Super Rugby Round Table: Mid-season awards
Our writers give their picks for Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Player, Coach of the Year, Best Signing, Worst Signing and give their opinion on what has been the game of the year so far, and which fixture they are most looking forward to in the second half of the season.
*Statistics correct as of week nine
Alex McLeod: Amanaki Mafi (Rebels)
Any forward that averages 105 metres per match at the halfway stage of the season should be championed and celebrated, which is why the Tongan-born Japanese No. 8 gets my pick for MVP.
With a whopping 574 metres to his name, Mafi’s keenness to get his giant mitts on the ball and run rampant with it is vital to the Rebels’ success. They should feel privileged to have him.
Ben Smith: Malcolm Marx (Lions)
In terms of who is most valuable to their team, rather than who is the best player, I’d argue Lions hooker Malcolm Marx is the MVP.
He is a special physical specimen that is integral to setting the Lions platform. The scrum has been dominant this year and Marx’s lineout success rate is at the top of competition. The scrum penalties the pack wins is often down to the strong front row, and Marx is a part of that.
He has been a force at the breakdown, winning two steals and nine penalties, which is the most in the competition. With ball in hand he is just as destructive – his five tries are the second most of any forward.
Sam Warlow: Damian McKenzie (Chiefs)
After nine weeks, Damian McKenzie has been the best player in the competition.
In his first season at first five-eighth, McKenzie has been outstanding. He trails only Akira Ioane in terms of broken tackles, leads his position in try assists (5) and line breaks (8), is second in run metres and third in points scored. He also leads the competition in line break assists (13), conjuring up attacking opportunities for his team seemingly at will.
Nikora Price: Tana Umaga’s Emotional Strength
How this man is holding it together despite his team falling apart every week is a minor miracle. Such is the trajectory of the Blues season thus far, he might be making some tough phone calls to John Kirwan and I don’t think they’ll be for coaching advice.
Back up pick: Beauden Barrett.
The Hurricanes are THE team to beat this year, and this man plays a massive role in that being the case. Another vintage year of running a tight ship in the Hurricanes backline and has established himself as a once in a generation kind of player.
Rookie of the Year
AM: Michael Little (Sunwolves)
Michael Little is making the Blues regret not retaining him a couple of seasons ago, with the former North Harbour midfielder becoming a consistent performer since his Super Rugby debut in round three.
His hard running creates holes for the Sunwolves to (often unsuccessfully) exploit, while he also offers the same sort of impact on defence thanks to his superb work rate. Whether it be for Italy, Fiji or Japan, a future international call-up is inevitable for Little.
BS: Aphiwe Dyantyi (Lions)
After nine rounds of Super Rugby, it’s hard to pick a standout rookie.
While there have been several breakout players with previous experience who have finally got things right, there aren’t many true rookies that have debuted this year.
In terms of true rookies, Lions winger Aphiwe Dyanti exploded in the early rounds showing incredible speed, skill and a wicked step. He scored six tries before being struck by injury, including a stunner on debut against the Sharks.
SW: Tyler Ardron (Chiefs)
After four years in the Pro14, big Canadian Tyler Ardron moved south and joined the Chiefs, making an almost immediate impact. The 1.93-metre, 114kg behemoth can cover both lock and loose forward and has shown great mobility and ball skills in his first year of Super Rugby.
Ardron’s best display came in his first career start against the Sunwolves in week six. The 26-year-old finished with a try, 124 run metres from six carries, three clean breaks and he converted on eight of his nine tackle attempts.
NP: Brad Thorn (Reds)
Man of God in the streets but a demon in cleats, big Brad has made a splash in his first Super Rugby head coaching gig.
After coaching Queensland Country from the wooden spoon to literal champions, Thorn is trying to replicate that success with the Reds this season.
Despite sitting third in the Australian conference, there are noticeable improvements within the squad and the future looks bright.
Most Improved Player
AM: Ben Lam (Hurricanes)
While Solomon Alaimalo of the Chiefs could just as easily could have taken this gong, Ben Lam deserves the accolade.
Another to escape the clutches of the Blues, Lam is in the sort of form that could see him named as a bolter for the All Blacks’ June test series against France.
His pure strength, pace and athleticism are too much for opposition defenders to cope with, and his nine tries from seven matches has transformed him from a fringe wing for the Hurricanes into a genuine star.
BS: Akira Ioane (Blues)
The Blues number eight has become a dynamic attacking ball carrier and one of the hardest men to tackle in Super Rugby.
He has been in prolific try-scoring form, striking from just about anywhere. He is in the frame for the All Blacks but will need to improve on the other side of the ball to further his case.
SW: Akira Ioane (Blues)
Akira Ioane is far and away the most improved player this season.
After getting a taste in the black jersey at the end of last year, Ioane has shifted his game into high gear and cemented his place in the All Black conversation.
The enormous number eight has scored seven tries in as many games and is good for 78 metres and almost seven tackle busts every outing. He also leads his team in tackles (48) and is bringing defenders down at an 82% rate.
NP: Ben Lam (Hurricanes)
What?! A powerful former Blues outside back has excelled at a different Kiwi franchise after getting consistent game time? Unheard of.
Coach of the Year
AM: David Wessels (Rebels)
Top marks need to be given to David Wessels for the work he’s done at the Melbourne Rebels.
The Victoria-based club have been much better since his instalment at the helm, and his coaching ability has seen them shift from recipients of the wooden spoon last year to serious play-off contenders in 2018.
BS: Chris Boyd (Hurricanes)
The Hurricanes coach has been the best in the franchise history with a win record of over 85 percent.
That record looked like it could take a hit when the Hurricanes lost to the Bulls in their opening game, but they haven’t lost since – including season-defining wins over the Crusaders, Highlanders and Chiefs in crucial derby clashes.
SW: Aaron Mauger (Highlanders)
Like Scott Robertson before him, Aaron Mauger is the latest former All Black to make a seamless transition into Super Rugby coaching.
Halfway through his first year Mauger has led the Highlanders to a 5-2 record – good for second in the New Zealand conference – with his most impressive scalp claimed after a 25-17 home victory over the Crusaders in week five.
NP: Chris Boyd (Hurricanes)
The best coach and the best team.
He’s managed to elevate them to another level, we could very well be looking at the golden era of Hurricanes footy.
AM: Will Genia (Rebels)
One of Wessels’ best acquisitions for the 2018 season has been securing the services of 88-test Wallabies halfback Will Genia.
The veteran has been immense, providing leadership and experience as he’s linked up with Jack Debrezceni to steer Melbourne around the park.
His tactical kicking has been nothing short of top-notch, and his sniping from the base of rucks and scrums has allowed the Rebels to score tries they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.
BS: Gareth Evans and Ben Lam (Hurricanes)
The Hurricanes have two of them.
Ben Lam will grab headlines for his finishing ability but Gareth Evans has been outstanding.
The loose forward does all the dirty work but has also been surprisingly potent as a ball carrier. He gives the Hurricanes an option off the back of the scrum and a key piece in the lineout, as well as turnovers at the ruck on defence.
Will Genia (Rebels) and Robert Du Preez (Sharks) have also been great additions.
SW: Isi Naisarani (Brumbies)
Scooped up by the Brumbies following the axing of the Western Force, Isi Naisarani has emerged as a damaging back rower in 2018.
The 23-year-old Fijian ranks second in his team in terms of minutes played (554) and tackle busts (17) and leads the Brumbies in tries scored (4), run metres (577), line breaks (9), while converting on 87% of his tackle attempts.
Naisarani becomes eligible for the Wallabies in March 2019, where he will no doubt be part of their World Cup plans.
NP: Sean Wainui (Chiefs)
If you were to imagine what the Chiefs franchise would look like as a person, it would be Sean Wainui. He literally looks like a Chief.
He’s proven to be a worthy replacement for former franchise-personification, James Lowe, and has quickly found his feet amongst one of the deadliest back threes in the competition.
AM: Otere Black (Blues)
Otere Black isn’t actually a bad player, nor is it that he’s played badly for the Blues this year.
The problem is that the man who was expected to run the cutter for the under-performing Auckland club has not played a minute for them this season, and the hype that surrounded his arrival hasn’t been – and will not be – justified this campaign, with a ruptured ACL ruling him out of Super Rugby action until 2019.
Game I’m most looking forward to
AM: Highlanders v Hurricanes Round 16
While most people will be eagerly anticipating the re-match between the Crusaders and Hurricanes in Christchurch in Round 15, the Friday night showdown the following week will be a more exciting affair.
Any Kiwi derby under the roof of Forsyth Barr Stadium is unparalleled within the realm of Super Rugby, with high-speed, high-quality rugby guaranteed thanks to a dry ball and a firm track at the players’ disposal.
BS: Crusaders vs Hurricanes Round 15
SW: Crusaders vs Hurricanes Round 15
What more could you want with Super Rugby’s two most recent champions and arguably best teams going head to head.
The pair have already met once this season, with the Hurricanes claiming a 29-19 home victory in week four.
In week 15, the Hurricanes will travel to the fortress that is AMI Stadium in what is sure to be an explosive match as the Crusaders look to even the ledger.
NP: Crusaders vs Hurricanes: Round 15
Might as well be the final to be honest.
A huge test for the Canes against a Crusaders team who are always a different beast with a home crowd behind them.
The two strongest teams from the strongest conference, it could be an indicator of who will take the title.
Pick to win title
The Hurricanes have looked sharp all season long, and with a favourable schedule coming up for the remainder of the season, a top-placed finish at the end of the regular season looks promising.
That would gift them home ground advantage for the entirety of the playoffs, and given how strongly they perform at Westpac Stadium, it would take a mammoth effort by any side to deny them their second Super Rugby title.
I think that a Crusaders repeat is on the cards.
If they can go on a late-season run and knock off the four New Zealand teams over the last five weeks – three of four games at home, including the last two, with a bye in the middle – that momentum will likely carry them to the number one seed and another title, barring injury.
At this point in the season, all of the momentum is with the ‘Canes.
Their backline is destroying the competition off the back of a rock-solid pack, and they show no signs of slowing down.
With Barrett in charge and the likes of Lam and Laumape outside him, it’s easy to see them lifting the silverware come August.