Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021 – Key Players
By Quintin van Jaarsveld
With the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition kicking off this weekend, Quintin van Jaarsveld identifies each franchise’s key player.
Blues: Otere Black
Ioane brothers Akira and Rieko will form important parts of the Blues puzzle again in the back-row and midfield respectively, while Nepo Laulala and Dillon Hunt will beef up the pack, having joined from the Chiefs and Highlanders. The colossal Caleb Clarke took the rugby world by storm last year, first beasting for the Blues and then the All Blacks, and the powerhouse wing will be the side’s special weapon once again.
Most of the talk in Auckland is about NRL sensation Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, a blockbuster signing with possible All Blacks implications, however, the 27-year-old has to play out his contract with the New Zealand Warriors, so he’ll only be unleashed in Super Rugby Aotearoa next year.
Amidst the hype surrounding Tuivasa-Sheck is the “small” and immediate issue of Beauden Barrett’s absence. The superstar playmaker’s on a six-month sabbatical in Japan and as his two World Rugby Player of the Year awards suggest, he’s part of an elite group of irreplaceables.
Black has the inside track to take over the No.10 jersey and as a result, 2021 will be a career-defining year for the 25-year-old. He’s an exceptionally gifted player in his own right, with his teammates calling him “The Wizard”. He guided the New Zealand Under-20s to the Junior World Championship in 2015 and has since evolved into a solid and seasoned Super Rugby campaigner. Now is the time for Black to take the next step in his promise-filled career.
Chiefs: Damian McKenzie
Captain Sam Cane and star centre Anton Lienert-Brown will once again be talismanic, but McKenzie’s the fire-starter the franchise needs. The Chiefs were winless wooden spoonists in the inaugural edition of the tournament and scored just 14 tries in their eight outings, 10 less than the fourth-placed Highlanders.
McKenzie struggled to regain his magic following a dreaded ACL injury and with little flair and inventiveness elsewhere, the side were stale on attack. One of the most exciting players in the world, the diminutive dynamo found his groove again in the Mitre 10 Cup and it’s crucial for the Chiefs that he hits the ground running if they are to regain the respect of and challenge defence lines.
Mercurial at fullback and flyhalf, McKenzie’s a joy to watch and a nightmare to defend. The 25-year-old is a once-in-a-generation pint-sized wizard of the same ilk as Welsh great Shane Williams, World Cup-winning ex-England winger Jason Robinson and Springbok superstar Cheslin Kolbe, whose hot-stepping sorcery helped South Africa seal a third World Cup crown in 2019.
What makes McKenzie unique is the fact that he’s an accurate goal-kicker as well, however, his main objective will be to resuscitate the men from Waikato on offence.
Crusaders: Richie Mo’unga
Mo’unga, simply put, is in a class of his own. As a complete flyhalf – a perfect 10 if you will – he’s steered club and country to a slew of silverware, including the Tū Kōtahi Aotearoa trophy as the Player of the Tournament last season. Undeniable and unpredictable, Mo’unga’s set to be the ‘Saders’ main man again this year.
The 26-year-old’s a picture of class and composure – a master of game management and an ace goal-kicker. He takes command of the Crusaders and All Blacks every time out; he relishes the responsibility of running the show and does so with supreme confidence, maturity and skill.
On top of his game-generalship, he also boasts game-breaking qualities. He has vision and skill in equal measure, which enables him to spark tries with deft dinks few flyhalves have in their tool bag, and when he takes the ball to the line, he has explosive acceleration and good footwork.
Highlanders: Aaron Smith
The heart, soul and brains of the Highlanders. As one of the all-time great scrumhalves, his loyalty to the Dunedin-based outfit in the modern era is as rare as his special talents. Instead of making bank abroad, Smith will spearhead his beloved Highlanders’ challenge in his 11th season with the franchise.
In terms of the total package – an offensive genius with an uncanny eye for a gap and vision to beat defenders with a remarkable repertoire of passes, a pinpoint tactician, excellent defender, proven leader and crucially, boasting a world of experience (he’s the most-capped All Blacks No.9 in history with 97 Test cap) – Smith is without peer.
Sans their superstar scrumhalf, who played a starring role in the franchise’s solitary Super Rugby trophy triumph in 2015, the Highlanders are devoid of direction. The 32-year-old’s influence and presence cannot be overstated; he’s the epitome of a franchise player.
Hurricanes: Jordie Barrett
The 2021 Super Rugby Aotearoa season will usher in the next phase of Ardie Savea’s sterling career. The fierce flank has grown up at the Hurricanes, bursting onto the scene in 2013 and evolving into one of the best back-rowers in the world with 49 All Blacks caps to his name.
At 27, Savea has ascended to the captaincy role this year, with his first home game as skipper against the Blues this weekend doubling as his 100th cap for the ‘Canes. Powerful, explosive and athletic, he’ll be required to lead by example and will be the central figure of the franchise.
Having said that, Barrett will be the men from Wellington’s point of difference. The supremely gifted Barretts could be described as the First Family of New Zealand rugby. Dad Kevin is a Taranaki and Hurricanes legend with sons Beauden, Scott and Jordie all boasting All Blacks blazers.
The youngest of the three at 23, Jordie’s an awe-inspiring anomaly – a hybrid of his two older brothers. Standing at 1.96m tall and weighing 95kg, he boasts the size and strength of Scott, who packs down in the second row, and the speed and flair of playmaker Beauden, making him a force onto his own at fullback. With a monster boot as an added weapon, he’s a freak of nature and will be at the heart of the Hurricanes’ attack.