Super Rugby Aotearoa concluded on the weekend in anti-climatic fashion due to the recent community transmission of COVID-19 in Auckland.
This saw the Highlanders take on the Hurricanes behind closed doors and the cancellation of a sold-out match between the Blues and the inaugural champions the Crusaders.
Over the last ten weeks, the New Zealand Super Rugby Franchises have treated rugby fans all over the world with scintillating and competitive rugby. This has been well received by fans turning out in their masses with clever scheduling like having Sunday afternoon fixtures.
Here are five talking points from the competition:
1. One off or here to stay? The crowds, broadcasters and a number of players have enjoyed the internal New Zealand competition. This begs the question – is the competition sustainable moving forward in upcoming years?
There are three factors to consider. The first and ultimate decider is the coronavirus situation. If international travel is possible then a multi-nation competition is likely. New Zealand Rugby will have the Super Rugby Aotearoa competition at the forefront of their mind, if teams cannot travel to ensure there is a quality competition available.
The second factor is what happens to southern hemisphere professional rugby moving forward? Both New Zealand and Australia unions have used the lull period created by COVID-19 to reassess what works for the future.
New Zealand rugby did the Aratipu report, which concluded they would like a competition featuring 2-3 Australian teams. Australia are not budging and counter-proposed a competition featuring all five of their franchises and a Champions League style format to follow.
The other consideration is the players. Whilst the majority of players have relished playing near Test match level rugby on a weekly basis, concerns of player welfare have been raised. Chiefs halfback Brad Weber saying “Playing Super Rugby New Zealand derbies all the time probably isn’t sustainable around the athletes and player welfare”. This is due to the intensity of playing week in week out in the New Zealand-only competition.
2. Crusaders set the benchmark (again) For the fourth consecutive season the Crusaders take the victory spoils. They showed their class by wrapping up the competition with a week to spare, finishing with a six-win, one-loss record (and a draw for the cancelled match against the Blues).
The Christchurch franchise scored the most points (219) and conceded the fewest (148).
Their title win is testament to a great development system which saw youngsters like Tom Christie and Will Jordan. Christie filled the Crusaders number seven jersey left vacant by Matt Todd with his large work rate.
Fullback/wing Jordan was a bright spark with his attacking play where he led metres gained (724m), defenders beaten (39) and tries (6).
Richie Mo’unaga showed his class and is a must for the competitions most valuable player with his ability to make big plays at crucial moments of a game. His kick-off regather against the Blues was a season highlight. With 99 points, he was the leading point scorer and in try assists with four.
The team was well led by Codie Taylor with original season captain Scott Barrett being ruled out injured. The captaincy enabled Taylor to play at an extremely high level especially in general play. This included making nine clean line breaks with ball in hand.
3. The Chiefs get the wooden spoon With an 0-8 record the Chiefs were the disappointment of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
An average losing margin of a fraction over seven points per game, the Waikato men were in a number of games but failed to close them out. This included a match-winning drop goal from Bryn Gatland (son of Chiefs coach Warren) for the Highlanders to snatch a one-point win in the opening round. The Highlanders also came back from 24-7 down to win on the buzzer 33-31 in the return leg.
The Chiefs can count themselves unlucky at times with a number of refereeing decisions going against them at crucial times. A disallowed Damian McKenzie try by the TMO against the Highlanders for an accidental offside was admitted as the wrong call by New Zealand referee boss Bryce Lawrence.
A controversial penalty award to the Blues with the Chiefs hot on attack denied them a victory at Eden Park. Josh Goodhue won the turnover but replays showed he was off his feet at the time.
With Warren Gatland coaching the Lions in South Africa next year (if the tour goes ahead), they will have Bay of Plenty coach Clayton McMillan at the helm for the interim. McMillan faces a tough job getting a talented team back on track in one season.
The tight five stocks should be boosted with props Nepo Laulala, Atu Moli and Angus Ta’avao being available more often after injury disruptions. Brodie Retallick is also expected back after his sabbatical. Their backline featuring Brad Weber, Anton Lienert-Brown and Damian McKenzie show there is no shortage of big game players.
4. Leadership brings out the class As mentioned earlier Codie Taylor thrived with the responsibility of being the Crusaders leader. Throughout Super Rugby Aotearoa other captains show their class and led by example.
Blues skipper Patrick Tuipulotu is becoming one of the most respected rugby players in New Zealand with his calm approach and his ability to incorporate his Samoan heritage in speeches. More importantly he has been influential in rallying a Blues team into a competitive outfit by leading from the front with his physical play and is maturing into a world-class player.
Highlanders co-captain Aaron Smith has been a key figure in a young Highlanders team and has delivered when needed. He reached the 150-game milestone on the weekend and by his current form has a few more games left in him.
Smith was instrumental in leading the Highlanders comeback against the Chiefs in Round 6 with his willingness to play high tempo rugby and his accurate passes to put players into gaps.
5. Selection headaches for the All Blacks The New Zealand derbies have highlighted the talent pool is still deep in New Zealand rugby. The recent North versus South squad announcement reflects this.
All Black coach Ian Foster and his selection panel have plenty of options when announcing their first squad of the year on 30th August. There are a number of areas where there will be quality players missing out such as in the loose forward department and the back three unit.
The loose forward mix will feature captain Sam Cane, once he recovers from a recent concussion and the dynamic Ardie Savea. There are plenty of options to complete the trio including Shannon Frizell who got better through the season with his stinging tackles and his mobile ball carries. He made 98 tackles which was second overall.
Chiefs flanker Lachlan Boshier has been a standout all year including prior to the original stoppage of Super Rugby. His ability to win turnovers at the breakdown regularly has put him into the selection mix. He has the ability to play both flanks equally well.
Young Blues number 8 Hoskins Sotutu has impressed through 2020 with his speed and strength off the back of the scrum. He has shown signs of being a good all-round player with great vision when to pass and being a useful line-out option.
There is a plethora of wingers and fullbacks to chose from. Will Jordan’s impressive season puts him in good stead for a call up.
Jordie Barrett has finally settled on fullback being the position where he plays his best rugby. He played with a lot of freedom and allowed the Hurricanes to bounce back after a slow start losing their first two games. Damian McKenzie will be eager for an All Black recall after an ACL injury in 2019.
On the wings, incumbents Sevu Reece and George Bridge have had strong seasons crossing for four and three tries respectively. Caleb Clarke has shown he is a prospect with his performances for the Blues. He features in the competitions top 10 for metres (348m), defenders beaten (18) and clean breaks (10).
The 21-year-old would not have been in consideration as he was preparing for a shot at Olympic Gold with the New Zealand 7s team. With great speed, a swerve and at 107 kgs he has the attributes for international rugby.
Super Rugby Aotearoa has been a great success during a world pandemic. The next few months will be crucial in deciding what format professional rugby will look like in the southern hemisphere. If Super Rugby Aotearoa happens in 2021, we should expect to see much of the same as we have done over the last 10 weeks.