Super Rugby Pacific's MVP and the uncapped players pushing for the All Blacks and Wallabies
At the halfway stage of Super Rugby Pacific, the RugbyPass roundtable writers from New Zealand and Australia – Alex McLeod (AM), Jordan King (JK), Nick Turnbull (NT), Ben Smith (BS), Jack O’Rourke (JO) and Tom Vinicombe (TV) – review their pre-season predictions and deliver their verdicts for the remainder of the season.
Who will end the season as Super Rugby Pacific MVP? Has this changed from your pre-season roundtable pick?
AM: Pita Gus Sowakula or Hurricanes captain Ardie Savea are two frontrunners for that accolade on the basis of their efforts in the first half of the season, but it may well be that Beauden Barrett will end the season with the MVP title. He hasn’t played enough to claim that prize just yet, but his influence for the Blues in the few games he has featured in has been immense. You just need to look at his performances against the Chiefs and Crusaders over the last fortnight, as well as his display against the Highlanders before he sustained a concussion, to see how important he is to this Blues side. If they do end up winning Super Rugby Pacific, Barrett will be at the forefront of their success. Funnily enough, that’s in stark contrast to my pre-season pick for MVP, which was Crusaders star and Barrett’s chief All Blacks rival Richie Mo’unga.
JK: As mentioned above, Savea’s form and track record of consistency should see him win the award, but he won’t as a consequence of playing in a losing side. I tipped Richie Mo’unga to claim the MVP gong, even with missing the first couple of weeks, and it’s fair to say that boat has probably sailed. If I had to change my answer with all that I know now, it’d be between Tom Christie and Dalton Papalii. The latter would have a slight edge with being the alpha in his clubhouse, although it’d be silly not to recognise how influential the Crusaders openside has been for them up until the point at which I’m typing this.
NT: I think Tom Christie of the Crusaders has been superb this season and will get the chocolates. His efforts in defence and around the ball have been exceptional in the opening stages of the season. Hard often unseen graft but absolutely invaluable work. As the old wisdom goes, titles are won on the back of defence and Christie brings that like no other. My choice has changed from a three-way split between Michael Hooper, Ardie Savea and Sam Cane. But at least I’ve stayed consistent with an open side flanker.
BS: My pre-season pick was Beauden Barrett, who probably hasn’t played enough games to put together the bones of an MVP season. His games against the Chiefs and Crusaders in which the Blues won both adds a lot of weight. If he can continue this down the stretch and into the playoffs he can still put forward a worthy case. I’ll stick with my pick.
JO: I had Tongan Thor tipped as a potential MVP but the form of Ardie Savea has been undeniable so far. He has been a big part of the reason the Hurricanes are sitting where they are now. Nothing short of inspirational for the Canes skipper.
TV: Rieko Ioane still hasn’t quite hit his straps for the Blues and will no doubt go on to play a big role in the latter half of the year, but it might be Stephen Perofeta who will be able to put his hand up at the end of the year as the key cog in the Blues’ success. When you consider how influential Perofeta was for the Blues in the early rounds against New Zealand opposition, it’s those successes that have paved the way for the Blues to make a genuine run at a genuine title for the first time since 2003. With Beauden Barrett back on deck, Perofeta’s usefulness might fade, but that won’t diminish the impact he’s already had on their season so far.
Which uncapped player will be picked for the All Blacks or Wallabies after this season? Has this changed from your pre-season roundtable pick?
AM: Of those I selected in my All Blacks squad based on the first half of Super Rugby Pacific, I included three uncapped players – Pita Gus Sowakula, ex-Wallabies prop Jermaine Ainsley and Crusaders starlet Leicester Fainga’anuku. All three players warrant due consideration from Ian Foster, and it will be interesting to see if any of them make the cut. As for the Wallabies, Nick Frost was one of numerous newbies named in Dave Rennie’s 40-man squad last month, and given Australia’s lack of depth in the second row, it wouldn’t surprise to see him earn his first test cap this year. These picks differ from my pre-season selections, which were comprised of Folau Fakatava and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck for the All Blacks, as well as Suliasi Vunivalu, Pone Fa’amausili and Rahboni Warren-Vosayaco for the Wallabies.
JK: Folau Fakatava was the guy I’d put down initially, and I still think he’s in with a shout, but the position which will have the biggest shake up is looking like it’ll be the front row. So, I’d be buying some Ollie Norris stock in the hope his efforts and potential are rewarded by the national selectors for when the Irish visit in July.
NT: Nick Frost. He was my pre-season pick and he has since been selected in the 40-man Wallabies squad. It’s reported that he has signed a contract with a Japanese club, however it is understood he may now be looking to get out of that contract. The former Crusaders academy player has a serious amount of speed for a big man and that could give the Wallabies an edge. Who doesn’t love a big man who can motor?
BS: The bolter for the All Blacks should be Leicester Fainga’anuku after dynamic form on both the left wing and at centre. Another one out of left field could be Cortez Ratima. The All Blacks halfback stocks are aging and there needs to be some more youth in the position group. Aaron Smith will be 35 years old next year, TJ Perenara will be 31, Finlay Christie will be 28. Folau Fakatava won’t be capped unless dispensation is granted under the new residency eligibility laws. Ratima has been impressive and has the youthful zip the others don’t. He is worth blooding to see what he can do at the next level.
JO: Suliasi Vunivalu has returned from injury to take his place on the wing for the Queensland Reds and he is an excitement machine. If he can stay fit, we could see him in Wallabies colours for the July test series against England. A bolter that has emerged during the season is his fellow Queensland teammate Jock Campbell. The Wallabies are still searching for a long-term option at fullback and Campbell was included the Wallabies first squad earlier in the year.
TV: Leicester Fainga’anuku still looks destined for the big leagues and while he’s perhaps not been quite as impressive this year and in 2021, he’s still been one of the top players in the competition, whether in the centres or on the wing. Zarn Sullivan, meanwhile, might still be a couple of seasons away from wearing the silver fern. The other big mover in NZ is tighthead prop Fletcher Newell, who could help breathe some fresh air in the All Blacks’ front row stocks.
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