Five Possible Super Rugby Player Comebacks for 2023
Almost everybody loves a heart-warming story, from Brad Weber's four-year period in the wilderness to make the 2019 Rugby World Cup; to Karl Tu'inukuafe going from security guard to All Black in three years, to Jonah Lomu's test debut at just 19 years old.
New Zealand rugby has had plentiful amounts of these stories and considering rugby's sustained prominence on the world stage, these cheerful tales to share at the pub with your mates won't be done yet.
In this article, we'll look at a player from each New Zealand Super Rugby team and why each of them could possibly become the centrepiece of such a script, through a return from injury, return to form, or even a shock place at the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Age: 30 years old
Test Caps: 43 tests
Although Tuipulotu is barely ahead of Tupou Vaa'i on the Ian Foster-era lock depth chart anymore, context does need to be applied. Would Tuipulotu have been trusted out of experience in more tests in 2022 had he not been injured? Maybe. Having recently turned 30 years old, he still has a lot to offer NZ rugby, having signed a deal through to 2025.
With Jason Ryan's key selection criteria for blindside flanker, centred around balancing the lineout, Shannon Frizell and Scott Barrett were the big winners of 2022 regarding that jersey. Lock-in (pun intended) Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick in for 2023 due to experience, as well as Tupou Vaa'i for the sake of form. As Barrett will be covering 6, with Frizell likely coming off the bench for big tests, it won't be surprising to see Akira Ioane dropped.
An injured Blues captain, Patrick Tuipulotu, converses with unnamed Blues staff and board members in 2021, at Eden Park. Photo: Max Sharp.
Tuipulotu's 43 test caps and attendance of the 2019 Rugby World Cup will definitely work in his favour, as will surprising pace, quick ruck speed and tree trunk legs to push back opponents in the tackle. One Blues player will be pleased, another won't and that pleased player, will surely be Tuipulotu, who will return to Super Rugby from Japan after his single-season deal playing for Toyota Verblitz.
Age: 22 years old
Test Caps: 2 tests
After a rollercoaster of a decade for the lock so far, it's hard to believe he still has the most recent date of birth, of any All Black in history. Picked for the All Blacks in 2021, aged 20, Lord was assigned the role of "project player", before retaining his spot in the team for 2022, out of form. Lord, whose father Matt played for Northampton, has bulked up ridiculously since his professional debut. Lord truly made a name for himself, as an impact player for the Chiefs last year.
However, a knee injury sustained in the last few rounds of Super Rugby, was more serious than initially suspected; Lord withdrew from the Ireland series as Tuipulotu was re-called. Luckily, Lord's ACL rupture was in June, so he will likely be back to playing by early April. As he has soft hands and rangy athleticism, he'll remain a solid impact player, while game time will not be impossible due to Brodie Retallick's injury proneness.
Is a Rugby World Cup spot a bit of a far reach for Lord? Perhaps, he's played just 83 minutes of test rugby. But as he is still very young, we can definitely expect that he's yet to reach the height of his career. As an energetic player, the 22-year-old will definitely be itching to go as well; I'm wishing him a lot of luck, as a return to form is 100% possible!
Age: 34 years old
Test Caps: 57 tests
Everyone knows I haven't appreciated poor discipline from Moody in the past, but it's not impossible for him to make a grand return to demolish opposing scrums as he's done at test level since 2014, as he has recovered from a long-term injury without any complications. Elevated to the number 1 jersey in 2016 after the retirement of Tony Woodcock, Moody was a trendsetter for mobile props, accumulating 5 tries in his international career so far.
Though this trendsetting nature has seen Moody play just 8 tests as a substitute, jersey 17 may indeed provide him a World Cup squad. George Bower, Moody's Crusaders teammate, has looked off the pace at test level; having contributed toward 6 of the 31 tries the All Blacks conceded in 2022 due to defensive errors. Aidan Ross has played just a single test, while Alex Hodgman's four test caps were all in 2020.
Joe Moody's return to the All Blacks will see Ofa Tu'ungafasi (centre) freed up to play his preferred position at tighthead prop. Photo: Max Sharp.
After an ACL injury, Moody is back early. He has partaken in pre-season fixtures for the Crusaders unscathed and will be ahead of Hodgman and Ross without question due to experience. Considering Bower's form and Ofa Tu’ungafasi's preference to play at tighthead prop too, don't be surprised to see more fight to come from the old dog. Moody's contract expires in 2024, so will he be determined to be the last 1980's-born player to be active in Super Rugby? Let's see...
Age: 25 years old
Test Caps: Uncapped
Although Nareki has yet to make his test debut for Fiji, he left a gaping hole in the Highlanders' backline last season. Nareki did not play due to injury, neither did Solomon Alaimalo (now back at the Chiefs) or Vereniki Tikoisolomone (now with Houston). Injuries to these three, lead to a total of 24 backs earning either full-time or short-term deals with the Highlanders in 2022. The situation was embarrassing, with the likes of Liam Coombes-Fabling and Rory van Vugt clearly not up to scratch at Super Rugby.
Nareki played just a single game for Otago in 2022, but will be welcomed back warmly due to his Bolt-like pace and his diligence to agility training. Although a lack of game time from last season will probably see Martin Bogado and Connor Garden-Bachop start off as the first-choice wingers, look for Nareki's share of game time to gradually increase before he bursts to life in red-hot form.
He and his namesake, Jonah Lowe, will add an unplayable amount of pace in the wide channels and those who can remember what Nareki has achieved in previous seasons, will all be rooting for him to go all the way and crack the Fiji squad for the upcoming 2023 Rugby World Cup. Don't forget his kicking game either. It adds a nice touch.
Age: 26 years old
Test Caps: 1 test
In 2018, Cameron was named in a 51-man extended All Blacks squad, to tour Japan. Injury to Stephen Perofeta definitely went to Cameron's benefit, as he became the first All Black to attend Cullinane College, Whanganui, playing the last 9 minutes against Japan in the 10 position. Aged 22 at the time, the shock test debut had come after just his second season with Canterbury and a single Super Rugby appearance.
Although the whole country became aware of Cameron's promise, game time was hard to get; as he left for Japan after just 13 games for the Crusaders in four seasons. As this deal allowed him to continue playing in the NPC, Cameron began plying his trade with Manawatu. After 167 points in 18 games for the Turbos, he now finds himself back in Super Rugby.
The Rugby Rewind Podcast's 41st Episode. A two-hour all-you-need to know on each of the 12 Super Rugby teams.
On the Rugby Rewind podcast's Super Rugby preview with Toby Flatley and Ben Affleck (the Dunedin one, not the Batman actor), we had an extensive discussion around the Hurricanes' 10 jersey. While our conclusion was that Aidan Morgan, a clear future All Black, has the inside running for the 10 jersey, it would be unwise to write Cameron off, with his skillset very well-rounded these days. While many will raise the unlikelihood of a test re-call, remember how unlikely that debut was to begin with. Brett Cameron's return, has somewhat of a Brad Weber-like ring to it, when you look at the little details.