Super Rugby Aotearoa reached an anti-climactic conclusion last weekend with the cancellation of the final match between the Blues and Crusaders.
While the New Zealand public didn’t get the finish it probably deserved, RugbyPass contributors Mike Rehu, Nick Turnbull and Finn Morton picked out the best from the past 10 weeks.
Most Valuable Player
Mike Rehu: Ash Dixon (Highlanders)
I think Richie Mo’unga and Aaron Smith would vie for the best player award but in terms of value to team Ash Dixon dragged his team to heights that quite frankly should have been beyond them.
Stripped of their experienced core from 2019, the hooker led the no-name Highlanders pack to be a solid provider of ball, especially from the line out.
In the last two rounds his pin-point accurate long throw ins to Nareki and McKay were superb and he scored four tries himself from line out mauls.
Dixon kept All Black Liam Coltman on the subs bench and he has real mana as a leader; he’s the water to Aaron Smith’s fire.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 16, 2020
Nick Turnbull: Codie Taylor (Crusaders)
While one can point to building bricks such as Richie Mo’unga, Will Jordan or even Scott Robertson as those that defended the Crusaders Castle in 2020, the mortar that held those bricks together in the heat of battle was their skipper Codie Taylor.
Whenever the Crusaders appeared in trouble, Taylor had a knack of showing up at the right time and, more significantly, taking the right option. If there were hard yards to be taken, he was there. If a turnover was required, or the opposition ruck ball needed to be slowed down, he was there. If a cleanout was needed, he was there.
Although the Crusaders lineout had its issues at times this season, that blemish was not enough to cost the them the title and nor should it be a burden that Taylor carries alone. Could the Crusaders have won the title with another skipper? Probably, but would they have won it without Taylor? I am sure the Crusaders would say yes, but I am not so sure and that is why Codie Taylor in my Super Rugby Aotearoa MVP.
Finn Morton: Richie Mo’unga (Crusaders)
I can’t imagine there’ll be too many disagreements here. Richie Mo’unga starred for the Crusaders once again in Super Rugby Aotearoa, topping the charts for points scored with 99 in seven games, defenders beaten and try assists.
If you need reminding of his class, the flyhalf constantly stood up in the big moments for his side, none more so than in the final 20 minutes in the victory over the Blues. Down by six at the time, he commanded the fightback with a clever double pump pass that led to Mitchell Drummond’s try, before sending Will Jordan over for the match-sealer 15 minutes later.
His offloading, kicking and the threat he poses with the ball-in-hand simply went up another gear this year, and it’ll be great to see Mo’unga’s status as the in-form 10 tested against Beauden Barrett in the North v South clash.
Rookie of the Year
MR: Tom Christie (Crusaders)
When you’re filling the boots of legend Matt Todd, there must be pressure, but to the manor born Tom Christie plugged in to the Crusader’s No. 7 jersey and made every post a winner.
A technically adept player, his tackling technique and positioning at the breakdown are very impressive.
And perhaps like Todd, with the log-jam of open sides vying for the All Blacks No. 7 jersey, the Crusaders may get get full value out of him for many Super seasons before he is required to be ‘managed’; just like Todd’s career. Caleb Clarke a close second.
NT: Kurt Eklund (Blues)
It is not often a 28-year-old gets nominated for Rookie of the Year, but I thought Kurt Eklund really showed some old-fashioned grit and mongrel in his debut Super Rugby season.
With no disrespect to James Parsons, for me the Bay of Plenty hooker brought a real abrasive edge to the Blues pack in 2020 and they probably didn’t realise they may have been lacking that until he took to the park.
"Should I boof it?" – @BluesRugbyTeam hooker Kurt Eklund ???
— Super Rugby (@SuperRugbyNZ) July 26, 2020
Eklund has had an interesting journey to Super Rugby and faced his challenges off the field, so perhaps the respect for the opportunity to play at this level was not lost on him given his life experiences? He left nothing out on the park and what more could you want from any player?
FM: Mark Telea (Blues)
In a Blues backline filled with excitement and potential, Mark Telea was at times outshone by the likes of Caleb Clarke and Reiko Ioane, but his consistency and impact can’t be ignored.
The 23-year-old finished the season with 224 metres run from seven games, all of which he started. His round-high was 63 metres against the Crusaders in Christchurch, where he also beat three defenders and had two line breaks.
His elusiveness and general threat with the ball has seen Telea picked by the All Blacks selectors for the North squad on the back of his rookie campaign.
Most Improved Player
MR: Hoskins Sotutu (Blues)
The young tyro moved from bench cameos in 2019 to a full starting role at the Blues, usurping Akira Ioane.
He was instrumental in the Northerner’s early success in Super Rugby Aotearoa and it was no coincidence the Blue’s challenge faltered after his injury. Steel-edged in contact but with soft as melted butter hands, he’ll have the All Black selectors salivating.
There’s no way they’ll hold off choosing him as soon as possible to keep the wolves Vern Cotter and Eddie Jones at bay, as he’s qualified to play for Fiji and England as well.
NT: James Blackwell (Hurricanes)
The 25-year-old has been on the Hurricanes scene since 2017 and for mine, he was a very good footballer who could do ‘a bit’, but I wasn’t sure of what his point of difference was as a player.
Yet in 2020, I just could not get enough of watching him go about his rugby. Blackwell was the backbone of that Hurricanes pack with his relentless work ethic.
Time and time again he carried into opposition defences coming off big line speed, but more often than not Blackwell would find a way to either ensure quality recycle and front foot ball for his side to use.
James Blackwell 2020 version is the type of player every coach looks for. Everybody wants to play with, and not against. He would not look out of place in an All Black training squad this year.
FM: Peter Umaga-Jensen (Hurricanes)
Super Rugby Aotearoa brought out the best in a number of players, many of whom improved drastically. Lachlan Boshier, Caleb Clarke, even Jordie Barrett, all took their games up a level in the 10-week competition, but here’s why Umaga-Jensen tops the list.
The Hurricanes centre went from playing just one game in 2020 pre-Covid, off the bench against the Sunwolves, to having pundits and fans alike murmuring about his potential All Blacks selection in the not too distant future.
In the last three rounds in particular, Umaga-Jensen was a standout, crossing for four tries including one in a man-of-the-match performance against the Crusaders in Christchurch, going from overlooked at Super level to a genuine All Blacks bolter in a month.
Coach of the Year
MR: Leon McDonald (Blues)
Of course Scott Robertson is a great coach and in my opinion should be the All Blacks coach. Perhaps that’s the real reason why he didn’t break dance this year, to be a little more ‘presidential’.
So my Super gong goes to Leon McDonald. When you think it’s only his second year at the Blues, it’s amazing how quickly he’s turned around the squad to be a successful winning machine.
He’s fixed issues in weak positions but more importantly you can see the existing players know what they have to do as individuals to help the team. Also hats off to Tom Coventry, the Blues pack is powerful and accurate around the park.
NT: Jason Ryan (Crusaders assistant coach)
Scott Robertson knows how to pick them. Despite losing All Black forward Scott Barrett earlier in the year, and back rowers Cullen Grace and Ethan Blackadder during the season, Crusaders forwards coach Jason Ryan has produced a forward pack that delivered.
If there were a way to nullify the Crusaders, it would be starve the likes of Richie Mo’unga, Jack Goodhue and Will Jordan of possession by dominating the gain line and set piece, yet their forwards didn’t allow that to happen and Jason Ryan deserves credit for that.
FM: Scott Robertson (Crusaders)
Any of Leon MacDonald, Jason Holland and Scott Robertson could justifiably have been presented with this accolade, but it’s the Crusaders coach who deserves the nod the most.
The Crusaders have always had a very All Black-esque culture of never panicking and performing under pressure – take their final match of the season against the Highlanders in Christchurch as an example.
There’s complete faith in every player within the squad and I don’t think the same can be said about other sides – at least not to the same standard – and their management is a large reason as to why that is.
Razor brings success with him everywhere he goes as a coach, so how much longer will he want to stay in New Zealand after being overlooked for the top job with the All Blacks?
Match of the Year
MR: Crusaders 26-15 Blues (Round Five)
I’m pretty sure my favourite game would have been the match the Blues and Crusaders were to play last weekend, in beautiful sunshine.
The game on the freezing night in July decided the competition and the Blues laid down a brutal challenge in unfamiliar, frigid conditions.
They kept the champions try-less for over an hour and had dominance up front. Then Richie Mo’unga took the game by the scruff of the neck and the Crusaders proved yet once more why they are the ‘winningest’ franchise.
NT: Chiefs 31-33 Highlanders (Round Six)
I accept that the matches between Blues and the Crusaders were the most anticipated. Perhaps the intensity of the Crusaders and Highlanders matches were greater? And it didn’t matter who you were going for, the Hurricanes’ defeat of the Crusaders was a special match given the Canes needed the win and the Crusaders simply don’t lose at home.
But any match where the visiting side can come back from a 24-7 deficit at half time, to pinch the most unlikely of victories after the 80-minute mark when not once leading the match is remarkable and one that will live in Highlanders folklore for years to come.
Not even Clint Eastwood could have directed this one any better. It was raw, it was authentic and it was breathtaking in its drama.
FM: Crusaders 32-34 Hurricanes (Round Seven)
This competition saw classic after classic every week; rugby played how it should be. Every match was a spectacle, but one game in particular will go down in history as one of the decade’s best.
The Hurricanes travelled to Christchurch to take on the then undefeated Crusaders at Orangetheory Stadium, a place no team had beaten the home side at in 36 attempts, spanning back to 2016.
The match had everything; drama, spectacular tries, and costly errors. There were five lead changes throughout the first 40, and no team led by more than seven until Peter Umaga-Jensen crossed for a try with 20 minutes to play.
Despite a late fight back that included a Richie Mo’unga missed conversion with a few minutes to go which would’ve given his side the lead, the men from the capital held on for a famous win. Truly an all-time classic.
Try of the Year
MR: Ngani Laumape (Hurricanes v Blues, Round Six)
When Laumape is on, he’s irresistible. Somebody apparently disrespected his name before the game against the Blues and he played angry.
In the fourth minute he got a looping skied pass out on the left wing 46 metres out. Beauden Barrett showed him the outside, completely assured that he could cover the human Humvee but Barrett was left eating turf as Ngani showed he had fitted a turbo-charger.
Seconds later poor Otere Black had got himself into a position as cover defence but basically he was like roadkill on the roo bars of his Manawatu team mate for the last 5 metres. Great individual try.
NT: Sevu Reece (Crusaders v Hurricanes, Round Two)
The skill level displayed in this try epitomises everything that is Crusaders and New Zealand rugby. For context, the Crusaders had a bye in round one and the question could be asked, are the Crusaders of 2020 as good as their predecessors?
Well, the Sevu Reece try in the opening moments answered that question. It was simply brilliant! Off a Hurricanes lineout error the Crusaders gathered the ball and stretched the Hurricanes right, then when coming back through the centre of the park, a short ball to a storming Joe Moody woke the dead. Who doesn’t like seeing a prop forward on the hoof?
What made it better is that the play didn’t die with Joe. The ball went wider, Reece passed back inside to the plethora of support before receiving it back to finish it all off. It was a complete team try.
FM: Vince Aso (Hurricanes vs Highlanders, Round 10)
In the last match of Super Rugby Aotearoa 2020, Vince Aso crossed for an incredible team try that capped off a great season of running, fun rugby that saw the Hurricanes counter a Jack Whetton knock on, running in from 70 metres.
After receiving the ball form his locking partner in James Blackwell, Scott Scrafton threw an ambitious cut-out, bounce pass to Jordie Barrett, who broke down the left edge.
He linked up with Jamie Booth who ran for close to 30 metres on his own, before passing it onto Garden-Bachop and then Savea. The number eight popped it over to Aso, who was on the right side.
The ball touched seven pairs of hands on its way to the chalk, with nearly half the team linking up for a moment of pure brilliance.
Pick to win Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021 (should it remain unchanged for next year)
Unless Covid conspires in keeping Beauden Barrett at the Blues in 2021, it’s hard to go past the Crusaders for five in a row.
The pack, especially the loose forwards haven’t been gold standard this year but when you think that Scott Barrett and Cullen Grace will be back, Tom Christie will mature and that will put far less pressure on Whetuamokamo Douglas, things are looking bright.
The backline has an excellent, balanced look about it and front row stocks are good.
I still can’t go past the Crusaders. Where is the weakness?
Many have tried, but many have failed in successfully getting the best out of the Blues. Leon MacDonald did a fantastic job in 2020 by managing to do just this, making sure that Otere Black was comfortable alongside Beauden Barrett, as well as helping the exciting backline take a step towards their potential.
After an impressive Super Rugby campaign before coronavirus suspended the season, the men from Auckland truly tested themselves in the New Zealand only competition, by playing only derbies that they’d often struggled in over the last few years.
But the Blues were brilliant, getting their Aotearoa season off to a great start against the Hurricanes at Eden Park. Their status, and consistency and threat grew by leaps and bounds this year, and the sky is the limit if they can continue to grow into 2021.
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