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The surprise package who has been New Zealand's best attacking midfielder this season

By Ben Smith
(Photos by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

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There are seasons in Super Rugby where a relatively unknown player seems to burst onto the scene and capture lightning in a bottle, performing at a level unseen before.

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Nehe Milner-Skudder comes to mind, a player who was not highly sought after and transitioned into rugby union from a stint on the fringes of the NRL. He exploded in Super Rugby for the Hurricanes in 2015 after getting a spot on the roster and became an All Blacks star.

This year the Hurricanes have found that kind of player again in Bailyn Sullivan, who had just eight appearances with the Chiefs over four seasons since 2018 where he was tried as a winger on five occasions with limited success, and three times off the bench.

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The 23-year-old has been given another chance with the Hurricanes and has found another life. Even in a crowded midfield he has become the most dangerous attacking centre in the competition, statistically speaking.

Sullivan has clocked the most running metres of any midfielder (600), while generating the most post-contact metres (281) on just 58 carries. The next best in total metres is Izaia Perese from the Waratahs with 598, which took him 70 carries, while in post-contact metres the next best is Fijian Apisalome Vota of the Drua.

His eight line breaks are second only to Will Jordan (9), yet the Crusaders fullback has taken significantly more carries with 87. Six of Sullivan’s breaks have directly led to Hurricanes tries.

In terms of bang for buck, Sullivan has been the most effective centre at creating and finishing broken field opportunities.

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The Hurricanes are 6-5 on the season but in the seven times that Bailyn Sullivan has started at 13, the Hurricanes have a 6-1 win-loss record.

In the four games Sullivan hasn’t started, they have lost every match.

There has been so much chopping and changing in many positions that the selection of Sullivan cannot be the only factor, but when you look at the attacking production Sullivan has given the Hurricanes, it has made a big difference against both top teams and weaker ones.

Against the Blues in the second game of the season, Sullivan made an impression in the final moments by setting up Ardie Savea for the game-winning try by planting a big fend on the chest of league convert Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and breaking away downfield.

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The pass was on the money – and it needed to be, it would have sailed over the touchline and essentially ended the game had it not hit Savea on the chest at full pace.

That assist was his second of the game after a pinpoint grubber kick laid on a try for Wes Goosen in the first half. Those two plays were a net addition of 14 points for the Hurricanes in a game decided by one point.

Against the Highlanders at home, he didn’t have any plays that influenced the scoring, but in Dunedin in the second fixture he opened the Hurricanes’ ledger by ghosting past no fewer than five Highlanders defenders cutting against the grain. The game was ultimately decided by one point.

In the loss to Moana Pasifika, Sullivan didn’t start. In the return leg he did, adding a try assist in the second half by laying one on for TJ Perenara in what was a lopsided win.

Despite an early yellow card for a dangerous tackle against the Queensland Reds, Sullivan pounced on a loose pass and galloped away over 60-metres to score the Hurricanes’ first try of the game. He scored his second try eleven minutes from time for a net impact of 12 points in a 30-17 victory.

In the Hurricanes’ huge 67-5 victory against the Drua on the weekend, Sullivan had an assist with a nice short ball for the opening try to Josh Moorby, and almost a carbon copy for Moorby’s second with another pass to the outside.

While Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua are at the bottom of the ladder, the Blues and Reds are top five teams with the Auckland-based franchise leading the competition. Sullivan’s biggest contributions have come in those two wins.

With five try assists and four tries in seven games, Sullivan has been a match-winning influence for the Hurricanes, which has vastly exceeded expectations on what would have been a bargain contract pick-up from the Chiefs.

This does not mean he will be an All Blacks selection, however, as on the other side of the ball his defensive effectiveness needs to improve to become a test calibre player. The Drua’s only try came right through his channel.

His defence needs to sharpen in aspects, the angles he takes, timing and execution of his tackles which has been off at times resulting in a 74 per cent completion rate and 19 misses. It’s also the non-attempts that don’t end up on a stat sheet that matter.

Overall, Sullivan has made a big difference and considering where he was 12 months ago, his season will be one to remember.

At just 23 years old, there is so much more potential to unlock to round out his game, but right now he is the most productive attacking midfielder in New Zealand.

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