Whenever sporting competitions begin, it's always wise to get the low-down on some talking points ahead of the tournament, so that discussions can begin before everything starts. In order to create said discussions around the 2023 Super Rugby Pacific season, I've put together five players to watch.
In this article, we'll look at a player from each New Zealand Super Rugby team and why each one is worth keeping an eye on throughout the season, for varying reasons, such as up-and-comers, returns from a downfall and, the last year for a great. Let's get into this.
Mark Telea (Blues)
Age: 26 years old
Test Caps: 2 tests
Being snubbed for what felt like an eternity, I suspected we would see Mark Telea turn out for South Africa at the 2023 Rugby World Cup in place of an ageing Makazole Mapimpi, having been born to a South African father and Samoan mother. After a difficult upbringing, the Massey High School alumni earned his breakthrough as a 19-year-old for North Harbour in 2016.
A prediction of South Africa's 2023 Rugby World Cup squad. Uploaded to The Black Jersey on YouTube in May 2022.
Telea became a try-scoring machine for the Blues in 2020, his first season of Super Rugby, though he did not play for the North Island rugby team after selection for the inter-island clash that year. In 2022, the North Harbour outside backs dominated the running stats, with Telea's 1122 metres with ball-in-hand ranking him as third for metres in the season. With four tries, ranking first for defenders beaten with 66, 13 clean breaks and ranking third for offloads with 20, Telea finally made his test debut with two tries against Scotland.
Picked over Sevu Reece and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck against England (two midfielders were benched), the context of Telea's two test caps may be monumental ahead of the World Cup. He's always looked like a test-level winger and should his form remain in tact for the Blues during Super Rugby, things may look very bright, due to Telea's well-rounded skillset as a defender and under the high ball.
Damian McKenzie (Chiefs)
Age: 27 years old
Test Caps: 40 tests
When McKenzie was omitted from the All Blacks' 2022 end-of-year tour squad, despite re-gaining his test level eligibility, and instead named in the All Blacks XV, the quickly-published outrage was foreseeable. However, this may instead work in McKenzie's long-term favour. A single-season deal with Tokyo Sungoliath spent McKenzie fully converting from fullback to first-five, while this run at 10 continued with Waikato in the NPC.
Stephen Perofeta's limited opportunities as a backup 10-15 utility for the All Blacks, were also overshadowed, by McKenzie's brilliance for the All Blacks XV. Creating several highlights in the All Blacks XV trip, McKenzie started both matches at 10. With Beauden Barrett now commanding the second-most minutes at 10 and 15 for Ian Foster's period as All Blacks Coach, McKenzie is now third for both jerseys.
Most intriguingly, the Chiefs have now also named McKenzie as a 10. Despite Bryn Gatland, Josh Ioane and Rivez Reihana's presence, McKenzie looks set to dominate the jersey, under direct orders from Foster and also Joe Schmidt, who want clear emergency cover at 10. While this is all flying under the radar of the opposition for now, look for that to be a very different picture, should McKenzie return to his smiling assassin self in Super Rugby. Set to reach 100 games for the Chiefs, he also remains a valuable option with ball-in-hand.
Sam Whitelock (Crusaders)
Age: 34 years old
Test Caps: 143 tests
Whitelock is the last-remaining current All Black who did not debut in 2012 or later, while Ian Foster, himself the longest-serving member of the coaching staff, began as Assistant Coach in 2012, before taking the top job. This makes Whitelock the last remaining component of Sir Graham Henry's golden generation of the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Whitelock is a legend of NZ rugby.
18-time All Blacks captain Sam Whitelock (second-from-right), is considered likely to retire from Super Rugby after the 2023 season. Photo: Max Sharp.
After 143 test caps, Whitelock also remains in good form, having been Player of the Match in 2022's Super Rugby final. He was the All Blacks' top tackler for 2022 as well, with 118/122 tackles. Although Whitelock will turn 35 years old during the 2023 Rugby World Cup, there is enough room left in the tank for him to teach the young bucks some new tricks.
As Scott Robertson's Crusaders chase a seventh title in a row, experienced campaigners, Scott Barrett, Quinten Strange and Mitchell Dunshea, will all certainly play many minutes. Whitelock however, is always at the heart of everything the club achieves. Even with Barrett in his fourth season as captain, Whitelock very much remains the spiritual leader of the club.
Thomas Umaga-Jensen (Highlanders)
Age: 25 years old
Test Caps: Uncapped
It's no secret that the Highlanders' numberless backline strategy of 2022 didn't work. However, when Thomas Umaga-Jensen was fit, he'd always be able to counter-balance the lack of bulk out on the wings. While he is probably a case of the right player at the wrong time, regarding All Blacks selection, this won't stop him terrorising opposing defences.
The big number 12 managed to complete the 2022 Super Rugby season with a tackle rate of 89% in 11 games, so will plug the defensive hole made by the team's small first-fives this season. Umaga-Jensen's 2022 also saw him run 760 metres, score 2 tries, beat 36 defenders, bust the line for 6 clean breaks and spark 10 offloads off 98 carries.
For whatever reason, Umaga-Jensen and his twin brother Peter (Hurricanes), always seem to be riding a high whenever the other is injured. Should Thomas avoid joining Peter in the casualty ward, don't be surprised to see the Sky Sports commentary team mentioning him very often when the Highlanders are in possession of front-foot ball. The Highlanders are set to heighten their standards and this 25-year-old will be a key part of that.
Cam Roigard (Hurricanes)
Age: 22 years old
Test Caps: Uncapped
After earning his debut for Counties Manukau in 2020, the 22-year-old Roigard joined the 2021 Hurricanes side during an injury crisis, when the team was utterly failing to fire. The team culture has become far better since then and there's few others who have improved as much as Roigard within this time. Kicking on from Super Rugby, Roigard made the Counties' number 9 jersey his own in 2022, before being named in the All Blacks XV.
Cam Roigard (centre) will play massive minutes for the Hurricanes in 2023 due to TJ Perenara (left) suffering a long-term injury. Photo: Max Sharp.
In the Ian Foster era, the All Blacks have given game time to five halfbacks. Aaron Smith, Folau Fakatava and Finlay Christie, were all selected for the 2022 season, while experienced campaigners, Brad Weber and TJ Perenara, also played several minutes in 2021 and 2020 before re-calls during Fakatava's injury in 2022. When the All Blacks XV was named, three halfbacks were taken on tour, effectively meaning that the uncapped Roigard, is the next up in the pecking order, after Weber and Perenara.
Perenara has since been ruled out long-term due to an achilles injury, which leaves the 9 jersey vacant at the Hurricanes. Roigard made the most offloads in the NPC for 2022, with 21 in total, while his season stat sheet also displayed 3 tries, 530 metres, 31 defenders beaten, 10 clean breaks and 70 carries. But most importantly, this also included a tackle rate of 91% for the season. Look for the young halfback to step up into Perenara's boots and set the world alight.