Five Players to Watch in Super Rugby 2022
Written by Max Sharp.
Every season, professional athletes can have a dip in form, or have a stock surge, much like Elon Musk's electric vehicle company, Tesla, over the last five years.
There is no exception to that here in New Zealand, so in this article, we look at a player from each of the five New Zealand Super Rugby teams.
Blues - Roger Tuivasa-Sheck
Tuivasa-Sheck finished his rugby league career with an excellent legacy, scoring 58 tries from his 195 NRL games, including 111 with the New Zealand Warriors; being named captain of the side in just his second year with them; aged 23.
Although Tuivasa-Sheck will start in almost all games for the Blues at second-five-eighth, injury permitting, his entry into a black jersey must be carefully managed. He isn't the biggest ball-runner but will get people out of their seats to cheer, using his dancing feet and world-class passing game, while his defence won't cause any problems.
The All Blacks' Second-Five Depth Chart (2020-21).
David Havili has played 42.3% of the minutes offered in the 12 jersey since Ian Foster's reign as Head Coach began, so dropping Havili would be ridiculous for Foster to do; Havili's minutes would still take up roughly 20% of the 2020-23 depth chart if he was to retire due to injury today. Although not ready to start for the All Blacks, Quinn Tupaea has proven his ability to cope with pressure and is developing nicely, he may captain the Chiefs in his late twenties.
So that leaves Jack Goodhue, who missed the entire test season with a torn ACL. Goodhue is a specialist 13, meaning taking Tuivasa-Sheck into the 2023 Rugby World Cup would provide Foster with two experienced players who can pass brilliantly, while a young Tupaea would ideally wait in the wings for Havili or Tuivasa-Sheck to get injured in order to play in the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Provided that Tuivasa-Sheck lives up to the hype, the All Blacks could use him to deploy a lot of impact off the bench. He will be very exciting to watch.
Chiefs - Brodie Retallick
Brodie Retallick's 2021 season was poor. And when we have a look at Retallick's standards, that's extremely poor. I was getting ready to call Retallick our nation's greatest-ever lock in mid-2017, he had played every minute of every test that year before his wife miscarried, this meant Retallick did not play after we defeated South Africa 57-0 in 2017.
The All Blacks' Lock Depth Chart (2020-21).
Retallick has been in-and-out of the All Blacks with numerous injuries and his 2020 sabbatical ever since 2018, this fact is really starting to show. Although Retallick was able to play 772 minutes of test rugby in 2021, his effort to reach opposition rucks was non-existent, rather surprisingly considering his mammoth efforts to ensure we kept possession at our own rucks.
Although Nepo Laulala is the only All Black prop close to world-class status (this is prevented by his ball-handling), Retallick's decreased work rate, as shown during the YouTube video below, was the biggest problem in the All Blacks' tight five for 2021. However, perhaps an injury-free season of Super Rugby will be the best medicine to cure Retallick's waning form.
The YouTube video version of this article.
The Chiefs' locking stocks will easily be their most powerful department for 2022, with Naitoa Ah Kuoi looking certain to play a test in his career, while Tupou Vaa'i and Josh Lord, the Taranaki team mates, are the first two All Blacks born in the 21st century; they could become world-class. Retallick will be needed to mentor them in 2022 and this will perhaps push him to regain the form which made him 2014's World Rugby Player of the Year, the award's youngest winner. It would be amazing to see Retallick add to his legacy.
Crusaders - Pablo Matera
Max Sharp meets Jaguares players in 2019, including Pablo Matera, centre.
At 28 years old, Matera has already reached 80 tests for Argentina, placing him 10th on their most-capped players list. Nicolas Sanchez is their most-capped player, with only 13 more tests than Matera. Matera will certainly surpass Sanchez soon, especially with the injuries plaguing an ageing Sanchez as of late.
There's a lot for Crusaders supporters to like about Matera, he grew up watching them on the television at home in Argentina and especially asked his agent if there would be a way to play for them, now that the Jaguares have been put into limbo by the pandemic.
On a playing front, there will be even more for them to like. Although the openside flanker wears 6 for his nation (Argentine and South African blindsides wear the 7 jersey), he will be a world class athlete in the same jersey worn by Richie McCaw and Matt Todd. His powerful ball-carrying, perfect body position over the ball in the turnover, while his passion burns bright on the paddock.
Matera's presence at the Crusaders will cause selection headaches however, especially as his move to the team appears permanent. Cullen Grace converted to 6 after playing lock at high school, but has been left on the outer of All Black selection after he was shown to lack physicality from number 8. Tom Christie, much like Grace, is returning from an injury too. Ethan Blackadder will wear 6 for sure in 2022, so expect either one of Christie or Grace, both very young players, to lose their starting spot to Matera.
Highlanders - Folau Fakatava
Folau Fakatava signed with Hawke's Bay straight out of school, with his high school coach, Mark Ozich, continuing to coach him at Hawke's Bay. Fakatava will likely be remembered by Ozich as the greatest player he has ever coached, he is a prodigy whose talent has long-been apparent.
Fakatava finally put it on show in 2020, making Hawke's Bay's 9 jersey his own, although the Highlanders sparsely gave him game time. He finished the season as the Duane Monkley Medal winner, continuing this rich vein of form into 2021, he kept Aaron Smith out of the Highlanders' starting lineup multiple times before he succumbed to his ACL injury against the Crusaders.
This was a cruel blow to Fakatava's All Black aspirations, as World Rugby's new eligibility laws are now in effect. Fakatava, who is Tongan-born, moved to New Zealand aged 16, but these new laws require a player to live in a nation for five years of their adult life. Ian Foster is likely to argue against the case of Fakatava's eligibility, as Foster definitely would have selected him in 2021, if he was fit to play.
Should Fakatava return in good form, he will be using the force to make his passes, provide the Highlanders with his good discipline, while his pace and defence are exceptional for a halfback. His return will be very intriguing and should Foster win the case against World Rugby, possibly lead to his test debut.
Hurricanes - Peter Umaga-Jensen
The Umagas are likely World Rugby's most talented family. Tana Umaga is a former Blues Coach and All Black captain, while his brother Mike formerly played for Samoa. Mike's son Jacob, born in England, made his test debut in 2021. The Umagas' cousin was the late Jerry Collins, who will be forever remembered for his on-field physicality and off-field generosity.
The next member of the family who could achieve greatness is Peter Umaga-Jensen. Umaga-Jensen, who has a twin brother Thomas, currently playing for the Highlanders, first played for the Hurricanes as a 20-year-old. Peter Umaga-Jensen was able to earn a place as a regular starter for the Hurricanes in 2020 and most memorably, single-handedly struck down the Crusaders in a 2020 win against them.
Although not initally named in Ian Foster's All Blacks squad for 2020, he made his test debut at Eden Park that year, coming off the bench to provide impact on two occasions, before he was subbed off himself due to a concussion. In 2021, he struggled to recapture this form for the Hurricanes, but was back to his deadly best in time for Wellington's NPC campaign.
The All Blacks' Centre Depth Chart (2020-21).
Braydon Ennor's injury struggles have seen him fail to live up to the hype, Ennor only played 137 minutes at centre for the All Blacks in 2021. Anton Lienert-Brown and Rieko Ioane have played massive minutes in the 13 jersey, so Foster needs to give a decent amount of minutes to a third-choice player. With Umaga-Jensen breathing down Ennor's neck, expect Umaga-Jensen to add to his 8 minutes on the centre depth chart in 2022. He will no doubt play many more tests to come.