - Fiji and European star 9. Frank Lomani 28 y/o 1.80 m 81 kg - RWC test 9 - Best try involvements 9 in SR for the Drua behind Ratima and TJP 10. Isaiah Armstrong-Ravula 20 y/o 1.75 m 86 kg - Test rookie comes in in place of Test and Drua star Ilaisa Droasese who might have had flight or visa issues I suppose.* * 11. Semi Radradra - enough said 12. Inia Tabuavou 21 y/o 1.85 m 101 kg - Youngster has had some good minutes and stats filling in at Racing 92 13. Waisea Nayacalevu 34 y/o 1.93 m 105 kg - RWC starter and captain - Dominant carrier for Toulon when asked to return early after the WC but injured for the season shortly after which saw Leicester . 14. Jiuta Wainiqolo 25 y/o 1.87 m 97 kg - Has some crunching numbers for Toulon on the wing along side his captain 15. Vilimoni Botitu - Promoted to flyhalf for the RWC quarter finals after injuries - Has mostly had minutes for castres as inside center Reserves 16. Zuriel Togiatama - Drua impact 17. Haereiti Hetet - Drua #1 18. Samu Tawake - Drua impact 19. Albert Tuisue - Fiji and Gloucester impact player 20. Elia Canakaivata - Late 20s in his second pro year (Drua) by the looks must have come through Fiji pathways or 7s 21. Simione Kuruvoli - Test backup and a player many though was best impact at RWC 22. Caleb Muntz - Seen as leader at 10 but regularly injured after coming from English Championship 23. Sireli Maqala - RWC player and Bayonne center Missing players Isefo Masi - Star center of Super Rugby for the Drua at the Olympics playing 7’s I think Josua Tuisova - Fiji’s inside center at RWC got little minutes this Top 14 season so suspect injured still only 30 - Reports about managing his minutes and his body, looks like Toulon have put the hard word on him not to play until November window (back from injury around June) Levani Botia - RWC star but getting on in years and injured toward back of Top14, hopefully not the same as above Vinaya Habosi - Another RWC star winger who finished his Top 14 season recently after having a 3 month (injury?) layoff in the middle. Not scoring any tries. Hopefully partaking in 7VNS and not blocked by Racing 92 as he’s just gone missing to my sluthing Mesake Vocevoce - Breakdown beast of a lock for a young fella in 2024 Drua Selestino Ravutaumada - Probably Drua’s best attacking back and one who I also confuse for his older captain, their RWC wing and at the Olympics as well Meli Derenalagi - Block buster 8 for the Drua Please add a reply if you know better about any of these players (and there wereabouts if not playing)

24 Go to comments
J
Jon 3 hours ago
Why Scott Robertson isn't worried about fielding six rookies against Fiji

*Fiji team to play New Zealand:* 1. Eroni Nawa 28-year-old 1.89 m 131 kg - Rugby World Cup starter - 350minutes for Saracens back up to Mako Vunipola but has much better carry stats this year 2. Tevita Ikanivere 24 y/o 1.82 m 114 kg - RWC impact to Northampton Saints starter Sam Matavasi but won the starting spot for knockout qf match - Drua rake and much more lively stats on the carry that Matavasi but maybe more raw than the Saints veteran. Behind Asafo Aumua still in all stats (still very impressive). Got the starting spot over Asafo Aumua in Alun Wyn Jones testimonial 3. Mesake Doge 31 y/o 1.80 m 122 kg - RWC impact to Bayonnes starter Luke Tagi 4. Isoa Nasilasila 24 y/o 1.97 m117 kg - RWC and Drua starter 5. Temo Mayanavanua 26 y/o 1.97 m 120 kg - RWC impact to Drua Kiwi Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta - more dominant tackler and impact player for Northampton Saints behind Top 14 bound Alex Moon 6. Lekima Tagitagivalu 28 y/o 1.95 m 110 kg - RWC starter at both openside and blindside but has spent half his career locking - Pau everywhere man, started in their euro knockout loss 7. Kitione Salawa 23 y/o 1.92 m 95 kg - Drua’s new boy tearaway, one of the leading, if not the best per 80minutes turnover mechants in Super Rugby 8. Viliame Mata 32 y/o 1.96 m 116 kg - Fiji and European star 9. Frank Lomani 28 y/o 1.80 m 81 kg - RWC test 9 - Best try involvements 9 in SR for the Drua behind Ratima and TJP 10. Isaiah Armstrong-Ravula 20 y/o 1.75 m 86 kg - Test rookie comes in in place of Test and Drua star Ilaisa Droasese who might have had flight or visa issues I suppose.* * 11. Semi Radradra - enough said 12. Inia Tabuavou 21 y/o 1.85 m 101 kg - Youngster has had some good minutes and stats filling in at Racing 92 13. Waisea Nayacalevu 34 y/o 1.93 m 105 kg - RWC starter and captain - Dominant carrier for Toulon when asked to return early after the WC but injured for the season shortly after which saw Leicester . 14. Jiuta Wainiqolo 25 y/o 1.87 m 97 kg - Has some crunching numbers for Toulon on the wing along side his captain 15. Vilimoni Botitu - Promoted to flyhalf for the RWC quarter finals after injuries - Has mostly had minutes for castres as inside center Reserves 16. Zuriel Togiatama - Drua impact 17. Haereiti Hetet - Drua #1 18. Samu Tawake - Drua impact 19. Albert Tuisue - Fiji and Gloucester impact player 20. Elia Canakaivata - Late 20s in his second pro year (Drua) by the looks must have come through Fiji pathways or 7s 21. Simione Kuruvoli - Test backup and a player many though was best impact at RWC 22. Caleb Muntz - Seen as leader at 10 but regularly injured after coming from English Championship 23. Sireli Maqala - RWC player and Bayonne center *Missing players* Isefo Masi - Star center of Super Rugby for the Drua at the Olympics playing 7’s I think Josua Tuisova - Fiji’s inside center at RWC got little minutes this Top 14 season so suspect injured still only 30 - Reports about managing his minutes and his body, looks like Toulon have put the hard word on him not to play until November window (back from injury around June) Levani Botia - RWC star but getting on in years and injured toward back of Top14, hopefully not the same as above Vinaya Habosi - Another RWC star winger who finished his Top 14 season recently after having a 3 month (injury?) layoff in the middle. Not scoring any tries. Hopefully partaking in 7VNS and not blocked by Racing 92 as he’s just gone missing to my sluthing Mesake Vocevoce - Breakdown beast of a lock for a young fella in 2024 Drua Selestino Ravutaumada - Probably Drua’s best attacking back and one who I also confuse for his older captain, their RWC wing and at the Olympics as well Meli Derenalagi - Block buster 8 for the Drua Please add a reply if you know better about any of these players (and there wereabouts if not playing)

6 Go to comments
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