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Watch: Masterclass from the next No 10 off the Canterbury production line

By Sam Smith
Alex Harford. (Photos by Sky Sport and Getty Images)

New Zealand’s Canterbury province has always been known for its uncanny ability to develop first five-eighths of the highest order.

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Andrew Mehrtens, Dan Carter, Aaron Mauger, Colin Slade, Tom Taylor, Richie Mo’unga and Brett Cameron have all played for the All Blacks in the modern era while the likes of Glasgow’s Josh McKay and Tasman’s Marty Banks were schooled at the biggest college in the province, Christchurch Boys High.

Fergus Burke has stepped up his game in recent years and looks set to take over at the Crusaders from Mo’unga when he (potentially temporarily) departs New Zealand’s shores following the 2023 Rugby World Cup, but it appears that the province has now unearthed another considerable talent, if Friday night’s NPC match is anything to go by.

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With Burke sidelined through illness, 23-year-old Alex Harford was handed the No 10 jersey for his first start at provincial level, and the young playmaker stepped into the role with ease.

Whether it was throwing wide skip passes perfectly timed for his teammates to run onto:

Or offloading out of the tackle to create line breaks, Harford was in the thick of the action and helped generate plenty of go-forward for his team:

He also nailed four of his five attempts on goal.

Perhaps the highlight of the youngster’s performance, however, was a 47th minute drop goal which sailed over from 45 metres.

Auckland had earned themselves a goal-line drop-out after repelling an offensive onslaught from their opposition, with Harry Plummer’s kick sailing to the halfway mark. Harford was in position for the catching and after trotting five metres forward, let rip with an impressive effort that just managed to sneak over the cross-bar, handing Canterbury a 17-10 lead.

From that point on, Canterbury well and truly took control of the top-of-the-table clash, eventually cruising to a 38-20 bonus-point win and reconfirming their title credentials.

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Harford’s performance at No 10 in what was just his second game of provincial football will have no doubt pleased his coaches but it will have also caught the eye of a few Super Rugby selectors perhaps looking to bolster their depth ahead of the 2023 season.

There’s no shortage of talented but inexperienced flyhalves doing the rounds in the NPC this year, with Taha Kemara, Lucas Cashmore and Cam Millar all impressive in bursts throughout the season, but will there be space for the young guns when it comes time to name the squads for next season?

Most coaches have opted for one first-choice pivot, one experienced backup and one up-and-comer when it’s come to squad selection in recent times, with the Crusaders running with Mo’unga, Burke and Simon Hickey in 2022 but with a slew of players expected to depart New Zealand’s shores following France 2023, the Super Rugby selectors may opt to fast-track some young talent.

Canterbury will take on Otago in Dunedin next week in what will be the final round of the regular NPC season while Auckland will play host to Taranaki. Both sides are guaranteed spots in the quarter-finals (with Canterbury certain to play at home for the entirety of the finals series) but Auckland could find their draw considerably tougher if they can’t bag a win in the final weekend of action.

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