The Best in New Zealand
SUPER RUGBY AOTEAROA, ROUND SIX: Alex McLeod looks at the top five performers from round six of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
It would be no exaggeration to say that the most recent weekend of Super Rugby Aotearoa action was probably the most exciting and compelling round since the competition got underway.
Looking to bounce back after losing their unbeaten title to the Crusaders, the Blues were pipped by the Hurricanes in Wellington thanks to a clutch Jordie Barrett conversion from an Asafo Aumua try on the sideline with just three minutes to play.
That 29-27 victory extended the Hurricanes’ winning run to three straight matches, meaning they have well and truly overturned their winless start to the campaign last month.
The real test for Jason Holland’s side, though, will come next week, when they travel to Christchurch to face off the undefeated Crusaders who will be fresh and rearing to go off their bye week.
The Highlanders, meanwhile, were made to earn their upcoming week off against the Chiefs in Hamilton on Sunday, fighting back from 24-0 and 31-7 deficits to snatch an unlikely 33-31 win two minutes into injury time.
It was a dogged display of real determination to get themselves back into the contest, and the jubilation seen among the playing and coaching staff illustrated how much the comeback victory meant to the franchise.
The fourth-placed southerners now sit just three points adrift of the second-placed Blues leading into their bye week, but the Chiefs remain a long way off with only four points to their name at the bottom of the standings.
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With all that in mind, here are the five best players from round six of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Ngani Laumape (Hurricanes)
It has to be said that this was probably Ngani Laumape’s finest performance since switching to rugby union from the NRL four years ago.
His trademark ability to plough through defenders and leave them in a much worse state than he found them was on full show throughout the encounter, just ask Otere Black and Beauden Barrett.
But we already knew he could do that – what made Laumape’s display special was the fact that he showed glimpses of footwork and speed that was previously an unknown aspect of his game.
The way in which he skinned Barrett down the left sideline with a right foot step hinted that the second-five may wield the potential to thrive at this level as a wing, the same position he played during his time with the Warriors.
Whether his kicking game and aerial ability is up to scratch is another question entirely, but with match statistics that read a try, 160 running metres, five defenders beaten, four clean breaks and two offloads, it will be hard for the 27-year-old to be ignored by Ian Foster.
Aaron Smith (Highlanders)
The only other challenger for this week’s mantle of best player of the round would have to be Aaron Smith, who was at the focal point of the Highlanders’ remarkable turnaround at FMG Stadium Waikato.
Building on a string of performances that have made him the franchise’s most valuable player this season, Smith was critical to his side’s chances of success, whether it was his communication, tactical awareness or livewire energy across the park.
So good was the 31-year-old that he played a vital role in three of his team’s five tries through both his exquisite passing and effective running game.
Smith’s ability to mislead the Chiefs’ defence by feeding the ball to Josh McKay on a switch play in the lead-up to Mitch Hunt’s try was commendable, but his constant presence to keep the ball alive while teaming up with McKay and Manaaki Selby-Rickit was as enthralling as it was important to scoring himself.
The final nail in the coffin came in the last play of the match when the Chiefs, leading by just five points, expected to defend a rolling maul on their own tryline.
Smith had other ideas, though, as he took the ball off the back of the maul and drew in Anton Lienert-Brown to create a gaping hole for Sio Tomkinson to soar through as the Highlanders snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
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Dalton Papalii (Blues)
Were it not for the fact that Sam Cane is the All Blacks captain, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that Dalton Papalii’s efforts for the Blues warrant a starting spot for the national side.
Sure, his exploits with ball in hand at Sky Stadium on Saturday weren’t as good as they have been in other matches this year, but it was his explosiveness and tenacity on defence that really caught the eye.
Registering a round-high 18 tackles, it was the venom in Papalii’s hits against the Hurricanes that impressed, and it’s that physical edge on defence that has set him apart from a competitive contingent of loose forwards in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Capping off his outing with a try off the back of a rolling maul, the three-test flanker stands as a strong contender to fill the void left by Matt Todd in the All Blacks, and will form an intriguing head-to-head battle with Cane when the Chiefs travel to Auckland next week.
Lachlan Boshier (Chiefs)
If Papalii heads the chasing pack looking to vacate an open spot in the All Blacks’ loose forward mix, his Chiefs counterpart Lachlan Boshier is his primary challenger for a promotion into the national side.
Grabbing the attention of onlookers nationwide with his top-notch performances on either side of the ball prior to Super Rugby’s suspension in March, a crackdown on interpretations of refereeing at the breakdown stunted Boshier’s impressive output.
The uncapped 25-year-old was earning more penalties than turnovers in the opening weeks of Super Rugby Aotearoa as he – like plenty of others – struggled to adjust to the new law adjustments.
He has, however, seemingly accustomed himself to those changes, as was evidenced against the Highlanders, where he shone as the Chiefs’ best player.
Boshier’s teammates thwarted two potentially game-winning turnovers made by the No. 6 in the final few minutes through their ill-discipline, but with figures reading one try, 55 running metres, three defenders beaten, two clean breaks, 10 tackles and five lineout wins, it would be unwise to rule him out of the national selection frame just yet.
Shannon Frizell (Highlanders)
If Aaron Smith has been the Highlanders’ best player throughout the Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign, Shannon Frizell can’t be too far off him for that crown given how destructive he’s been this year.
Originally omitted from the squad to travel to the World Cup last year after falling behind Luke Jacobson in the national pecking order, it would now be unfathomable to see Frizell miss out on Foster’s first All Blacks squad next month.
That’s how good the Tongan-born 26-year-old has been over the past month or so, and his hot run of form didn’t dissipate against the Chiefs.
A menace on attack, Frizell ran for a whopping 88 metres – more than any other forward in the round – after making three clean breaks.
He fronted up on defence as well, making the most tackles of any Highlanders player (eight) with the sort of physicality that has made him a force to be reckoned with in the New Zealand game.
By Alex McLeod, Rugbypass