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Super Rugby Pacific: McKenzie the MVP, Chiefs still title favourites

By Ben Smith
(Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images and Albert Perez/Getty Images)

The RugbyPass Round Table writers review the 2024 Super Rugby Pacific season at the half-way point in the competition after seven rounds. Ben Smith (BS), Finn Morton (FM) and Ned Lester (NL) weigh in and review their initial predictions against what has unfolded so far. 

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Have you changed your mind about which team will win Super Rugby Pacific from your pre-season roundtable pick? 

Finn Morton (FM): The Collingwood Magpies, Brisbane Lions, Brisbane Broncos and Crusaders all share something in common with the Chiefs. Whether you’re a rugby fanatic or a supporter of multiple code, it doesn’t matter right now. Chances are you’ve heard the phrase ‘Grand Final hangover.’

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Last year’s AFL runners up, the Lions, sit 13th on their ladder with just one win from four starts. Reigning premiers Collingwood aren’t much better off in 11th with a 2-3 record, and the Brisbane Broncos have that same 40 per cent win percentage so far in the NRL.

Now, it would be ridiculous to simply group the Chiefs in with those temporarily fallen giants. Last season’s runners up have won five of their seven matches this season, but their status as competition favourites has been taken away and given to a Kiwi rival.

Before the season started, this writer predicted the Chiefs to “separate” themselves “from the rest of the pack” in 2024. But after seven rounds, the Chiefs aren’t even one of the top two sides in New Zealand, let alone the favourites to win it all.

The Hurricanes have been sensational this season – there’s just no other way to look at it. Their forward pack has developed into a strength, and their backs have continued to showcasing attacking flair that has left fans from all over the Pacific gobsmacked.

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Yes, they’ve lost Cam Roigard for the season, and that’s a big blow. But 80-Test All Black TJ Perenara is the next man up in the No. 9 jersey. The Canes are going to be just fine.

With six wins from as many games, which includes some statement wins over the Reds, Blues, Crusaders and Highlanders, the Hurricanes are clearly the odds-on favourite to deliver what would be the second Super Rugby title-ever to the nation’s capital.

At the time of writing, the Blues are first on the ladder – having played one more game than the Canes. The Blues are building something really special and will go far this season, but again, the Canes look like the real deal at the moment.

Ben Smith (BS): My pre-season pick was the Chiefs who are sitting fourth with a 5-2 record. Off the back of a 68-12 smashing of Moana Pasifika, they still look strong enough to challenge for the title this year.

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The key is clearly the health of Damian McKenzie. When he is fit, the Chiefs fire and it doesn’t seem to matter who is in the backline. When he is off the pitch they are a different side and struggle to control the gain line.

Down the stretch I’d like to see a Cortez Ratima-Damian McKenzie halves combination which will surely ignite the most dangerous outside backs in the competition. With Emoni Narawa, Shaun Stevenson and Etene Nanai-Seturo, the Chiefs will destroy teams on counter-attack.

Despite losses to the Crusaders and Queensland Reds, the Chiefs clash with the undefeated Hurricanes will be indicative of their title chances.

Head-to-Head

Last 5 Meetings

Wins
1
Draws
0
Wins
4
Average Points scored
24
27
First try wins
60%
Home team wins
60%

Ned Lester (NL): Initial pick: Chiefs. As well as the Hurricanes have been playing, there’s one thing the Chiefs have that the Wellingtonians don’t, and that’s last year’s final loss.

The initial prediction of the Chiefs winning it all was made due to their poignant combination of confidence from a nearly unbeaten 2023 campaign and hurt from falling short of the ultimate prize. The power of those factors remains and will be especially present come knockout time.

The Hurricanes have proven to be the Chiefs’ closest competition but the Waikato club should still be considered favourites because they’re familiar with the big dance and have again proven despite their losses in personnel – namely Sam Cane, Brodie Retallick and Alex Nankerville – they still have plenty of depth, producing a killer bench unit that can be deployed at any time and close games out strongly.

Team Form

Last 5 Games

3
Wins
4
1
Streak
4
23
Tries Scored
26
48
Points Difference
91
3/5
First Try
2/5
3/5
First Points
3/5
3/5
Race To 10 Points
3/5

Who will end the season as Super Rugby Pacific MVP? Has this changed from your pre-season prediction?

FM: With the halfway point of the season approaching, three men had shot out ahead of the rest in the race for MVP honours. Cam Roigard was leading the way but a devastating injury has ruled the Hurricanes halfback out of individual glory.

Chiefs flyhalf Damian McKenzie and Reds flanker Fraser McReight are the two left standing. While some quality players are not too far behind them, there’s still a clear divide between the world-class pair and the rest of the pack.

This writer predicted that Damian McKenzie would be the competition’s best player before the season started, and there’s been no reason to change that so far. Wearing the No. 10 jersey, McKenzie almost certainly secured his place in the All Blacks’ First XV under Scott Robertson.

McKenzie is X-Factor. The New Zealander can do thing in broken play that others could only dream of doing. There have been a number of instances this season where the All Black has laid the foundations for a stunning try after returning a clearance kick.

The Chiefs playmaker has also been solid off the boot. McKenzie had the chance to break Stephen Donald’s goal-kicking record last weekend against Moana Pasifika, and even though he missed, it’s still an unbelievable achievement to equal the feat.

When McKenzie was surprisingly handed a rest for the Chiefs’ clash with the Crusaders in Christchurch, it seemed like an interesting call – and it didn’t end well. The Crusaders claimed a famous win which saw the Chiefs fall to 5-2 for the season.

The Chiefs aren’t the same side without Damian McKenzie and that speaks volumes about how important, talented and replacement he is. That’s what it means to be the MVP.

Wallaby Fraser McReight deserves an honourable mentioned after a stunning start to the season, which included a series of try assists against the Rebels in Melbourne. Not bad for an openside flanker.

BS: At the halfway stage the favourite MVP candidates look like Fraser McReight of the Reds, Damian McKenzie of the Chiefs, Ruben Love of the Hurricanes and Hoskins Sotutu of the Blues. Those four players have been sensational.

McReight at the Reds has been in career-form with multiple turnovers every single week, most importantly in clutch situations as well. He has shown brilliant support play for an openside, bagging tries and setting them up. Against the Rebels in round three he had four try assists. Despite the Reds sitting 6th on the ladder, McReight has been a machine.

The surprise star of the competition has to be Hurricanes fullback Ruben Love. The talented ball-playing No 15 has propelled himself into the All Blacks conversation with his play at the back. It’s not just the finishing touches, it’s the rock solid last-man defence. Love is the best backfield defender in the comp, closing down on the final man with pinpoint precession.

Hoskins Sotutu has propelled the Blues pack and their power game of forward-heavy play, and McKenzie is the captain of the Chiefs’ ship as explained above.

My original pick was Shaun Stevenson who has been quieter this season, but still performing at a high level. He has produced the odd flash of greatness but due to positional changes and rest weeks, Stevenson hasn’t been able to build a valid MVP case.

McKenzie is the favourite to be crowned the unofficial MVP of Super Rugby Pacific.

NL: Initial pick: Cam Roigard. The Hurricanes halfback’s case for MVP selection was already compelling before his devastating, season-ending patella injury.

The 22-year-old was arguably the best player on the winningest team in the competition, a traditional recipe for MVP honours. Sadly, now his chances have ended along with his season.

Damian McKenzie’s influence on the Chiefs’ results was exposed in the team’s loss against the Crusaders in round six, proving his value to the team is immense.

McKenzie leads the competition in points and features near the top in a number of other statistical categories.

Another winning run by the Reds though might put Fraser McReight in the conversation.

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