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The most hotly contested jerseys in Super Rugby Pacific 2024

By Ned Lester
Ardie Savea of the Hurricanes looks on during the round seven Super Rugby Pacific match between Highlanders and Hurricanes at Forsyth Barr Stadium, on April 08, 2023, in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

The Super Rugby drought is nearing its end as new beginnings beckon. Some burgeoning talents find themselves within reach of that coveted jersey that the heroes in their posters once donned, but they are not the only ones gunning for them.

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With headline departures and new chapters spelling change for all Super clubs to varying extents, the new year has brought the promise of new possibilities.

For some clubs, the landscape change is dramatic; a generational coach, iconic playmaker and the unrivalled experience of Sir Whitelock vacates the reigning champions, while the tournament’s most southern team has rebuilt half its roster.

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Five new head coaches enter the fray with philosophies to implement and values to instil, eager to see which players will best uphold them.

Competition for spots will only elevate the performance of those vying for game time. So, here are the five most competitive positions to lock down in Super Rugby Pacific 2024, along with a prediction of which players will claim them by the season’s end.

Crusaders midfield

How many All Blacks does it take to build a Crusaders midfield? Four, apparently. And that’s excluding Levi Aumua and after the departure of the France-bound Jack Goodhue. Granted, the 35-year-old Ryan Crotty can be expected to take a limited role when it comes to playing time, but the backlog still poses quite the conundrum for Rob Penney.

David Havili and Braydon Ennor own the most tried and tested combination of the herd, but there’s no denying the promising form of Dallas McLeod and the recent Moana Pasifika transfer Aumua. With a number of talented outside backs in fine health and Rob Penney’s stated preference of selecting his players in their true positions, it may well come down to a good old shootout for the 12 and 13 jerseys.

Prediction: David Havili and Levi Aumua to start.

Reds No.10

James O’Connor struggled to find his best position with the Reds in 2023, bouncing around the backline and looking a bit lost in the process. The former Wallabies star could benefit from some consistency in 2024 but only time will tell what Les Kiss has in store for him.

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It was Lawson Creighton who started in the 10 jersey when the Reds faced off with the then-unbeaten Chiefs in round 12 of SRP 2023, and the youngster’s kicking game was the first to unlock the Chiefs’ defence in the competition, instrumental in toppling the eventual runners up. The triple-kicking threat of Creighton at 10, O’Connor at 12 and Jock Campbell at fullback made for a handsome threat but it was Tom Lynagh who was handed the keys in the quarter-final rematch.

Lynagh’s potential will be hard to resist, but recent Australia U20 product Harry McLaughlin-Phillips looks ahead of schedule in his development and was handed the start in the Reds’ preseason fixture against Japan’s Panasonic Wild Knights.

Prediction: Tom Lynagh to start.

Hurricanes No.8

There’s no challenge quite like the challenge of replacing the reigning World Player of the Year. Ardie Savea’s absence for the Hurricanes will be monumental but there are a pair of youngsters ready to step up.

Brayden Iose and Peter Lakai, at just 25 and 21 respectively, hold game-breaking potential for the Wellington club. The question will be how ready is the young Lakai for regular minutes at the Super Rugby level? The recent New Zealand U20 co-captain has been heralded as the next big thing since his barnstorming debut NPC season in 2022, quickly becoming widely regarded as one of, if not the most dominant loose forward in the provincial competition en route to winning the title.

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Iose has experience on his side but both men have, naturally, seen limited game time given that their captain, Savea, shares their position. New Hurricanes coach Clark Laidlaw may well base his decision on which player he wants to invest the playing time on offer in, given Savea will return to the squad in 2025.

Prediction: Peter Lakai to start.

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Crusaders props

Pick your poison: George Bower, Joe Moody, Tamaiti Williams, or Fletcher Newell. Whatever way you shake it, the Crusaders have as many All Black front rowers raring to go as the rest of their competition combined. Bower and Moody boast the better experience of the quartet, but both missed the Rugby World Cup due to lack of playing time through injury.

Perhaps, they can both return to their world-class best, but can they claim starting honours ahead of two of the world’s best young props? The meteoric rise of Tamaiti Williams was on full display in 2023, the All Blacks’ heaviest-ever player was dynamic yet solid as a rock, taking to the international game like a duck to water after a shaky sophomore outing in the second Bledisloe.

Newell’s promise as a scrummager remains top-tier and after successive injuries ruled him out of the entire SRP 2023 and the beginning of the All Blacks season, the 23-year-old will be relishing the chance to find consistent game time in 2024.

Prediction: Tamaiti Williams and Fletcher Newell to start.

The entire Highlanders backline

Outside of Folau Fakatava starting at halfback, there are no promises in the Highlanders backline. The injury to Thomas Umaga-Jensen throws the midfield selections up in the air and the outside back stocks offer coach Clark Dermody the opposite problem, with seven players capable of filling the three jerseys.

Newcomers Timoci Tavatavanawai and Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens have each shown damaging form in their respective NPC campaigns and have proven they have what it takes to inject that X-factor at the next level. The pair come in to add competition to an outside back roster that already includes Jona Nareki, Jonah Lowe, Matín Bogado, Sam Gilbert and Connor Garden-Bachop.

At first five-eighth, two youngsters in Ajay Faleafaga and Cameron Millar will take mentorship from former Wales international Rhys Patchel, while Sam Gilbert showed promise as a playmaker in his stretch at 10 in 2023.

Building for the future, expect the youngsters to get time off the bench as Dermody and the returning Jamie Joseph give plenty of opportunity to their young talent to earn more minutes.

Prediction: 10: Rhys Patchel, 11: Jona Nareki, 12: Sam Gilbert, 13: Josh Timu, 14 Timoci Tavatavanawai, 15: Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens.

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