Five Potential Player Comebacks for Super Rugby 2022
Written by Max Sharp.
Over the years, the form of professional athletes can vary significantly. Sometimes they will romp towards a hat-trick and see their stock spike, or perhaps they will see a plummet like the Netflix stock in early 2022.
I've found five Super Rugby players who, in my opinion, are likely to see a resurgence in form during the 2022 season, wether they are returning to Super Rugby after being injured, joining a new team, or looking for an All Black re-call.
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Hurricanes - Bailyn Sullivan
Sullivan and Peter Umaga-Jensen, his likely Hurricanes midfield partner, are essentially interchangeable for this list and the "five players to watch" list. They are at very similar points of their career, the only difference is that Umaga-Jensen, one year older, is a one-test All Black.
Sullivan was bought into the Chiefs during their 2018 season, on a short-term injury cover deal. They signed him for the 2019 Super Rugby season, but the next few seasons were ill-fated for Sullivan, who only played in 8 Super Rugby games from 2018-2021, after experiencing far too many injuries.
A star of 2021's NPC final, by scoring two tries, Sullivan made it clear he is wanting more game time, the Hurricanes will be the perfect place for him to showcase his strong work ethic, power running, pace, all to go with his nailed-down core roles of being a centre. Sullivan looks all but set to take the Hurricanes' 13 jersey, he isn't too far away from a call-up to the Māori All Blacks, don't be surprised to see him play a test match in the next few years either.
Highlanders - Marino Mikaele-Tu'u
McLean Park, Mikaele-Tu'u's home grounds. Photo: Max Sharp.
This behemoth of a man stands at 1.93m and 113kg, but he also has the round-the-field mobility to back up his stature. He is a workhorse who was a breakout star of the 2020 Super Rugby season; his exclusion from the North Island side came as a surprise to many Highlanders fans.
Marino Mikaele-Tu'u, who was educated at Hastings Boys' High School has played 44 games for Hawke's Bay aged just 24, although he didn't manage to add much more to his 25 Highlanders caps after being ruled out for the rest of Super Rugby after suffering a stress fracture to his leg at a training session in 2021.
Mikaele-Tu'u will be an excellent asset to the All Blacks' defence line once he finally makes his test debut, he was able to make 8 turnovers and 50 tackles for Hawke's Bay from the six NPC games he played in 2021. His parents were able to experience the pride of seeing their youngest child, Liana Mikaele-Tu'u, debut for the Black Ferns in 2021. If he can avoid injury, Marino looks set to join his sister in a black jersey.
Crusaders - Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi
"Triple T" as he's known, will be joining his third Super Rugby side, having previously represented the Hurricanes and the Chiefs. Tahuriorangi played three tests for the All Blacks in 2018 and if he wants more caps, it's really now or never.
While Ian Foster has done a great job at giving appropriate minutes to players based on how he sees them in the halfback pecking order, all of his first, second and third choice halfbacks are now aged 30 or over. Tahuriorangi is no spent force at 26 years old, so there is still a realistic chance for him to earn a re-call in 2022.
The All Blacks' Halfback Depth Chart from 2020-21.
Folau Fakatava's eligibility has been thrown in the air, while Foster did not have the faith to bring the rapidly-improving Finlay Christie off the bench against Ireland. Tahuriorangi is a far superior player to his new Crusaders team mates, Bryn Hall and Mitchell Drummond, so if he fends off their challenge for the 9 jersey, Tahuriorangi could indeed be the next call-up for Foster if there is an injury crisis at halfback.
Chiefs - Josh Ioane
Foster's handling of the first-five depth chart on the other hand, has been disgusting. If Josh Ioane isn't re-called to the All Blacks, or if Foster does not hand a debut to a new player, we'll be looking at turning to either a specialist fullback, or an uncapped player to start at the 2023 Rugby World Cup if Richie Mo'unga is injured.
That may be off-set by Beauden Barrett being an experienced player, but when wearing the 10 jersey, Ioane does not often put a foot wrong, he scored 82 points for Otago in 2021. Ioane is prepared to run towards a halfback's pass at pace in order to set his team mates up to run through gaps and let them run in to score tries, this is the greatest element of his near-unparalleled ability to read the game.
Coaches moving Ioane around into different jerseys, such as fullback or second-five, has been his undoing so far in his Super Rugby career, but it won't be this time. In Damian McKenzie's sabbatical season, Ioane, finally wearing 10 on his back, will be able to demonstrate his goal-kicking prowess and passing skills to his new audience, while at the back of his mind, he will know it's time for a re-call to the black jersey.
Blues - Hoskins Sotutu
Sotutu was a feature in five of the All Blacks' six tests in 2020, this included his test debut. An apparent case of second-year syndrome dropped Sotutu down Ian Foster's pecking order though, he played five of the All Blacks' 15 tests in 2021. Sotutu remains a very talented 23-year-old player though, he will have his comeback in 2022, giving him a better share of the number 8 depth chart.
The All Blacks' Number 8 Depth Chart from 2020-21.
The softly-spoken number 8 was however, able to provide the All Blacks with some very rare attacking opportunities against South Africa in their Townsville test last year, in the dying moments of the game. The most shocking part, he did so with his kicking. Sotutu, a great player at knowing when and when not to attempt turnovers, was also able to start against Italy in his final game of the season, scoring his first test try.
On a statistical front, Sotutu was still able to rack up commendable statistics for the All Blacks in 2021, including four turnovers and 217 metres run, though he only featured in 303 minutes of test rugby. The long touring experience will benefit his game, Sotutu will be raring to go for the Blues in 2022, especially after his lack of test match opportunities in 2021.