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The six key questions from the Super Rugby Pacific squad announcements

By Alex McLeod

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Following the announcement of next year’s Super Rugby Pacific squads on Monday, we look at the key questions each New Zealand team, and Moana Pasifika, need to answer leading up to the new campaign.

1) Will Roger Tuivasa-Sheck flop or flourish for the Blues?

Undoubtedly the biggest transfer story of the Super Rugby Pacific off-season has been the Blues’ acquisition of rugby league superstar Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.

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A former schoolboy union sensation who played for New Zealand Schools and Blues U18, Tuivasa-Sheck opted for a career the 13-man code once he left Otahuhu College, and what an illustrious career move it proved to be.

In his decade-long spell in the NRL, Tuivasa-Sheck won a Premiership with the Sydney Roosters in 2013, was a 2018 Dally M Medallist as Warriors captain, played almost 200 NRL matches, won 20 test caps with the Kiwis and played at two World Cups.

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All Blacks head coach Ian Foster speaks to media after 40-25 loss to France in Paris
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All Blacks head coach Ian Foster speaks to media after 40-25 loss to France in Paris

With such a glittering resume as a league player, it’s unsurprising to see the 28-year-old brandished as the headline signing for next year’s campaign, but the question is can he replicate that success in union?

Many have tried to do so while crossing from league to union, and plenty have failed. Just ask Tuivasa-Sheck’s recently-retired former Kiwis teammate Benji Marshall, whose two-year deal with the Blues lasted just six matches in 2014.

One of the key failings in Marshall’s cross-code journey was that, like Tuivasa-Sheck, he hadn’t played union since he was in secondary school, which played its role in making the immediate step up to Super Rugby insurmountable.

That wouldn’t have been an issue for Tuivasa-Sheck given he surrendered his Warriors commitments halfway through this year to join Auckland for the NPC, but he was denied the chance to make his union debut due to the city’s ongoing Covid-19 lockdown.

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You could be excused for thinking that would stunt his development as a union star, but, according to Blues boss Leon MacDonald, Tuivasa-Sheck has wowed his new coaches with the ease in which he has taken to his new code.

He has progressed so quickly, in fact, that MacDonald is prepared to thrust him into the midfield rather than the wing or at fullback, where he played in league, on the basis of how well he has performed as an outside back in training.

That Tuivasa-Sheck will play in any of those positions in union also puts him in better stead than Marshall, whose role as a playmaker at the Blues was extremely challenging given the nuances of union compared to league.

Also working in his favour is that he has joined a resurgent Blues team that is still basking in the glory of its first title win in 18 years after they claimed the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman trophy in June.

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With in-form All Blacks and core squad members surrounding him, it would take a brave person to bet against Tuivasa-Sheck from joining the likes of Sonny Bill Williams and Brad Thorn as league players who have succeeded in union.

In saying that, though, executing on game day certainly differs to performing in training, so however well Tuivasa-Sheck may be applying himself right now, his first real test in union won’t come until the Blues’ season-opener against the Fijian Drua on February 18.

2) How will the Chiefs cope without key playmaker Damian McKenzie?

For the first time since 2014, the Chiefs will head into a new season without All Blacks star Damian McKenzie in their roster.

That should be a daunting prospect for fans throughout the Chiefs region considering how vital McKenzie has become for the Hamilton-based franchise in the years since then.

In the 95 appearances he made for the team between 2015 and 2021, the 26-year-old established himself as one of the most electric players in recent Super Rugby history.

His broken field play was as lethal as it was entertaining, and his speed, vision and agility were all key components in allowing him to thrive against opposition players who were often twice the size of him.

For all the criticism he has copped as part of the All Blacks’ underwhelming season, McKenzie’s value for the Chiefs cannot be denied, as was illustrated this year when his playmaking and goal-kicking under pressure guided the franchise to the Super Rugby Aotearoa final.

So, with the diminutive fullback – who can also play first-five – departing to join Tokyo Suntory Sungoliath for the upcoming League One season in Japan, how will the Chiefs survive without him?

It’s a big ask when you consider the influence he has had on the franchise under four different head coaches, and it will be interesting to see how current boss Clayton McMillan deals with his absence.

Fortunately for McMillan, the the recruitment of one-test All Blacks first-five Josh Ioane from the Highlanders gives the Chiefs a superb playmaking option who is capable of inflicting just as much damage on opponents with ball in hand as McKenzie is.

However, there is still a void to be filled at fullback, with no out-and-out, test-quality candidate looming in the wings to fill McKenzie’s void.

Any one of Ioane, Kaleb Trask, Shaun Stevenson, Etene Nanai-Seturo, Emoni Narawa and Chase Tiatia could replace McKenzie in the No 15 jersey, but how effectively they can do it can only be answered when the 2022 season kicks-off.

3) Can the Hurricanes get the best out of Peter Umaga-Jensen once again?

Speaking of highly-influential players, few have been as important to a team’s attack as Ngani Laumape was for the Hurricanes during his six-season stay at the Wellington-based franchise between 2016 and 2021.

During that time, Laumape became one of the most destructive ball carriers in the history of the competition as he ploughed through opposition defences like an NFL running back.

Laumape’s short yet stocky physical frame, and surprising pace, made him a focal point of the Hurricanes’ attack for more than half a decade, but that will change next year after he left Kiwi shores earlier this year to join Top 14 club Stade Francais.

The 28-year-old second-five’s defection leaves the Hurricanes without arguably their most potent attacking weapon, which is only made worse when fellow midfielders Danny Toala and Vince Aso followed Laumape out the door.

Without those three, the Hurricanes have had three of their primary midfield options stripped from them for the 2022 season.

Head coach Jason Holland has called in the likes of Bailyn Sullivan and Teihorangi Walden to step up to the plate, but he should look no further than current squad member Peter Umaga-Jensen as the best candidate to fill the void of Laumape and co.

The 23-year-old is the obvious contender to start in the midfield for the Hurricanes given his highly-promising potential, which we got a first real glimpse of during last year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign.

At his rampaging best, Umaga-Jensen teamed up superbly with Laumape to roar the Hurricanes into life and condemn the Crusaders to their first Super Rugby defeat on home soil in four years.

Umaga-Jensen’s performance in that match was by far the best of his young career, and other standout showings against the Chiefs and Blues was enough to propel him into the All Blacks squad and earn him a test debut against the Wallabies last year.

It was perplexing, then, to see the Hurricanes reduce him to a bench option throughout most of this year as they instead persisted with Billy Proctor as Laumape’s main midfield partner.

Without affording Umaga-Jensen a licence to wreak havoc, the Hurricanes battled to a last-place finish in Super Rugby Aotearoa and were one of only two Kiwi teams to lose to Australian opposition in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.

Granted, there were other factors at play that contributed to the franchise’s lack of success in 2021, but you can’t help but wonder how much could have changed had Umaga-Jensen been more regularly involved.

With Laumape now gone, the Hurricanes have a chance to improve their fortunes by putting Umaga-Jensen in the No 12 jersey, a spot that remains up for grabs in the All Blacks.

Considering his physical and technical attributes, Umaga-Jensen certainly seems to be a contender to stake a claim for that role after getting a taste for it last year, but he can only do so if he the Hurricanes give him a fair crack in Super Rugby Pacific.

4) Can the Crusaders be stopped from a sixth title in as many years?

Five titles in five years: it’s a formidable record head coach Scott Robertson has attained since taking the Crusaders job from Todd Blackadder in 2017.

With that kind of success, it’s no surprise that large swathes of the Kiwi public want him appointed All Blacks boss, but, for the time being, he remains at the helm of the Christchurch-based franchise.

For as long as Robertson is there, the Crusaders will always be favourites to take home the silverware, and that’s very much the case heading into next year.

By retaining the most of his core squad members, Robertson’s men look well-equipped to take out the inaugural Super Rugby Pacific campaign.

Perhaps only the Blues have a squad strong enough to match that of the Crusaders, but even they must be asking questions of themselves as to how to stop the juggernaut that just keeps rolling on.

One-test pivot Brett Cameron aside, none of their 16 All Blacks have moved on, with probably their biggest loss being tighthead prop Michael Alaalatoa, a regular starter during his six-year stay in Christchurch.

As the Crusaders normally do, they have looked from within to plug that gap, calling up Finlay Brewis as one of five rookies from Canterbury to bolster their forward pack.

However, they’ve also looked from outside of their backyard to add star power and quality across the board.

In Los Pumas star Pablo Matera, the Crusaders have acquired one of the planet’s best loose forwards, while attaining the services of three-test All Blacks halfback Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi makes the franchise’s No 9 jersey a hotly-contested role.

The same can be said for their outside backs, as new recruit Kini Naholo will compete with Will Jordan, Sevu Reece, David Havili, Braydon Ennor, George Bridge, Leicester Fainga’anuku and Chay Fihaki for a place in the team’s back three.

Such talent and depth in their ranks makes the Crusaders the envy of their Super Rugby Pacific rivals, all of whom must be at pains trying to formulate a blueprint to take down the prolific title-winners.

The Highlanders and Chiefs both managed to come up trumps against them earlier this year, and maybe they’ll bank on the early absence of Richie Mo’unga as a source of inspiration to replicate those feats next year.

Even then, it will still take an enormous effort from those involved to emerge victorious over the Robertson and the Cantabrians.

5) Can the Highlanders stay injury-free and out of trouble?

Highlanders fans will look back on 2021 as the year their side made a typically against-the-odds run to the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final, where they were beaten in a gallant effort by a stacked Blues outfit in Auckland.

While that is a relatively fair assessment of how their season ended, the lead-up to that point was rather turbulent for the Dunedin-based franchise for a variety of different reasons.

The partying culture of the team came into question for the second time in the space of a year when Josh Ioane and five teammates were suspended for breaching team protocols after police were called to a party at Ioane’s residence in March.

Then came the three assault charges laid against All Blacks loose forward Shannon Frizell, all of which were eventually dropped after he apologised for his actions and completed diversion.

The loss of head coach Tony Brown to Japan for the duration of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman presented further off-field issues, which were compounded by the sheer multitude of injuries that piled up all season long.

That injury list included Folau Fakatava, Connor Garden-Bachop, Jermaine Ainsley, Liam Squire, Fetuli Paea, Solomon Alaimalo, Thomas Umaga-Jensen, Freedom Vahaakolo and Nehe Milner-Skudder, all of whom missed most, if not all, of the season.

Now, heading into 2022, the injury curse has returned as the Highlanders will be without electric wing Jona Nareki and towering lock Pari Pari Parkinson for the entire campaign with serious knee injuries.

Standout flanker Billy Harmon will also miss the first half of the season due to a shoulder injury, already leaving Brown without a number of his key players.

The additional losses of Ioane (Chiefs), Squire (retirement), Japanese star Kazuki Himeno and inspirational co-captain Ash Dixon (both to Japan), among others, means the southerners can’t afford any more injury disruptions in the coming months.

Off-field indiscretions will also need to be eradicated if they are to avoid the unwanted attention they garnered this year.

Do that, and the Highlanders stand a good chance to build on the unlikely success they enjoyed in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.

6) How far can Moana Pasifika go in their debut Super Rugby Pacific campaign?

One of two new kids on the block, Moana Pasifika arrive in Super Rugby Pacific with a credible squad that looks capable of knocking some teams over in the franchise’s debut season.

Headlined by former Wallabies stars Christian Lealiifano and Sekope Kepu, there is an array of talent throughout Aaron Mauger’s squad, most of whom have been picked out of New Zealand’s NPC.

Whether the decision not to follow the lead of the Fijian Drua – whose squad is largely comprised of players based out of Fiji who play in the nation’s Skipper Cup – is beneficial for the development of professional rugby in Samoa and Tonga remains to be seen.

However, by selecting players of Pacific Island heritage from the NPC, Moana Pasifika have cultivated a strong squad that is certainly capable of upsetting a few teams.

Among those in the franchise’s roster who have starred at provincial level include mercurial playmaker Lincoln McClutchie, exciting wing Timoci Tavatavanawai and loose forwards Alamanda Motuga, Henry Stowers and Solomone Funaki.

The likes of Solomone Kata, Jack Lam, Ere Enari, Danny Toala, Henry Taefu, Levi Aumua, Lolagi Visinia, Isi Tuungafasi, Jonathan Taumateine, Ray Niuia, Luteru Tolai and Tima Fainga’anuku also provide the squad with valuable Super Rugby experience.

Furthermore, the squad boasts nine Samoan and six Tongan internationals, as well as Hong Kong prop Tau Koloamatangi, meaning there is no shortage of test rugby experience.

Taking all of this into account, it begs the question as to how competitive Moana Pasifika will be and whether they will make the play-offs at the first time of asking.

Making the Super Rugby post-season in a franchise’s maiden season is a feat no other team has ever come close to achieving.

The Western Force, Melbourne Rebels, Southern Kings and Sunwolves all finished rock bottom in their first campaigns in 2006, 2011, 2013 and 2016, respectively, while the Jaguares came 13th out of 18 teams five years ago.

Additionally, the Cheetahs, then known as Free State, finished seventh in their one-off campaign in 1997 after replacing the Stormers as the worst-placed South African team in the 1996 Super 12.

History, it seems, doesn’t appear to be on Moana Pasifika’s side, but with eight of this year’s 12 teams granted play-off spots, the scope for finals football has never been bigger.

How they manage their squad throughout the season could be crucial to their chances of success, especially in some areas where depth may prove to be troublesome, but there is definitely enough talent in their starting side to challenge for a top-eight finish.

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The six key questions from the Super Rugby Pacific squad announcements

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