The build-up for the 2023 Super Rugby season has been extraordinarily quiet, but not without some very intriguing talking points, such as Shannon Frizell, Brodie Retallick and Richie Mo'unga, signing to play overseas post-World Cup.
Brodie Retallick, seen injured, will head back to Japan after the 2023 Rugby World Cup. This opens a question about who will take his jersey. Photo: Max Sharp.
While the usual suspects will make a huge amount of noise about how many players are heading abroad and how it is destroying New Zealand rugby, the next generation are always around the corner, the same way that the sun will always rise the next day.
In this article, we'll look at the five most promising Super Rugby players in each New Zealand team, as we eye up future players to put their hands up, as the older generation look to lock-in their retirement plans. All players in this list are 23 years old or younger.
Aidan Morgan (Hurricanes)
Age: 21 years old
Test Caps: uncapped
Ever since the departure of Beauden Barrett to the Blues, the Hurricanes have had systematic issues at 10 and it's no secret. James Marshall retired in 2020, while Fletcher Smith lost form and headed abroad that year, leaving the 10 jersey to Jackson Garden-Bachop, who was very much overshadowed by Jordie Barrett at fullback. After a short-term deal for Orbyn Leger in 2021, it was finally time for Ruben Love, who announced himself as a promising utility back.
Aidan Morgan (centre) kicks a penalty goal for Wellington in the 2022 Bunnings NPC Grand Final, against Canterbury. Photo: Max Sharp.
With Love preferring to play at fullback, Aidan Morgan was then promoted from the Hurricanes' U20 side for 2022. Having settled into the 10 jersey well in his first season of Super Rugby, Morgan has possibly been handed the keys to the jersey, with the Hurricanes opting not to re-sign Garden-Bachop. While former All Black, Brett Cameron, has come into the team on his return home, Morgan's superior performances in the NPC will have given him the inside running.
Having outperformed Lincoln McClutchie, his greatest rival for the All Black number 10 shirt in 2024, during Wellington's theft of the Ranfurly Shield, two more seasons starting at Super Rugby, will allow a 23-year-old Morgan to go straight into a starting role on his All Black debut for 2024; in the very same way that a 23-year-old Aaron Smith did at halfback in 2012.
Age: 23 years old
Test Caps: 2 tests
Being from the same town as Fakatava and born the same year as him, I had the lucky fortune of hearing whispers of his potential many years ago, as he and some high school teammates, were signed for Hawke's Bay straight out of school. Though this was the case, injury saw Fakatava miss selection for both the NZ Schools and U20s teams. Just a year later, Fakatava was lighting up Super Rugby for the Highlanders in 2019.
In 2020, however, he reached another level, becoming the first Hawke's Bay player to win the Duane Monkley Medal. It was in this season, when his raw determination became seen, this is something you just can't coach. While Fakatava tore his ACL in 2021 and was leapfrogged by Finlay Christie for a test debut, World Rugby were able to give him a dispensation for a test debut in 2022, with Ian Foster admitting Fakatava would have been picked if not for injury.
After sitting out for the majority of 2021, Tongan-born Folau Fakatava recovered from injury to make his test debut for the All Blacks. Photo: Max Sharp.
Fakatava played just 37 minutes of test rugby in 2022, but gave the All Blacks some improved passing off the base of the ruck in that time. Injury forced him to miss the end-of-year tests as well, but the extended time playing with Aaron Smith is starting to pay off. With TJ Perenara ruled out of the Rugby World Cup as well, this could possibly work in Fakatava's favour.
Age: 19 years old
Test Caps: uncapped
McKay "Macca" Springer, will no doubt be the first of many promising players identified by James Marshall, who bought him into the Tasman Mako for 2021. Springer may have had lesser game time that year due to Regan Ware playing 15s due to COVID's grasp over the 7s circut, but he certainly didn't look out of place when on the pitch.
Macca Springer, interviewed by his Tasman Mako coach, James Marshall, on the "What a Lad" podcast that Marshall has hosted since 2020.
2022 presented Springer with the chance to step outside of Leicester Fainga'anuku's huge shadow and he indeed took it, becoming the second-to-top try-scorer of the competition, with 8 tries. While Fainga'anuku is the treasure at 11 today, the rumoured overseas move for Fainga'anuku, would allow the Crusaders to play a bloke with even more potential in the jersey.
A strong boot, the versatility to play at fullback and a big body to complete tackles with are all elements of Springer's pitch portfolio, while at just 19, he will certainly improve, especially with the likes of Richie Mo'unga and David Havili to learn off in the Crusaders' environment. I'm not sure about you guys, but I'm certainly looking forward to his Crusaders debut.
Age: 22 years old
Test Caps: 18 tests
At 22 years old, Vaa'i already has nearly as many caps as his age and is a test centurion in the making. While some have expressed their demoralised feelings around Vaa'i having just 541 minutes of test rugby under his belt, context needs to be taken into account. Considering this context, opponents should fear what's next from Vaa'i.
Former Wesley College Head Prefect, Tupou Vaa'i, became the Chiefs' enforcer for the 2022 Super Rugby season, with a stature of 1.98m. Photo: Max Sharp.
Having debuted for Taranaki at 18 years old, the rise of Vaa'i went surprisingly under the radar and he grafted through the ranks. In 2020 it all changed though, as he became the latest in the Wesley College production line. Having not originally been in the Chiefs' squad for 2020, Vaa'i was one of few to do well, taking big lessons from Warren Gatland on board.
Since becoming the first All Black born in the 21st century, Vaa'i has become the dominant leader of the Chiefs pack, crushing opponents' bones without any regard for his own body, while developing the athleticism to play at blindside flanker. He is now the finished product and only requires one thing to become the All Blacks' enforcer. Sam Whitelock's inevitable post-World Cup retirement.
Age: 22 years old
Test Caps: uncapped
Bailyn Sullivan's big breakout season was a big talking point of 2022, as he dominanted for Waikato and crossed the try line five times for the Hurricanes; debuting for the Māori All Blacks and then the All Blacks XV. What's next up? His younger brother Zarn's return from injury.
Sullivan, like his older brother, tore opposing defences apart in 2022, though he did so for the Blues. His long-range kicking became a huge asset for the team, while his physical attributes leave him as the closest like-for-like replacement of Jordie Barrett; the man who has played the most minutes of test rugby in the Ian Foster era, with a total of 2150.
If Joe Schmidt's influence regarding the Blues making up the All Blacks' second-choice spine (aside from Samisoni Taukei'aho at hooker), surely this same influence will allow for Sullivan to earn a test debut in 2023, for the sake of preparing Barrett's like-for-like replacement, for a worst-case scenario. Sullivan has proven himself able to slot game-winning drop goals at club level and you won't find out at international level without trying.