By Alex Shaw
Whilst northern hemisphere eyes turn to the upcoming Six Nations, attentions in the south are set firmly on the return of Super Rugby.
The premiere club tournament in the southern hemisphere, Super Rugby starts up again on Thursday 23rd February, when the Melbourne Rebels welcome the Blues to AAMI Park in the season opener.
The preseason programs are all well under way, the conditioning tests have been passed and now the 18 franchises involved in the competition move into the last phase of their preparations, embarking on a series of friendly matches to get them up to game speed.
The temptations of lucrative deals in the northern hemisphere – whether that’s in Europe or Japan – took their toll once again on Super Rugby squads this past off-season and whilst that is a frustration for the tournament’s fans, it does open up playing opportunities for the next generation of stars.
We take a look at the Super Rugby rookies who could have big impacts on their teams and the tournament this season.
Jordie Barrett, Hurricanes
Barrett is one of 33 players included in the five New Zealand franchises with no Super Rugby experience to date and is the one that the most is expected of.
The brother of All Black fly-half Beauden Barrett and lock Scott Barrett, Jordie opted to join elder brother Beauden in Wellington with the Hurricanes, rather than staying in Christchurch and joining Scott at the Crusaders. As an inside centre, this could see Jordie linking up with Beauden on the pitch in almost every phase of play and if they understand each other’s games as well as you would expect of two brothers, the benefits to the Hurricanes hardly need extolling.
Willis Halaholo’s move to the Cardiff Blues is the ajar door the younger Barrett needs and with his already well-tuned kicking, passing and running games, he is the multi-dimensional weapon that New Zealand franchises crave.
Josh Goodhue, Blues
A talented age-grade lock, Goodhue has been unlucky to be part of an under-performing Northland side in the Mitre 10 Cup in the last two seasons but despite the team’s poor overall showing, Goodhue has given a good account of himself.
He has been rewarded with a contract at the Blues, where head coach Tana Umaga is turning around the Auckland-based franchise. Umaga showed in 2016 that he is not afraid to pick younger players and that reputations alone are not enough to guarantee you a starting spot, especially if an unheralded player can bring more to the team.
Josh Bekhuis was a stalwart in last season’s Blues side and following his move to Lyon, there is a starting spot alongside Patrick Tuipulotu – who is currently MIA from the franchise due to personal reasons – to be competed for.
Amanaki Mafi, Rebels
The Tongan-born number eight has had an eventful couple of years.
From the Tonga U20s to Hanazono University and then the NTT Shining Arcs in the Japanese Top League, Mafi’s career went fairly under the radar until several barnstorming performances at the 2015 Rugby World Cup brought him into the world’s – or at least the Tier One world’s – consciousness. A blistering spell at Bath followed, but an altercation with one of the club’s medical officers ensured that it was short-lived.
He now brings his tremendous carrying ability to Melbourne and will make his Super Rugby debut at the age of 27. With the Rebels’ general trajectory within the competition seeming to be on the rise of late, Mafi could be the dynamic kind of back-rower needed to take their game to the next level this season and see them genuinely challenge for the Australian conference.
Curtis Rona, Western Force
A rugby league convert, Rona arrives at the Force during a time of upheaval. The franchise has parted ways with former head coach Michael Foley and back line regulars Kyle Godwin, Ben Tapuai, Junior Rasolea and Albert Nikioro have all left Western Australia.
Rona, who was involved with the New Zealand RL side, despite never going on to win a cap, could have an impact at centre or wing for the Force and the silver lining of the large turnover in the franchise’s back line is that they do not need to pigeonhole Rona into a specific role and he should have the freedom to find the position that suits his skill set the best.
If the Force can deliver front foot ball and retain possession, Rona will be a dangerous man in Super Rugby this season.
Junior Pokomela, Cheetahs
Pokomela made the move from the Kings in the offseason and though he was included in their 2016 Super Rugby squad, he did not go on to make his debut. The Kings’ loss would certainly look as if it will become the Cheetahs’ gain.
The mobile No 8 was a part of the South African U20 side that ended up finishing fourth at the World Rugby U20 Championship in England last summer and showed that whilst not being one of the biggest eights around, his added speed makes him a very dangerous prospect with ball in hand.
Breaking into the back row of Boom Prinsloo, Oupa Mohojé and Uzair Cassiem won’t be easy but if the Cheetahs want to evolve under Franco Smith’s stewardship, Pokomela’s attacking abilities can help them do just that.
Jaco Coetzee, Stormers
A former South Africa Schools standout, Coetzee has had his fair share of bad luck with injuries over the last couple of years but has all the physical and technical expertise you could want from a back-row player.
Schalk Burger left Cape Town for London this past offseason and though the Stormers are not lacking for options in their back-row, Coetzee can be the kind of talent that galvanises a fan base and gets them excited for the future.
If the injuries that have plagued him prove to be a thing of the past and he can continue to develop, then not only is he a player that can impact Super Rugby this season, he’s a 70-cap plus Springbok in the future.
Kenki Fukuoka, Sunwolves
Fukuoka is a new addition to the Sunwolves this season but has experience in the Japanese Top League, as well as for the Brave Blossoms, having been a part of their 2015 RWC squad.
The diminutive wing was also part of Japan’s sevens squad at the Rio Olympics and like any sub-6-foot outside back plying their trade in the 15-a-side game, he gets by with a combination of dazzling footwork, an electric turn of pace and a bravery in the tackle not always required by many of his larger teammates.
The Sunwolves are getting closer to resembling the Japanese national side, with the likes of Timothy Lafaele, Kotaro Matsushima and Fumiaki Tanaka also joining the fold this year and just like the national team, the Sunwolves are at their best in fluid, high-tempo matches. Fukuoka is tailor-made for that brand of rugby.
Santiago Álvarez, Jaguares
After making his way through the Argentinean age-grades, being a stalwart figure of the Argentina sevens side and even making his full Test debut, Álvarez now gets his opportunity to make an impact at senior club level with the Jaguares.
There is no shortage of talented midfielders and wings in the Buenos Aires-based side but if Álvarez can display the kind of attacking footwork and defensive responsibility he showed at the Rio Olympics last year, there’s no reason why he cannot force his way into contention this season.
Given the heavy travel demands placed on the Jaguares in a competition that sees them play on four different continents and the struggles the team endured as a result last season, using a wider squad and regularly rotating could be key for the South Americans this season and Álvarez will be a man to watch if that is so.