With the Mitre 10 Cup over halfway through, the Super Rugby squad announcements are edging closer. Some franchises have already been busy, with the Hurricanes and Crusaders announcing several contract renewals, whilst the Highlanders have announced a trio of signings, along with confirming Tony Brown as their new head coach this morning. Many players have impressed, and most of the Super squads will be all but finalised, so I thought it would be a good idea to see which player from each Mitre 10 Cup team, is in line for a Super contract.
The southernmost union in the Mitre 10 Cup have enjoyed their best season in recent memory, all be it that was not that difficult. New coach Dale McLeod has them playing some very strong, defensively tight footy which has seen the best of some of their forwards. Joe Walsh could well be in line for a deal after spending time with the Blues last season, whilst Greg Pleasants-Tate has arguably been their best performer. The player, who has impressed the most for me though, is Amanaki Nicole. The 28-year-old NZ Sevens rep, has scored just the one try, but has fed off scraps all season. He is big in size which is desirable in the modern game also. Nicole has broken tackles with ease and has a decent turn of pace. At 28, he is not young which may turn people off, but he could be an option for the Hurricanes to replace Kobus Van Wyk.
The Golden O has enjoyed an interesting start to the Mite 10 Cup season. Generally, the bridesmaid, but not the bride in the Championship, they have already held and lost the Ranfurly Shield. Tom Donnelly was promoted to the head coach role, and along with experimental assistants Lee Allan and Ryan Martin, they have played some attractive rugby. With a backline full of Super Rugby experience, and a pack who also has experience at higher levels, there is certainly slim pickings. Freedom Vaahakolo was brought down to Dunedin by the Highlanders, and has not disappointed so far in 2020, he is not small, but equally he is not huge either. He certainly has a nose for the try line. One of the unsung heroes of the team this season, has been Irish lock Jack Regan. Regan has been in New Zealand for a short while and managed to crack the Otago squad this season. A strong performance off the bench in round one, earned him a start in round two, and he has not relinquished his starting birth. With a 95% tackle percentage, he has shown a real hard nose. The Highlanders are said to be looking for a lock, whilst the Chiefs, Hurricanes and Blues may also be keen.
Known for closing out close games, Canterbury have stumbled in that department in 2020, losing three matches, all by one point. The side certainly is a little lighter on talent this season, but they are still strong. Young midfield backs Rameka Pohipi and Isaiah Punivai have shown touches of class but are still quite raw. Josh McKay is of course without a deal, and will surely be scooped up by another franchise, whilst Sevens Rep Andrew Knewstubb looks to be hitting his straps, but he is unlikely to be contracted. Upfront, Sam Darry has looked very good, but he is of course already signed to the Blues. A man who has slipped under the radar a bit is Shilo Klein. The American born hooker, is diminutive in size, measuring up at just 176cm, but he makes up for that in heart. He has carried the ball strongly, and clearly has the faith of the Canterbury coaches, playing the full 80 on a couple of occasions this season. At just 21, he could be a good option as a third-choice hooker. Whether it be the Crusaders, the Blues or the Chiefs, it would not be a surprise to see him in the picture on Super Signing Day.
The Mako are undoubtedly the most stacked union in New Zealand. Arguably the smallest region, it is very impressive. Laden with All Blacks, every week there is a mix of youth and experience. In amongst the All Blacks and Super Rugby talent, there have been some impressive youngsters- especially in the forwards. Front rowers Issac Salmon (Who has already seen some game time at the higher level) and Sam Matenga have looked like good prospects, along with Ryan Coxon who is not currently contracted for SRA 2021. They have had a locking crisis, but the mobile Te Ahiwaru Cirikidaveta has stood up. A strong ball carrier, who can put in a crunching tackle, but the man I think is line for a Super deal is Jacob Norris. Originally from the Waikato, Norris moved to the south to join the Crusaders Academy, and as a result has ended up at Tasman. Just like many others, the flanker he has been nailing people in the tackle, whilst has also shown strength over the ball. Norris is clearly a talent, but his issue may be lack of space in the squads. There could well be a spot at the Crusaders, as openside flanker Billy Harmon headed south to the Highlanders.
The men from the capital, have enjoyed mixed fortunes this season. Six games in they sit 3-3, but it could have been so much more. They dropped a silly game against Otago, whilst they suffered heartbreak in extra time against Canterbury. Along with that, they beaten the star-studded Auckland team, so it would not be harsh to describe them as inconsistent. Julian Savea has of course been playing for them, and it would be a surprise if he was not playing for the Hurricanes next season, as he has proved that he has improved his game. Halfback Kemara Hauiti-Parapara, has impressed, and will likely be picked up by the Hurricanes to replace TJ Perenara. The two men, who have caught the eye the most though are their hookers. James O’Reilly has been impressive since returning from a ban, but the name on everyone’s lips is young Tyrone Thompson. With Aumua, Coles and O’Reilly all unavailable, Thompson took his opportunity, making headlines for his 50m effort against the Bay of Plenty, bumping off several defenders on his way to the chalk. He is very similar to Aumua, with a strong running game clear to see. He is still quite raw, so he would really only be an apprentice next season. With the Hurricanes, Highlanders and Crusaders all already having two strong hookers, the Chiefs and the Blues could be the sides to battle it out for his signature.
2020 has been a tough year for the Manawatu Turbos. Six games, six defeats, and they appear headed for the wooden spoon. There have been little positives for a squad lacking in talent, but their work rate at times, has been admirable. The backs have lacked a little quality overall, with struggles at first five especially. The forwards have feared a little better, especially in tight. Utility Micaiah Torrance-Read has seen a lot of game time, and whilst he has not always shone, he has shown good signs. The man that has shone the brightest is TK Howden. Howden is very young, just out of school so to see a tight forward playing at this sort of level is unusual. He looks to be one for the future, so he may only find himself a development contract, but that should not matter.
The promotion favourites for many this season, Taranaki have underperformed in 2020. After a stellar start with the Barrett brothers, they were on top of the world and the holders of the Ranfurly Shield- but things unravelled. They now sit fourth, with a 3-3 record after snapping their losing streak against Southland. There have however been some positives. Kaylum Boshier and Tom Florence look like ones for the future, whilst Josh Lord has put in several strong showing, but the star of the show, has undoubtedly been Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens. The outside back first caught the eye in their Ranfurly Shield raid but has managed to maintain that form throughout the season scoring five tries. Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens has represented the New Zealand Sevens side, and at just 19, he has experience in several different backline positions. The Highlanders are said to be looking for a big outside back, and he could well be that man. The Hurricanes, Chiefs and Blues could also do with his services.
The current holders of the Ranfurly Shield, Hawkes Bay currently sit top of the Championship. The Magpies have a young squad, yet one that is full of Super experience. The returning Lolagi Visinia has bulked up, and weighs in at over 100kg, and could well find a Super Rugby deal. A return to the Blues perhaps? The man, that I have gone with though, is Lincoln McClutchie it is a surprise to many, that the diminutive first five has not already secured a Super Rugby deal, but this year feels like the year. After a bit of time in Japan, McClutchie has only refined his game, making better decisions around the park. There is no doubt he has the pace and ball skills, but questions still remain about his kicking game, especially his goal kicking. He is still good enough to earn a Super Rugby Deal, with the Chiefs surely his most likely destination.
BAY OF PLENTY
The 2020 season has not been kind to the Bay of Plenty. They sit bottom of the pile, level on points with North Harbour. They have not lived up to their standards of last season, for one reason or another and that will be disappointing for them. The side has a fair chunk of Super experience, but many players are either on the older side or underperforming. This is why, I am choosing to shine the light on Nathan Vella. Vella is 30 years of age and spent the 2020 season with the Highlanders as injury cover. He already has one Super Cap to his name with Hurricanes. He is probably unlikely to get a contract, but with the injury of Kurt Eklund, the hooker has been classy. Brilliant at the breakdown, with a strong work ethic round the park, he has been one of the best for the Steamers. If one of the sides is on the lookout for a third choice, then they could do worse than Vella.
The Mooloo men have surprised the masses in 2020, to sit second in the Premiership. This was no better expressed by their 16-15 upset win over Canterbury last week, thanks to a try well after the fulltime whistle. The match showed off many of their classy youngsters, with Rivez Reihana kicking the winning goal. Robb Cobb is another who has been strong this season, but the man who has stolen the show for them this season, is Xavier Roe. The livewire scrumhalf raised eyebrows after a dominant performance against TJ Perenara, in Waikato’s round one demolition of Wellington. From there, he has gone from strength to strength. With an aggressive running game, and a crisp pass, he is very similar to Brad Weber. He has shown a nose for the try line, and the 21-year-old is surely inline for a Super Rugby deal. Whether it be the it the Hurricanes, the Chiefs or even the Highlanders, Roe could be an astute addition for the future.
The Steelers have not been good at all in 2020. Despite having a decent looking side on paper, especially in the backline, but they sit second from bottom, with one solitary win. They have looked lacklustre, lacking direction meaning not many have shone. At times, Kirisi Kuridrani has shown why the Highlanders signed him up, but one would think he is uncontracted for next season. With no uncapped players really in line for a Super a deal, a man who could well be picked up if injuries strike is Alamanda Motuga. The loose forward is not the biggest, so he is certainly an openside flanker only at the next level. He had his performance of the season last time out against Otago, making several tackles throughout the match. Motuga plays in the most stacked position in New Zealand, but if injuries were to strike, Motuga could find the Blues come knocking.
After a shaky start to the season, Auckland have started to shake off the cobwebs, and somehow find themselves top of the table with just one defeat. They have been poor at times but have managed to scrape some important wins. Salesi Rayasi has of course been superb and should see increased game time with the Hurricanes next season. Several of their forwards have impressed this season, with Adrian Choat yet another good number seven, whilst Leni Apisai is on the search to re-earn a Super deal and has done himself no harm. The man who I want to take a closer look at though, as AJ Lam. The younger brother of Ben Lam is only 22 and looks to have buckets of potential. Whilst Rayasi has stolen the headlines, Lam has been just as good. Similar to his brother, he is big and powerful and could well have a career as successful as his brother. He looks to be skilful and has come in for praise from many this season, including Jeff Wilson. This has seen him linked with the Highlanders, as they attempt to find a big physical winger. If that was not to materialise, it would be a surprise not to see him earn a contract somewhere.
Suffering from severe financial issues, many expected North Harbour to fall flat this season. They have battled well though, and currently sit sixth, just clear of the Bay of Plenty. Bryn Gatland has shown some career best form, whilst the returning Nic Mayhew has also shone. They have a several other guys who have experienced Super Rugby, leaving a couple of guys. Tim Sail, an openside flanker who has shown quality in limited minutes, but the undoubted standout in this category is James Little. The cousin of Michael Little has been around for a new season, but some time with the China Lions has seen him refine his game. His defensive efforts have been solid this year, with an 85% tackle percentage, as well as securing a few turnovers. With ball in hand he has been solid without being spectacular and could be a real facilitator for one of the Super sides. Probably more of a backup at this stage of his career, the Blues could do worse than the local lad.
The Taniwha have started the 2020 season well and sit in the running for promotion. One important point is they have faced five Championship sides in their first six matches, so the bigger tests are yet to come. The side is a combination of youngsters putting their Super Rugby experience to good use, along with returning veterans. With slim pickings, Pisi Leilua has had some nice touches, but following the trend in New Zealand, Jordan Olsen is aging like a fine wine. Promoted to skipper for the 2020 season, Olsen has gone strength to strength. His leadership has clearly been strong, whilst his tackling his also been solid. Olsen fits into the category of a backup rake, and sides could certainly do work especially if injuries strike.
So, these are the fourteen players, who have not (or barely) experienced Super Rugby, who could be in line for contracts come Super Signing Day. A mix of youth and experience, they all fill different roles. What it does show, is New Zealand is not lacking in hookers and openside flankers!
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