After three months without any action on Kiwi shores, rugby is finally back as Super Rugby Aotearoa kicks-off for another season on Friday.
The 2021 campaign gets underway in Dunedin, where the Highlanders will host the Crusaders at Forsyth Barr Stadium, before the Hurricanes and Blues do battle in Wellington on Saturday.
In both of those matches, an array of New Zealand’s top players will go head-to-head as they begin their respective quests for national supremacy, but which individual match-ups are the most tantalising of the lot?
Here are three of the best to watch out for as the second edition of Super Rugby Aotearoa gets underway this weekend.
Marino Mikaele-Tu’u (Highlanders) vs Cullen Grace (Crusaders)
Super Rugby fans across New Zealand and around the world will be treated to a South Island derby featuring a multitude of stars in the first match of the season.
Scanning across the lineups for both teams, there are many key head-to-head battles to choose from, but few stand out as much as Marino Mikaele-Tu’u’s imminent contest with Cullen Grace at No. 8.
In Mikaele-Tu’u, the Highlanders have an outstanding young prospect who burst into life last year following a couple of seasons behind Luke Whitelock and Elliot Dixon in the Dunedin franchise’s pecking order.
The 23-year-old’s patience paid off as he emerged as a potent attacking weapon for the Highlanders, as reflected in the stats for last year’s competition.
Ranking first in offloads (11), second-equal for carries (95), sixth-equal for clean breaks (11) and ninth for metres carried (350), Mikaele-Tu’u established himself as a mainstay in the Highlanders’ starting lineup by the end of the campaign.
Even with the big-name recruitments of Liam Squire and Kazuki Himeno, it wouldn’t surprise to see the Hawke’s Bay star retain the No. 8 jersey given the performances he produced in 2020.
He looked similarly dangerous with ball in hand during last week’s pre-season match against the Hurricanes, so the evidence is there to suggest that another dynamite season looms ahead.
But, if Mikaele-Tu’u can be likened to an unstoppable force, then he will meet his match on Friday when he comes up against Cullen Grace, who can just as easily be compared to an immovable object.
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Prior to Tupou Vaa’i’s debut for the Chiefs in the first match of last year’s Super Rugby Aotearoa, Grace was the youngest Super Rugby player in New Zealand – but he played with the kind of influence expected of seasoned veterans.
Now 21-years-old, Grace is entering his second campaign at this level and will be expected to assert that same impact for his team.
If, however, he can replicate what he produced in 2020, there should be no doubting how crucial the youngster will be for the reigning champions, particularly from a defensive aspect of the game.
Grace resembled something of a brick wall for the Crusaders in his debut Super Rugby campaign; an impassable member of their defensive line who used his shoulders to deliver as much force as a wrecking ball.
While no stats can quantify Grace’s impact off the ball, the fact that he was selected for the All Blacks and made his test debut despite missing most of Super Rugby Aotearoa through injury is a testament to his ability and potential.
He also stands as a safe lineout option and holds his own at the breakdown, which makes him a multi-faceted talent who will keep Mikaele-Tu’u on his toes when the pair square off.
Ardie Savea (Hurricanes) vs Dalton Papalii (Blues)
There’s no secret about the sheer amounts of quality new Hurricanes captain Ardie Savea possesses.
A nominee for World Rugby Player of the Year in 2019, the same year he won the Kelvin R Tremain Player of the Year award for best player in New Zealand, Savea is renowned for his explosive physical traits on the field.
Equipped with an immense leg drive that allows him to chew up metres post-contact in a way that few others could, the 27-year-old is just as adept at bumping off would-be tacklers and doesn’t shy away from his defensive duties.
All of this is powered by the huge engine that keeps him performing at his peak throughout the entire 80 minutes, as well as his unbridled determination and passion for the game and his team.
It are those attributes that have earned Savea the Hurricanes captaincy and it’s why he’s now one of the most important players in New Zealand, so expect a performance exemplifying all of those traits when he plays his 100th Super Rugby match on Saturday.
In that milestone fixture, Savea will face-off against rampant Blues flanker Dalton Papalii, a powerhouse product in his own right.
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When it comes to speculating who from an extremely competitive pool of players will make up the All Blacks’ loose forward contingent, Papalii always seems to be a player overlooked by many despite the talent he offers.
That’s reflected in the fact that he has only played four tests since his All Blacks debut in 2018, with the two most recent appearances in the black jersey amounting to just under 20 minutes of action.
That doesn’t accurately reflect the qualities of Papalii, who would start for most other international teams around the world.
Equally as good with the ball as he is without it, the 23-year-old is a powerful operator capable of playing across all three back row positions.
It’s at No. 7 where he has said he wants to establish himself in, though, and there aren’t many tougher challenges to test yourself in that position than by competing against Savea.
If Papalii wants to get an edge over his fellow openside flanker at Sky Stadium, he needs to fully immerse himself in what he does best – dominate collisions, win turnovers and don’t stop doing those things to peak of his abilities until the full-time whistle.
Do that, and he will be a vital figure in the Blues’ forward pack, as he was last year when the big men up front were the catalysts for the Auckland franchise’s long-awaited renaissance.
Solomon Alaimalo (Highlanders) vs Will Jordan (Crusaders)
Many Highlanders fans regarded the acquisition of Solomon Alaimalo from the Chiefs as a major coup when he signed the dotted line last year.
It’s unsurprising to see why given the mercurial talents the 25-year-old flyer is blessed with, of which have made him an integral figure at provincial level and a highly-promising prospect at Super Rugby level.
Opting to leave the Chiefs for the Highlanders in search of more game time in his preferred position of fullback, Alaimalo has been granted an opportunity to strut his stuff in the No. 15 jersey against the Crusaders on Friday.
The dry track under the roof of Forsyth Barr Stadium suits Alaimalo’s attacking style down to the ground, which is likely to cause the Crusaders numerous headaches and create chances aplenty for the Highlanders.
Quick, agile and athletic, the new Southland Stags signing also has a physical frame of 1.96m and 99kg, making him one of the bigger outside backs in the competition which Highlanders boss Tony Brown will undoubtedly look to use to his advantage.
Should Alaimalo capitalise on these favourable conditions – which are conducive to a high-paced, attacking brand of rugby – he could well run up an impressive stat sheet on his Highlanders debut.
The question is, though, can he ‘out-attack’, for a lack of a better phrase, the brightest young talent in the country, and perhaps the entire world, in his opposite Will Jordan.
New Highlanders signing Solomon Alaimalo will play for a new team in Super Rugby and at provincial level in 2021.https://t.co/VopRXtMVxw
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 25, 2021
The Crusaders starlet, who celebrated his 23rd birthday on Wednesday, delivered what many in New Zealand had long been expecting from him since he lit up the Kiwi schoolboy scene as a try-scoring machine for Christchurch Boys’ High School.
An intuitive attacker capable of producing something from nothing, Jordan ripped apart almost every team he came up against in 2020.
His instinct and vision placed him in situations that allowed him to break the game open, while his speed and power enabled him to make the most of those scenarios.
That makes not only for an extremely exciting player, but also one that is just as dangerous for opposing sides, as teams across Super Rugby Aotearoa found out last year.
In that campaign, Jordan scored the most tries (6), made the most clean breaks (15), beat the most defenders (39), carried the ball for at least double the number of metres than almost every other player (724), made the second-most offloads (9) and finished fourth for carries (88).
Those figures are mind-boggling, and Highlanders will be – or at least should be – acutely aware of the threat Jordan poses.
To mitigate the damage that Jordan will almost certainly inflict on the Highlanders, Alaimalo will be tasked with producing his own attacking masterclass to try and nullify the king of attacking rugby in New Zealand.
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