The conveyor belt of talent in New Zealand is in full flow and on display in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
The likes of Will Jordan, Hoskins Sotutu, Mark Telea have all continued their rise to stardom with excellent performances in the fiercely competitive local action.
Jordan is the back three player that everyone is looking at because of his try scoring record in the last four games for the Crusaders. He would have been frustrated to have to come off the bench to make an impression in the top of the table clash at home against the Blues last weekend.
He didn't hit the ground running in the style that he would have liked. His physicality must yet come up to All Blacks standards, evident by his last ditch tackle to stop Reiko Ioane getting in for a score and another tackle deep in his own 22 which resulted in a HIA. However, in attack, the 22-year-old full back has been on fire in the last few rounds and fought through his head knock to get the game clinching try once again putting his name into the hat for an All Blacks jersey.
The competition in the back three is pretty stiff when you include both Barrett’s and Damien McKenzie all vying for a position at full back. You can’t help but take notice of Mark Telea on the wing for the Blues who had another physical performance while also creating the spark in attack for the visitors.
George Bridge displayed his importance in the back field, his aerial game was unrivaled last weekend which played a key role in keeping the Crusaders in the game with territory, possession and momentum.
Jordie Barrett is probably still third in line for the full-back spot but his long distance penalty last week and a 30 yard pass at full tilt after a line break have been two stand out moments since his return from injury.
The dancing feet of Sevu Reece and the explosive power and pace of Caleb Clarke are in the mix too. Clarke has been seriously impressive in the contact area. He comes to life when he gets the ball in his hands and he's not bad at an overhead catch either.
How do you reward the established players in that back three while still nurturing the talent that is coming through. What a headache they have given to the incoming head coach Ian Foster.
The scrum half position is more of a battle between the already established leaders of the All Blacks. Aaron Smith and his impactful understudy TJ Perenara went head to head last weekend, both scoring tries in their usual chatty fashion. Both can be heard throughout the whole game in the refs mic organising and controlling the game as well as the referee’s decisions.
After that the Crusaders have a toss-up between Bryn Hall and Mitchell Drummond who has been capped by the All Blacks and the Chiefs front man Brad Weber who has been capped five times before. You can’t help but wonder if the Chiefs poor form will go against some of their players at the next All Blacks team announcement and if one of the Crusaders can’t get into the mix.
Unfortunately there are only two centres on the pitch at any one time. Reiko Ioane has been electrifying in his rebirth at 13 for the Blues. His pace and power make him so hard to stop but it's his distribution after he has drawn all the attention is what is most impressive. Braydon Ennor will have a say on the 13 jersey as well with his own pace and partnership with the current All Black centre Jack Goodhue.
The Hurricanes partnership of Ngani Laumape and Vince Aso is a handful too but you’d expect that it will be Laumape that will try to challenge for Goodhue’s position at inside centre. Lienart-Brown was given the nod in the World Cup last year but you’d think that change is happening in the All blacks centre partnership with the amount of talent at their disposal and the Chiefs haven’t exactly given Lienart-Brown the chance to shine. The balance of an outside centre like Ioane or Ennor will make them much harder to stop.
Will Beauden Barrett get another chance at 10 for the All Blacks? Richie Mounga was the inform out-half last weekend grabbing the game when the Crusaders came under pressure in the second half. His quick thinking for the restart after Ennor blocked Otere Black’s conversion and two try scoring passes gave Crusaders the win in a highly pressurised game. He stood up when it really mattered which would have impressed the All Blacks coaches.
Otere Black has the control and kicking game to push on and given the recent injury worries of Josh Ioane there could be a spot available for Black to find his way into a training squad. The number 10 spot in the All Blacks squad is a difficult one with Barrett playing at 15 but being a very good option at 15 and McKenzie’s ability to play at first receiver means that the final squad will probably go with Mounga and both Barret and McKenzie which frees up some space for an outside back considering the competition there.
Obviously you can’t play the game with just backs. They can offer front foot ball and some exciting finishes but the hard work is done on the inside usually. The scrum must be solid and if you can’t get the ball from your own lineout you won’t go far. Hoskins Sotutu is the man of the moment taking some of the attention away from Mikaele Tu’u.
Sotutu can run, pass, kick and played a huge role in disrupting the Crusaders lineout. He also frees up Akira Ioane which has seen his form re-established in recent times. The back row is looking particularly exciting for the next All Blacks selection.
You’d go close to picking the All Blacks starting 15 from last weekend’s clash between the Crusaders and the Blues. It was played at a ferocious intensity and speed similar to a test match.
Although the talent in the Southern Hemisphere is seriously impressive, I feel we aren’t generous enough when looking at what we have at home. I’m really looking forward to the return of rugby in Ireland starting with a clash between Munster and Leinster. Given the time that players have had to sort out their bodies with niggles and underlying injuries it should give us a look at the talent in our home grown game in full effect.
Leinster could be split into two squads and still challenge for the league. They have their own conveyor belt similar to that in the Crusaders which is evident by the quality of the cast offs that play for other provinces. It’s getting more and more painful for Leinster to have to see them go but not everyone can play and that’s the dilemma.
Ian Madigan is one of those that left Leinster and should be lively when he returns to matches with Ulster who are trending in the right direction and ready to get back to their best.
It’s a few weeks yet before we’ll see Irish rugby returning but watching Super Rugby makes me excited to see what’s brewing at home.