Teenage rookie Ruben Love has been handed the unenviable task of starting his first Super Rugby match at first-five against the Crusaders in Wellington on Sunday.
The talented 19-year-old Hurricanes utility back has been named to start at No 10 as Super Rugby Aotearoa’s bottom-placed side prepares to take on the league leaders and reigning champions at Sky Stadium.
In doing so, he takes the place of Orbyn Leger, who had come into the squad as injury cover for Jackson Garden-Bachop and Simon Hickey, both of whom have been ruled out for the season with injuries.
Leger, a former Blues and Chiefs five-eighth, started in the Hurricanes’ last three matches against the Chiefs, Highlanders and Blues, but head coach Jason Holland has decided to make a change in the pivot role following last week’s 27-17 loss to the Blues.
Short on options, Holland has opted to thrust Love, who was earlier this week named in the Hurricanes U20 squad to play in this year’s Super Rugby Aoteaora U20 competition, into the hot seat in what could be a baptism of fire for the promising youngster.
Capable of playing at first-five or in the outside backs, Love made his debut off the bench in his side’s 30-19 win over the Highlanders a fortnight ago.
The five minutes of action he picked up in that fixture is the only experience he has at this level, but the youngster is now being asked to steer his side around the park against a formidable Crusaders outfit.
The Christchurch-based side will be reeling after their shock 33-12 defeat at the hands of the Highlanders last weekend, but Holland isn’t worried about this week’s opposition nor the fact that Love will have to mark star playmaker Richie Mo’unga.
Instead, Holland is banking on Love’s prodigious talent that saw him earmarked as a future star while he was dominating the schoolboy scene while at Palmerston North Boys’ High School.
Holland urged Love to be himself on his starting debut and showcase the talent that has made him one of the youngest contracted Super Rugby players in New Zealand this year.
“I just want him to be Ruben Love. I don’t want him to try and figure out how to be any other No 10. He’s got to do what he does,” Holland told reporters on Friday.
“I know he’s an absolute student of the game and would have done his homework, so all he needs to do is go out there and make decisions and have a crack at whatever he sees.”
Two Super Rugby stars believe Beauden Barrett will return to New Zealand in top form with an eye on the No 10 jersey after his stint in Japan.https://t.co/sVnkdcIhAN
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 9, 2021
Holland likened Love’s preparation to that of a seasoned Super Rugby veteran as he suggested that could be what makes the former New Zealand age-grade cricketer a potential star of the game.
“The first thing that everybody and all the other players identify is that his prep is like he’s a 15-year pro,” Holland said.
“He does all the right things during the week, but he’s got a bit of energy, he’s got a bit of an excitement factor that he could pull, he’s got pace, he’s got acceleration, step, so all those things are exciting.
“He’s an attacking player and he’ll be an attacking No 10, but he’s also got the smarts to know when to get a bit of depth and when to kick and when to pass.”
While he has been called upon to start at No 10 this weekend, Holland refused to pigeonhole Love into one position or another as his vast talent and versatility makes him a valued asset at both first-five and fullback.
“Because he’s so talented, he can fill into a lot of spots. I still like him as a No 15. I still think he’s a really good No 15 and he spent the last three or four months with us in that dual decision-maker role at No 15, so he’s just going to slot into No 10 and do the same thing.
“I don’t think he’s in any hurry to decide exactly where he needs to be, but he’s a really competent No 10 or No 15 at the moment.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) April 8, 2021
The selection of Love at No 10 is one of six changes to the starting lineup, with another eye-catching change coming in the midfield as one-test All Blacks centre Peter Umaga-Jensen returns to the run-on XV for the first time in over a month.
Elsewhere, lock Isaia Walker-Leawere and loose forward Devan Flanders are rewarded for their impressive showings off the bench last week by being named to start as they take the places of Scott Scrafton and Du’Plessis Kirifi, respectively.
Kirifi’s absence means captain Ardie Savea will move into openside flanker to allow Flanders to slot in at No 8.
Wes Goosen, meanwhile, returns to the left wing ahead of the in-form Salesi Rayasi, and loosehead prop Xavier Numia comes into the No 1 jersey to replace Fraser Armstrong.
On the bench, one-test All Blacks hooker Asafo Aumua has shaken off a shoulder injury that has kept him sidelined for a month to take his place in the reserves.
The 23-year-old hasn’t been sighted since he left the field cradling his shoulder during the Hurricanes’ round two loss to the Crusaders, but the bulldozing front rower has returned to inject some power off the pine.
He is joined in the reserves by Scrafton, Kirifi, Alex Fidow, Vaea Fifita and Billy Proctor as the new faces on the bench.
Kick-off for Sunday’s clash is scheduled for 3:35pm NZT.
Hurricanes team to play Crusaders
1. Xavier Numia
2. Dane Coles
3. Tyrel Lomax
4. James Blackwell
5. Isaia Walker-Leawere
6. Reed Prinsep
7. Ardie Savea (c)
8. Devan Flanders
9. Luke Campbell
10. Ruben Love
11. Wes Goosen
12. Ngani Laumape
13. Peter Umaga-Jensen
14. Julian Savea
15. Jordie Barrett
16. Asafo Aumua
17. Tevita Mafileo
18. Alex Fidow
19. Scott Scrafton
20. Vaea Fifita
21. Du’Plessis Kirifi
22. Jonathan Taumateine
23. Billy Proctor
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