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Watch: Five of the best in 2017 - Kiwis in Europe

By Campbell Burnes

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New Zealanders make up a great deal of the foreign players plying their trade in the UK and France. Some are big names, some aren’t – and some even ended up making the test side of the country they’ve ended up in.

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Here’s the five best performers of the year.

Bundee Aki (Connacht, Ireland) 

Is that Bundee O’Aki who has been carving up for Connacht and now Ireland?

It is indeed the 27-year-old former Steelers and Chiefs midfielder. He has made the right career move. After all, there was little hope of him becoming an All Black if he had opted to stay in New Zealand.

Aki was a big part of Connacht’s historic PRO12 championship victory in 2015-16, and now he hopes to be the next Gordon D’Arcy after announcing his test arrival for Ireland with a jarring tackle in the opening play of the November clash with the Springboks. Since, then he has given Connacht coach Kieran Keane and, of course, Joe Schmidt, cause to smile with his muscular, accurate play.

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Furthermore, you have love that Aki is combining with former Hurricane Pita Ahki in the Connacht midfield.

Victor Vito (La Rochelle, France)

At 30, Victor Vito should be just about coming into the prime of a career that has promised so much.

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He will not need reminding that were he still in New Zealand, he would be the next No 8 off the cab rank behind Kieran Read in a position where the nation lacks quality depth.

Now into his second season with ambitious, Kiwi-laden French club La Rochelle, Vito is a key man at the back of the scrum and, on one occasion, in the No 7 jersey. His lineout prowess, ball skills and physicality make him a highly valued commodity in the French game.

Said to be the highest paid New Zealand forward in the Top 14, Vito made such an impact in his first season in 2016-17 that he was adjudged the competition’s player of the year. He is in the running again as he plays a prominent part in La Rochelle’s high-flying status in the Top 14 and Champions Cup.

Johnny McNicholl (Scarlets, Wales)

Last season Hadleigh Parkes was probably the best Kiwi pro in Wales.

Parkes is still playing consistently and has now won a Welsh cap. But his Kiwi teammate at Scarlets, Johnny McNicholl, is also showing his considerable wares to telling effect and could also wear the Wales jersey when he qualifies.

Coach Wayne Pivac always admired McNicholl’s work ethic when he used to carve up for Canterbury. Now, operating mainly on the right wing to accommodate Leigh Halfpenny, McNicholl has scored a clutch of tries and looks to be thriving in the Scarlets’ open style of play. Some of his long range breaks and tries are reminiscent of his work with the red and blacks.

Charlie Piutau (Ulster, Ireland)

They reckon Charlie Piutau never has an off-day.

That is a good thing when you command a mammoth salary, but is also a clear indication that Piutau, still just 26, may yet have some of his best rugby ahead of him. The former All Black is doing the business for Ulster in the PRO14 and Champions Cup, but from 2018-19 will be joining his brother Siale and coach Pat Lam at Bristol.

The tries are not flowing for Piutau at Ulster, but he is racking up big minutes and compelling allround stats, including six try assists and 51 defenders beaten in his 12 appearances this season. Sounds like he is earning his corn.

Tony Ensor (Stade Francais, France)

Tony Who? I can hear some of you exclaiming.

Why, 26-year-old Tony Ensor of Kaikorai and Otago fame, who played 34 games for Otago until 2016, of course. He is joining a select list of unheralded New Zealanders who have made Stade Francais their home on the back of high quality performances. Think back to Cliff Mytton in 1997-98. The former North Harbour second five did the donkey work in a galaxy of stars.

Ensor has chimed in fruitfully from fullback for the struggling Parisians. He is their leading tryscorer, so is already proving popular at Stade Jean Bouin, where Greg Cooper is one of the coaches.

That is the thing about plying your trade in Europe. If you do your job well, always front up and rarely get injured, your club and its fans will love you. Ensor is the embodiment of the good Kiwi pro in Europe.

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