The Super Rugby season starts this weekend and there will a smorgasbord of young talent on display, RW picks eight of the best
By Alex Shaw
Whilst rain and wind batters the northern hemisphere and a particularly stodgy Six Nations heads into its third round, the southern hemisphere is gearing up for the return of Super Rugby, and all the thrills and spills that come with it.
The tournament is back with a new-look format and welcomes three new teams in the forms of the Sunwolves, Jaguares and Southern Kings. These new additions mark the first time in the tournament’s history that there will be Japanese and Argentinean representation.
Below are a number of players – newbies, former back-ups or emerging stars – who will be well worth keeping an eye on in this historic edition of the southern hemisphere’s premiere club competition.
Richie Mo’unga, Crusaders
When Dan Carter, Colin Slade and Tom Taylor all departed Christchurch for the lures of the Top 14 in 2015, a fly-half vacuum was created at the Crusaders. Marty McKenzie and Ben Volavola were thought to be in the lead for the starter’s jersey but judging by preseason selections, Mo’unga may have pipped them both to the post.
The 21-year-old was a standout performer in New Zealand’s U20 side in 2014 and has since backed that up with two impressive seasons with Canterbury in the ITM Cup. There are certainly worse teams to try and make a name for yourself at as a young fly-half than the Crusaders, who have a well-drilled pack and dangerous back line.
Ayumu Goromaru, Reds
The Japanese sensation has reportedly become the highest paid player in the world since his move to the Reds, thanks to the numerous commercial opportunities his arrival in Queensland has created. Away from the finances, however, this will be the biggest challenge in Ayumu Goromaru’s club career to date.
The full-back is good enough to make the Reds’ 15 jersey his own but he will still have to overcome issues such as his limited English and the obvious step up in quality from the Japanese Top League. If he can adapt quickly to his new environs, Goromaru should provide the Reds with much-needed consistency and reliability at the back, as well as an unerring boot.
Hanro Liebenberg, Bulls
With older brother Wiaan and Jacques du Plessis in Montpellier and Pierre Spies having cut ties with the Bulls, Liebenberg could quickly become the centrepiece of their new-look back row. After captaining the South Africa U20 side and making his Super Rugby debut last season, Liebenberg has spent much of his time since recovering from a ruptured small intestine.
It had been feared that the injury may have been career-ending but the versatile loose forward is back and looking sharp ahead of the Bulls’ season opener against the Stormers. Whether he’s packing down at eight or on the blindside, Liebenberg’s carrying, work rate and strong tackling will be vital to the Bulls this year.
Ngani Laumape, Hurricanes
Laumape has come to Wellington via rugby league and is looking to fill the considerable Ma’a Nonu-sized hole in the Hurricanes’ midfield. Short and stocky but extremely powerful, Laumape is centre very much in the mould of France’s Jonathan Danty.
Like Danty, Laumape has some real ball skills to go with his impressive physical attributes and on paper should fill the Nonu void admirably. Readjusting to Union and getting on the same page as fly-half Beauden Barrett will be Laumape’s priorities in the opening weeks but look for him to make a bigger impact as the season wears on.
Jack Dempsey, Waratahs
The back row of Dave Dennis, Michael Hooper and Wycliff Palu is well-entrenched in Sydney, but with Dennis bound for Exeter and Palu turning 34 this season, the ‘Tahs are going to look to Dempsey to step up in 2016. Dempsey is versatile enough to cover multiple positions in the back row and will look to stake a claim this season that he is a man the ‘Tahs can rely on moving forward.
An initial role on the bench seems likely but with head coach Daryl Gibson keen to find the successors to Dennis and Palu at six and eight respectively, expect to see plenty of opportunities sent Dempsey’s way.
Santiago Cordero, Jaguares
Santiago Cordero delighted anyone who watched him play at the Rugby World Cup and now gets a chance to shine in a club competition which seems tailor-made to his strengths. Unlike many of his national compatriots, Cordero resisted the lure of heading to Europe, instead staying in Argentina during his formative rugby years.
As good as he was at the RWC, the lack of high level competition week in week out so far in his career will certainly make Super Rugby a challenging prospect for the full-back-cum-wing. If he can overcome that step up in quality of opposition, then Cordero has all the skills required to be one of the competition’s stars.
Pieter-Steph du Toit, Stormers
Having made the move from Durban to Cape Town in the offseason, du Toit will now pack down alongside Eben Etzebeth in arguably the best engine room pairing in Super Rugby. Injuries have had a significant impact on du Toit’s career to this point but if he can stay fit and impress, he’s as talented as any of the second rows in the competition.
Partnering the incumbent in the Springbok engine room at club level certainly won’t hurt du Toit’s international prospects and he needs to turn in a big season if he wants to be central to South Africa’s plans in this new cycle.
Seta Tamanivalu, Chiefs
After soaring to prominence in the ITM Cup, the 2015 Super Rugby season proved to be somewhat of a false dawn for Tamanivalu. He was tipped to take the competition by storm, but saw his opportunities limited by the impressive midfield duo of Sonny Bill Williams and Charlie Ngatai.
With Williams now focused on Olympic glory with the New Zealand sevens side, there is an opening in the Chiefs midfield for Tamanivalu to showcase his considerable abilities. The Chiefs have become perhaps the most efficient conveyor belt of talent amongst the Kiwi franchises and this Fijian-born centre has the potential to be one of the very best to roll off of it.
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