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The most impressive rookie and the player who has exceeded expectations in Super Rugby Pacific

By RugbyPass
(Photos by Mark Kolbe/Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

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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.

Which player has exceeded your pre-season expectations the most?

AM: Pita Gus Sowakula and Julian Savea are the two players who have performed better than I imagined they would have in pre-season. In Sowakula, the Chiefs have a powerful No 8 with a touch of finesse about him, while Julian Savea looks like his old blockbusting self for the Hurricanes while also showing a more well-rounded game with classy distribution and kicking skills. Both players are certainly well in the hunt for All Blacks selection this year.

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JK: I’m going to say Ardie Savea and before you start screwing your face up I need you to hear me out. I am fully aware that Savea was world class before this season, however, I did not think that before round one I could be any more impressed with his output. Boy, was I wrong. Can you imagine how frustrating it must be for him to work as hard as he does for 80 minutes every week and have to front the camera after losing more times than not?

NT: Jed Hollaway of the NSW Waratahs. He had a break-out season in 2016 and Wallaby colours appeared to be within his grasp but he was cruelly robbed by a shoulder injury that ruled him out of contention. Since then, he has been a mainstay for the Tahs but was never really in the frame for national honours. However, with stints abroad in Ireland and Japan he has hit the 2022 season reinvigorated and been a real leader in the Waratahs revival. Unexpected but it is wonderful to see him playing to his potential. Could be a real utility weapon for the Wallabies.

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BS: Pita Gus Sowakula has been the player to exceed expectations the most. He has burst into the discussion for international considerations with dynamic ball carrying. The other is Mitch Hunt, who has been orchestrating the Highlanders’ attack very efficiently, laying on tries in nearly every game. The lack of results has hidden how well he has taken to Super Rugby Pacific this year. Julian Savea could be in that discussion as well as many would not have had high expectations for the former All Black. There are other emerging players who have put together impressive showings: Sam Gilbert, Bailyn Sullivan, Cortez Ratima, Leicester Fainga’anuku and, in the last two weeks, Etene Nanai-Seturo.

JO: Will Harris has been exceptional at the Waratahs. He has locked down the No 8 starting spot and has not shied away from hard carries and tough defence. He has bagged more than his fair share of tries too.

TV: Blues halfback Finlay Christie was a deserving selection in the All Blacks last year after some snappy form throughout the season, but he really struggled to impose himself for the national side. Against Italy, in the only slightly competitive match where he was given a decent run of minutes, Christie was one of the major factors in the All Blacks’ slow start with his passes inaccurate at the best of the times and forcing many a player to check their run. This year, however, Christie has looked as sharp as a tack and been a major factor in their strong form to date. There’s be no case of second season syndrome for the young halfback and it’s going to be a very interesting time come selection for the All Blacks’ July series when one of Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Brad Weber and Christie will inevitably miss the cut.

Which rookie has impressed you the most this season? How has your rookie to watch from the pre-season roundtable performed this year?

AM: Few rookies have truly starred in Super Rugby Pacific this year, but the one who has impressed the most would probably be Waratahs flanker Charlie Gamble. The best way to reflect his impact for the Waratahs is the fact that he didn’t lose his place in their starting lineup despite the return of Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper, who is a direct competitor with Gamble at openside flanker. On this side of the Tasman, Hurricanes duo Aidan Morgan and Josh Moorby have both caught the eye for the Wellingtonians, while ex-NRL star Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has done the same with limited game time for the Blues. My pre-season pick was Blues loose forward Anton Segner, who, as predicted, has also stood out in the few games he has played in.

JK: I went with Thomas Umaga-Jensen in the preseason (I know, I know, he’s not a rookie) and am pleased with myself with that forecast considering how well he’s played when healthy. Outside of the midfielder though, I’d point to Cortez Ratima as someone who has made the most of the chances afforded to him.

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NT: Charlie Gamble of the NSW Waratahs has been exceptional. His rise to professional rugby hasn’t taken the traditional path. A native of Christchurch, it is understood he was on the radar of the Crusaders but a move to Sydney followed by a park rugby stint isn’t exactly the journey most take on their journey to professional rugby. In Michael Hooper’s absence, he provided the Waratahs with some steel at the breakdown. A future Wallaby perhaps? The rookie I picked earlier in the season was Tom Lynagh who is yet to appear, but rest assured he is a coiled spring!

BS: My pre-season pick from the Hurricanes, Aidan Morgan, has had two promising games against Moana Pasifika and scored the match-winning try against the Highlanders off the bench. He has proven he deserves more game time in the 10 jersey for the Hurricanes, offering more spark in attack than Jackson Garden-Bachop. My picks from the Blues, Anton Segner and Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens have also impressed in their first few games at the Blues. At the Crusaders, Chay Fihaki and Isaiah Punivai haven’t got much of a look, neither has Gideon Wrampling at the Chiefs.

JO: Tane Edmed has emerged from nowhere to run the cutter at the Waratahs in the absence of Ben Donaldson and Will Harrison. His calm demeanour and silky ball-handling skills has attracted the attention of rival clubs and the Tahs will have a fight on their hands to keep all three young playmakers in Sydney. Unfortunately, Carter Gordon hasn’t been afforded the same opportunities at the Rebels, stuck behind Matt Toomua in the chief playmakers role. Every time he comes off the bench you can see the potential, but needs to fight for a starting spot.

TV: Tyrone Thompson has been strong for the Chiefs when given opportunities off the bench, but it’s another man in the Waikato who has made the most of his chances. Halfback Cortez Ratima began the season as the third-choice No 9 with the Chiefs behind Brad Weber and Xavier Roe, but thanks to injury and illness, he has been racking up the minutes. It would not be a surprise to see Ratima hold onto his reserve jersey later in the season, even with Roe back on deck and a starting spot won’t be too far out of reach either. My other two picks for rookie of the season, Pasilio Tosi and Tom Lynagh, have had few opportunities this year.

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