Super Rugby Aotearoa, Round Seven - Teams and Predictions
THE NEW GUY: Few probably knew who Connor Garden-Bachop was at the beginning of 2021 – let alone whether he was any good at rugby.
Despite making his provincial debut in 2018 for Canterbury, the 21-year-old has made just seven appearances in the Mitre 10 Cup due to a run of troubling injuries, which also kept him sidelined for the entire 2020 Super Rugby season.
Highlanders coach Tony Brown admitted before the season kicked off that, much like many other folks in New Zealand, he hadn’t been lucky enough to catch any of Garden-Bachop’s seven professional appearances to date (plus two showings for the NZ Schools Barbarians side in 2016).
“Connor, I’ve actually never seen him play,” Brown said during the Aotearoa pre-season.
“So I’m excited to watch him go and he’s pretty excited to get out there because I know he’s had a tough year last year, and it’s going to be good to see what he can deliver first up.”
Despite his limited minutes, former Highlanders coach Aaron Mauger signed up Garden-Bachop last year on a two-season deal. A lower back injury suffered in the latter stages of 2019, however, quickly curtailed his season.
While he missed out on running out for the Highlanders and Wellington last year, Garden-Bachop has hardly looked rusty in the opening six rounds of this year’s competition, carving up opposition from the wing and at fullback.
That’s been helped by Tony Brown’s expansive approach to coaching, allowing players to take risks on the field and play what’s in front of them.
Brown made sure his young charge knew heading into the season that he had full trust in the 21-year-old to make decisions on the fly.
“Before my first game, I asked him,” Garden-Bachop told Stuff this week. “I said, ‘How much free licence do I have to attack and do what I want?’ and before I had even finished the question he said, ‘free’.
“He backs us 100 percent just to pull the trigger, and that’s one of my favourite things about playing for this team and playing for Tony.”
Garden-Bachop is one of just three Highlanders players to have started in all five of their Super Rugby matches played so far this season, alongside prop Siate Tokolahi and flank Shannon Frizell.
He’s comfortably the youngest and least experienced of that trio, however, indicating just how superb his form has been to date.
Two of those starts have come in his preferred No.15 jersey – although an early-game injury to Jona Nareki in one of those matches saw him shifted to the wing.
Against the Chiefs this week, Garden-Bachop is named again to play at fullback, where he’s shown a deft pair of feet and some speed to boot.
No one was talking about the 21-year-old before Super Rugby Aotearoa had kicked off – few had even heard of him – but he could be the name on everyone’s lips come the end of the season if he can maintain his impressive form.
We take a look a closer look at Round Seven’s matches!
Saturday, April 10:
Highlanders v Chiefs
(Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin – Kick-off: 19.05; 07.05)
The Highlanders are undefeated in their last five Super Rugby games against the Chiefs (W4, D1); their 39-23 win over the Chiefs when they last met in Round Two of this Super Rugby Aotearoa season was their biggest win against them since May 2015.
The Highlanders will be hunting for back-to-back Super Rugby wins for the first time since April 2019 after picking up a team-record 33-12 win over the Crusaders in their last game (Round Six, Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021).
The Chiefs have made 12 or more clean breaks in three of their last four Super Rugby games, more times than they had done so in their 13 games prior.
The Highlanders’ Billy Harmon and Chiefs’ Luke Jacobson have each hit 65 effective rucks this Super Rugby Aotearoa season, higher than any other players.
The Chiefs’ Brad Weber and Highlanders’ Jona Nareki have each made eight clean breaks this Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign, more than any other players in the competition.
@rugby365com: Highlanders by seven points.
Highlanders: 15 Connor Garden-Bachop, 14 Ngatungane Punivai, 13 Patelesio Tomkinson, 12 Scott Gregory, 11 Jona Nareki, 10 Mitch Hunt, 9 Aaron Smith (co-captain), 8 Kazuki Himeno, 7 James Lentjes, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Paripari Parkinson, 4 Bryn Evans, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon (co-captain), 1 Ethan De Groot.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Ayden Johnstone, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Josh Dickson, 20 Billy Harmon, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Josh Ioane, 23 Hugh Renton.
Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Jonah Lowe, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Quinn Tupaea, 11 Etene Nanai-Seturo, 10 Kaleb Trask, 9 Brad Weber (captain), 8 Luke Jacobson, 7 Kaylum Boshier, 6 Mitchell Brown, 5 Naitoa Ah Kuoi, 4 Tupou Vaa’i, 3 Angus Ta’avao, 2 Samisoni Taukei’aho, 1 Aidan Ross.
Replacements: 16 Bradley Slater, 17 Ollie Norris, 18 Joe Apikotoa, 19 Samipeni Finau, 20 Pita Gus Sowakula, 21 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 22 Alex Nankivell, 23 Shaun Stevenson.
Referee: Ben O’Keeffe
Assistant referees: Mike Fraser, Brendon Pickerill
TMO: Chris Hart
Sunday, April 11:
Hurricanes v Crusaders
(Wellington Regional Stadium, Wellington – Kick-off: 15.35; 03.35 GMT)
The Crusaders have won seven of their last eight Super Rugby games against the Hurricanes (L1), including a 39-25 win in their last away game against them (Round Two, 2020 Super Rugby Aotearoa).
The Crusaders have won their last two away games against the Hurricanes in Super Rugby and will be looking for three consecutive away wins against them for the first time in the history of the competition.
The Crusaders will be looking to avoid back-to-back Super Rugby defeats for the first time since March 2018 after succumbing to a 33-12 defeat to the Highlanders in their last game (Round Six, Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021).
Jordie Barrett (Hurricanes) has scored 42 points in his last two Super Rugby appearances; however, he has not scored 10+ points in a home game since Round Three
of the 2020 Super Rugby season (13 v Sharks).
Sevu Reece (Crusaders) has made 10 offloads so far this Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign, three more than any other player in the competition.
@rugby365com: Crusaders by four points.
Hurricanes: 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Julian Savea, 13 Peter Umaga-Jensen, 12 Ngani Laumape, 11 Wes Goosen, 10 Ruben Love, 9 Luke Campbell, 8 Devan Flanders, 7 Ardie Savea (captain), 6 Reed Prinsep, 5 Isaia Walker-Leawere, 4 James Blackwell, 3 Tyrel Lomax, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Xavier Numia.
Replacements: 16 Asafo Aumua, 17 Tevita Mafileo, 18 Alex Fidow, 19 Scott Scrafton, 20 Vaea Fifita, 21 Du’Plessis Kirifi, 22 Jonathan Taumateine, 23 Billy Proctor.
Crusaders: 15 Will Jordan, 14 Sevu Reece, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 David Havili, 11 George Bridge, 10 Richie Mo’unga, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Cullen Grace, 7 Sione Havili Talitui, 6 Whetukamokamo Douglas, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Scott Barrett (captain), 3 Oliver Jager, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16 Brodie McAlister, 17 George Bower, 18 Michael Alaalatoa, 19 Mitchell Dunshea, 20 Tom Sanders, 21 Mitchell Drummond, 22 Dallas McLeod, 23 Leicester Fainga’anuku.
Referee: Paul Williams
Assistant referees: Mike Fraser, Brendon Pickerill
TMO: Glenn Newman
Source: Sam Smith (@RugbyPass) & SANZAAR
*Statistical information provided by Stats Perform