NZ's top Super Rugby Aotearoa performers
SPOTLIGHT: Alex McLeod looks at the top five performers from Round Seven of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
The latest round of Super Rugby Aotearoa brought with it arguably the biggest upset of the competition when the Hurricanes emerged triumphant over the Crusaders in Christchurch.
Ignoring their 3-12 defeat to the British and Irish Lions in 2017, the Wellingtonians’ enthralling 34-32 victory over the reigning Super Rugby champions signalled the first loss the hosts had suffered in their backyard in four years.
Not only was it a drought-breaking win, but it has blown the competition wide open with three rounds remaining, as any one of the Crusaders, Blues and Hurricanes – who are all separated by just three points – stand as realistic chances of claiming the title.
In Auckland, meanwhile, the Blues bounced back from their two-match losing streak to return to the winners’ circle with a hard-fought 21-17 win against the Chiefs at Eden Park.
It was a match where the home side’s forward pack blossomed in the physical nature of the battle, with the front row among the stars of the show.
With that in mind, here are five of the best performers from the Round Seven of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Richie Mo’unga (Crusaders)
When the Crusaders beat the Blues in a top-of-the-table clash a few weeks ago, many pundits cried out to All Blacks boss Ian Foster that Richie Mo’unga should be maintained as New Zealand’s first-choice No.10 after outshining Beauden Barrett.
If there were any doubters about Mo’unga’s ability and capacity to tear a game apart while in the thick of the action, those concerns must surely be dispelled as he put on a ball-playing clinic in a losing effort against the Hurricanes.
The 26-year-old’s fleet-footedness was of the quality you’d expect of a world-class wing, while his vision, distribution and ability to pierce the defensive line with his agility and acceleration showed how good of a playmaker he is.
What transpired from his outstanding showing was an outrageous stat sheet that reads a try, a try assist, 17 points (most of the round), 92 running metres (third-most of the round), 12 defenders beaten (most of the round), four clean breaks (second-most of the round), an offload, five out of six tackles made and a turnover won.
Perhaps the only blight on his performance was the late conversion attempt to Sevu Reece’s try that went agonisingly close to tying the game up, but with efforts like this, it’s hard to argue against Mo’unga retaining the national flyhalf jersey.
Peter Umaga-Jensen (Hurricanes)
All the attention on the Hurricanes’ midfield was centred on Ngani Laumape after he bulldozed his way through the Blues in Wellington last week, but it was his partner Peter Umaga-Jensen who stole the show for the men in yellow.
It was almost a coming of age performance for the 22-year-old, in what could almost be described as his best performance in a Hurricanes jersey aside from maybe last year’s display against the Blues, when he and Danny Toala teamed up superbly.
Saturday’s task, however, was entirely different from last year’s assignment.
Rather than playing against a battling franchise rooted near the bottom of the Super Rugby table, Umaga-Jensen had to step up against the best team in New Zealand in front of their home crowd, of whom hadn’t seen their side lose in the flesh since 2016.
Step up is exactly what the promising nephew of former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga did, though, as he used his big frame to physically impose himself against Crusaders rookie and Tongan international Fetuli Paea.
The results were destructive for the Crusaders, who struggled to contain Umaga-Jensen as he beat four defenders to break the line twice, set up a Wes Goosen try and score one himself as he carried three defenders over the line with him.
With Laumape expected to be ruled out until November with a fractured forearm, the Hurricanes will be reliant on Umaga-Jensen producing similar displays if they are to challenge for the Super Rugby Aotearoa crown.
Kurt Eklund (Blues)
Veteran Blues hooker James Parsons may be signed on with the Auckland franchise until the end of next season, but head coach Leon MacDonald might have just uncovered his long-term replacement in the form of Kurt Eklund.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the 28-year-old Super Rugby rookie, who has long shone at Mitre 10 Cup level for both Auckland and Bay of Plenty without getting the recognition he probably deserves.
That’s changed over the past couple of weeks, though, as in the absence of Parsons from the Blues’ starting line-up, Eklund has established himself as one of the league’s most in-form hookers.
Backing up his admirable efforts against the Crusaders and Hurricanes, Eklund was handed man-of-the-match honours against the Chiefs on Sunday.
Playing a starring role in the Blues’ standout front row, his work rate didn’t go unnoticed, while his defensive tenacity and knack of being in the right place at the right time was key to the Blues’ success.
With 13 tackles from 13 attempts, his accuracy and hunger for work off the ball was as dependable as his unblemished success rate at the line-out, but neither were as eye-catching as his ability to “boof” a whole Powerade in a matter of seconds.
Sevu Reece (Crusaders)
Whatever shape the All Blacks’ outside back trio takes when they eventually get around to playing international rugby later this year, it would be a safe bet to put money on Sevu Reece being heavily involved.
The Fijian-born maestro was in his typical red-hot form, proving to be a menace to contain with his electric footwork and evasive skills.
Factor in his speed, power and athleticism, and it’s no surprise to see the 23-year-old finishing the Hurricanes clash with a try, 116 running metres (sound-most of the round), six defenders beaten (third-most of the round) and five clean breaks (most of the round).
With figures like those, Reece is making Foster’s job of trying to configure a back three – with a plethora of candidates in the running – a difficult one, but it’s really difficult to see the seven-test All Black not being in the mix.
Ofa Tu’ungafasi (Blues)
Super Rugby Aotearoa has been the stage of which seasoned Blues prop Ofa Tu’ungafasi has stated a hefty case to be elevated from a specialist bench player for the All Blacks to a starting player.
That’s how good the 35-test star has been over the past few weeks, and his string of strong performances didn’t fade away against the Chiefs.
You could say he even enhanced his reputation with another spellbinding display where his physicality on both sides of the ball were evident for all to see.
The bruising power Tu’ungafasi puts into his tackles is what sets him apart from a raft of other props across New Zealand, and he showed on Sunday that he’s no slouch with ball in hand either as he helped set up Finlay Christie’s try with a burst around the fringes of a ruck.
Capable of playing at both loosehead and tighthead, his immense scrumming ability has also been well-documented, and it’s no surprise to see the Blues’ burst of form coinciding with Tu’ungafasi’s career-best performances.
Alex McLeod, @RugbyPass