Top five performers in New Zealand
SPOTLIGHT: Alex McLeod looks at the top five performers from Round Eight of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
There is just a fortnight remaining in Super Rugby Aotearoa, and, with one win separating them from the title, it’s fair to say the competition is the Crusaders’ for the taking.
The back-to-back-to-back reigning Super Rugby titleholders have set themselves up in a handy position leading into next week’s South Island derby with the Highlanders in Christchurch following their 32-19 win over the Chiefs on Saturday.
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All Scott Robertson’s men need is a win against their southern rivals to seal the Kiwi domestic league, which would come as a devastating blow for the Blues.
After almost a decade of underachievement, the Aucklanders have impressed all season long under the guidance of Leon MacDonald, with Sunday’s 32-21 victory over the Highlanders in Dunedin highlighting their immense physicality up front.
That win keeps them just two point adrift from the Crusaders at the summit of the table, but with a bye week looming, the Blues will be relying on the Highlanders to produce a monumental upset and win at Orangetheory Stadium in six days’ time.
With all that in mind, here are the five best performers from round eight of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Akira Ioane (Blues)
The key to the Blues’ win over the Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium was their bruising defence, of which only allowed two tries despite an attacking onslaught by the hosts towards the end of the match.
It wasn’t only on the opposite side of the ball where the Blues shone, though – the silky, efficient play in the backline was complemented by the physicality shown in the forwards.
Patrick Tuipulotu and Ofa Tu’ungafasi were among the stars who led from the front for the visitors, but none shone brighter than man-of-the-match Akira Ioane, whose profile as a potential All Blacks candidate continues to rise.
It feels like Super Rugby Aotearoa has been a coming of age campaign for the 25-year-old loose forward.
The emergence of Hoskins Sotutu has provided the long-time starting No. 8 with some much-needed internal competition, and that seems to have brought the best out of Ioane as he’s flourished as part of a rejuvenated forward pack.
With Sotutu absent for the Highlanders clash, Ioane played the house down from the back of the scrum.
He blew Scott Gregory out of his tracks to score one try before setting another one up for Tu’ungafasi to cap off a busy, industrious display that did no harm to his chances of national selection.
Caleb Clarke (Blues)
Speaking of coming of age seasons, no other player has had the sort of breakout campaign that Blues wing Caleb Clarke has enjoyed on the Blues’ left wing.
New Zealand has a knack of producing large powerhouse power wings in the professional era – think Jonah Lomu, Julian Savea and Rieko Ioane.
Standing at 1.89m and 107kg, Clarke no doubt fits that bill, and – not for the first time this season – the Highlanders felt the full force of his destructive attacking prowess.
Not only is the 21-year-old able to run through or around people to score tries, though, but he’s also shown his innate awareness to set teammates up, which was evidenced on multiple occasions at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
Even after making light work of Josh Ioane, Clarke knew when to put Rieko into space with a deft offload in the lead-up to Finlay Christie’s first try.
He then replicated that after splintering the Highlanders’ defensive line and sucking in Sio Tomkinson and Dillon Hunt to play a pivotal role in TJ Faiane’s try, and did it again to assist Christie’s second, proving his worth as more than a one-trick pony.
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Sam Cane (Chiefs)
What better way to answer your vocal critics than produce a dogged, determined defensive effort against the competition’s top side.
That’s exactly what underfire Chiefs skipper Sam Cane did against the Crusaders, and in doing so, he nullified the boisterous crowd noise suggesting he isn’t up to the standard required of an All Blacks captain.
The Chiefs may have gone on to lose their eighth match on the bounce, but the 28-year-old didn’t go down without a fight.
Completing 18 tackles from 20 attempts, Cane he also managed to steal three turnovers for his side – both of which are statistics that no other player across the league topped over the weekend.
Playing with the sort of commitment to the cause that any leader would be proud of, the 68-test veteran will no doubt look to repeat that against the Hurricanes this weekend as the Chiefs eye their first win in five months.
Lachlan Boshier (Chiefs)
Equally as impressive in the Chiefs’ back row was Lachlan Boshier, who has overturned a difficult start to Super Rugby Aotearoa under the revised laws to return to the form that pushed him into All Blacks contention prior to the COVID-19 lockdown.
He wouldn’t look out of place in Ian Foster’s squad given the types of performances he’s produced over the past couple of matches, and he was again near-faultless on Saturday.
Completing yet another robust display at FMG Stadium Waikato, the 25-year-old was a handful on both sides of the ball, coming away with a try, 19 running metres, two defenders beaten, a clean break, eight tackles from nine attempts, two turnovers and three lineouts won.
If that doesn’t scream all-round ability then it’s hard to know what does, and if the Chiefs are to win a game this season, you’d imagine Boshier would be at the forefront of their success.
Codie Taylor (Crusaders)
The battle for the All Blacks’ starting role at hooker is one that will be tightly contested for between Codie Taylor and Dane Coles right up until Foster names his first side of the year, but Taylor certainly did his chances no harm on Saturday.
If anything had harmed Taylor’s likelihood of donning the black No. 2 jersey, for that matter, it would probably be his lineout throwing, which has come under scrutiny in recent times for its waywardness.
Any qualms about his set-piece work were put to rest in Hamilton, however, as Taylor threw all nine of his lineouts without losing possession, while also producing a talismanic outing with ball in hand.
His try and try-assist were pivotal to the Crusaders’ win, while his work rate was evidenced in a performance that finished with 35 running metres, a clean break, a defender beaten and five out of six tackles completed.
Alex McLeod, @RugbyPass