The opening round of Super Rugby Aotearoa marked the return of professional rugby following a three-month hiatus, and the two matches in New Zealand didn’t disappoint.
A boisterous crowd at Forsyth Barr Stadium cheered the Highlanders on to a dramatic 28-27 victory over the Chiefs thanks to a 79th-minute drop goal from Bryn Gatland against his dad Warren’s side.
Beauden Barrett, meanwhile, made his debut for the Blues as the Auckland franchise outclassed his former franchise, the Hurricanes, in a 30-20 win in front of a sold-out Eden Park.
While Gatland and Barrett stood out as two of the key talking points both before and after their respective fixtures, there were plenty of other individuals who shone as rugby made a welcomed and highly-anticipated comeback in New Zealand.
Of those individuals, here are five of the best who churned out some of the best performances over the weekend.
Caleb Clarke (Blues)
The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics until next year proved to be a blessing for the Blues, who benefitted hugely from acquiring the services of Caleb Clarke following his return from the All Blacks Sevens squad.
Fielding the No. 11 jersey, the sizeable 21-year-old made an almost immediate impact in his first outing for the club this year, finishing off a scintillating Rieko Ioane break by busting two tackle attempts following a defensive mistake by Vince Aso.
Clarke’s pace and power was devastating when he had ball in hand, as he ended the round as the competition’s leading metre-eater having run the ball for an astounding 105 metres.
Add to that a total of five defenders beaten, two clean breaks, two turnovers won and a 100 percent tackling success rate, it’s clear to see the youngster had a faultless display, and he beckons as a significant offensive threat in the coming weeks.
Marino Mikaele-Tu’u (Highlanders)
Few players caught the attention of the masses in the first weekend of Super Rugby Aotearoa like Highlanders No. 8 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u did against the Chiefs.
Viewed as the franchise’s long-term replacement for recently-departed All Blacks loose forward Luke Whitelock, Mikaele-Tu’u built on the strong form he mustered in the initial Super Rugby competition with a dominant attacking display in Dunedin.
The Wellington-born, Hastings-raised powerhouse produced the equal-most running metres of any forward in the competition, carrying the ball for 51 metres from 13 carries.
Mikaele-Tu’u’s industrious performance also saw him beat five defenders, make two line breaks and secure a turnover for his side, while his work at the lineout didn’t go amiss either as he claimed two of the Highlanders’ 14 throws.
Dillon Hunt (Highlanders)
Rugby’s return on New Zealand shores have led to many hyping up the attacking talents that are set to go on show throughout the coming months, but the defensive output of Highlanders flanker Dillon Hunt can’t be overlooked.
The one-test All Black put in a mammoth shift without the ball, registering a competition-high 19 tackles from 20 attempts to sit at a spectacularly high 95 percent success rate.
Adding to Hunt’s defensive prowess are the three turnovers he won for the Highlanders, a figure that was only matched by Dalton Papalii of the Blues.
With Matt Todd’s departure to Japan’s Top League opening a space for a new No. 7 to enter the national set-up, All Blacks head coach Ian Foster will undoubtedly be eager to see how Hunt follows this effort up when the Highlanders return to action against the Blues next Saturday.
Hoskins Sotutu (Blues)
One of the standout players in the original iteration of Super Rugby earlier this year, Hoskins Sotutu has returned to action with the same impact that lifted the Blues to play-off contenders prior to the league’s suspension in March.
With no play-offs to aim for this time round, the 21-year-old played a prominent role in helping the Auckland side to the top of the Super Rugby Aotearoa standings with a stunning showing on attack.
Equalling Mikaele-Tu’u’s mark of 51 running metres with ball in hand, Sotutu’s attacking exploits were evidenced by figures that read two offloads, one defender beaten and one line break.
The youngster didn’t shy away from his defensive duties either, recording a total of 12 tackles from 14 attempts and snatching two turnovers, as well as stealing a lineout throw from the Hurricanes for good measure.
Shaun Stevenson (Chiefs)
Although he ended up on the losing side, Chiefs wing Shaun Stevenson still managed to put pressure on the Highlanders defence throughout the entirety of his side’s one-point defeat.
Posting 61 running metres to finish as the match’s second-best ball carrier behind Sean Wainui, the 23-year-old was a constant threat as he beat six defenders – the second-highest figure of the round – and broke the line four times, the most of any player over the weekend.
Stevenson’s discipline was faultless as he ended the game with no penalties conceded, while he recorded three tackles from four attempts to establish himself as a firm candidate to hold onto his place in the Chiefs’ starting lineup.
Whether or not he stays there is another question as head coach Gatland has a wealth of talent – including Wainui, Etene Nanai-Seturo and Solomon Alaimalo – at his disposal, but it’s a selection headache of the good kind as the Chiefs prepare to host the Blues in Hamilton this weekend.
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