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Six Surprise Players Without 2023 Super Rugby Contracts

Written by Max Sharp.

Throughout the day of 26th October, 2022, five of the six New Zealand-based Super Rugby teams unveiled initial 38-man squads, for the 2023 Super Rugby Pacific season, Moana Pasifika are the only team who have not named a lineup.

While the likes of uncapped players such as Isaiah Punivai, Vereniki Tikoisolomone, Freedom Vahaakolo, Alex Fidow and of course, Denny Solomona and Zane Kapeli; both test-capped internationally, are eligible for nations aside from New Zealand; making them possible pick-ups for Moana Pasifika, there are plenty of players who will be feeling hard done-by; having not received a contract for 2023.

Considering the large COVID-19 pool for 2022 and injury however, things aren't over yet, there may still be chances for un-signed players. For now however, we'll look through the unluckiest players, who did not receive contracts for 2023.

Tevita Li

Age: 27 years old

Height: 1.82m

Weight: 95kg

Test Caps: Uncapped

Position: Winger

Having been a try-scoring machine ever since his schoolboy days, Li was unfortunately, unable to crack the All Blacks during his 3 seasons with the Blues and 3 with the Highlanders; there were deficiencies outside of his running game.

With Li evolving into a complete player during his time with Tokyo Sungoliath however, one must wonder if some of the New Zealand-based Super Rugby teams did enough to buy Li out of his contract.

After finishing the 2022 Bunnings NPC as the top try-scorer, during a temporary return to New Zealand, we have instead seen Li return to Japan, in order to continue his dominance with Tokyo Sungoliath. Considering his genuine attacking value, there's surprise that Li was not bought out of his contract to make a permanent return to New Zealand.

Gareth Evans

Age: 31 years old

Height: 1.90m

Weight: 105kg

Test Caps: 1

Position: Loose Forward

After nearly two decades, there won't be an Evans brother in professional rugby on NZ shores; former All Blacks Gareth and Bryn Evans, both Highlanders for 2022, were not selected for this season. While his older brother Bryn is about to turn 38 years old and will likely retire, one must wonder why Evans has not received a contract for 2023.

Evans debuted for the Highlanders in 2014 and though he has suffered numerous injuries throughout his professional career, he has still made a profound impact. With 87 Super Rugby games and victory with the Highlanders over 2017's British and Irish Lions, a move to the Hurricanes from 2018-2021 saw many notable plays, including the form that earned Evans his single test cap.

Having missed the entire 2022 NPC due to injury, have we seen a fall from grace after a strong 2022 Super Rugby season? Or, are we seeing Evans' retirement happen without the publicity it deserves? We'll have to wait and see...

Jackson Garden-Bachop

Age: 28 years old

Height: 1.83m

Weight: 99kg

Test Caps: Uncapped

Position: First-Five

Back in 2012, an 18-year-old Garden-Bachop completed his final schoolboy rugby match for Scots College, by kicking the winning drop-goal against Lindisfarne College. Having taken after his father, former All Black Stephen Bachop and his mother, the late former Black Fern Sue Garden, his pedigree was clear.

Jackson Garden-Bachop lines up a penalty goal for Wellington in the 2022 Bunnings NPC Final, against Canterbury. Photo: Max Sharp.

The Hurricanes were probably correct to axe Garden-Bachop in favour of Aidan Morgan and Brett Cameron's fitness and game management; 99kg is heavy for a 10. But considering that Garden-Bachop went on to fulfill his potential as a goal-kicker, it is surprising he wasn't picked up by another Super Rugby team for the sake of experience not being grown on trees.

His next destination remains unclear; some sources claim Garden-Bachop is off to Japan, though the details of this haven't been elaborated on. Garden-Bachop also remains eligible for Samoa through ancestry; his father Stephen played tests for Manu Samoa too. With his cousin, Aaron Mauger, currently coaching Moana Pasifika, perhaps they've picked him up as a third-choice 10 behind Lincoln McClutchie and Christian Leali'ifano?

Jacob Norris

Age: 23 years old

Height: 1.89m

Weight: 104

Test Caps: Uncapped

Position: Loose Forward

Simply put, what did Norris do wrong? Having played 24 games for Tasman from 2018-2021, game time was difficult; leading to a move north, to Bay of Plenty, for 2022. Norris has had potential for a clearly defined amount of time; having attended St. Peters' School on a scholarship, alongside his brother Ollie, a prop who will feature in his fourth season with the Chiefs in 2023.

Norris' NPC season contained a strong body of work; as he ranked 4th for most tackles, with 138, at a rate of 86%. Perhaps his carrying game was a let-down? Considering 160 metres from 31 carries was the total for Norris' season, that isn't too much to fuss over.

Having made his Māori All Blacks debut in 2021; before even earning a Super Rugby contract, the skill level is there. With the Chiefs signing Manaaki Selby-Rickit at lock and then forcing Naitoa Ah Kuoi to play blindside, this creates a squad with three blindsides, two number 8s and two opensides. Considering the jackling value of an openside, would it not have been better to sign Norris, rather than Selby-Rickit, as the incoming replacement for a now-departed Mitchell Brown?

Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi

Age: 27 years old

Height: 1.74m

Weight: 85kg

Test Caps: 3

Position: Halfback

A true example, of a black pill. After a disappointing season with the Hurricanes in 2017, Tahuriorangi was able to become a regular starter for the Chiefs in 2018 after Brad Weber suffered from injury complications. In order to give attention to a future prospect, Steve Hansen trusted a then-23-year-old Tahuriorangi with an All Blacks debut against Argentina that season.

Tahuriorangi played 3 tests in total during 2018, including a start against Japan. Weber's omission for the sake of Mitchell Drummond and Bryn Hall as the fourth and fifth-choice halfbacks though, created a massive renaissance that saw Tahuriorangi barely make the field in 2019. Though he remained on the radar with selection for 2020's North Island team, game time remained hard for Tahuriorangi to find.

The 2022 season saw Tahuriorangi link up with the Crusaders, a team that his friend, the late Sean Wainui once represented. Game time however, was even harder at this club; with Tahuriorangi making it onto the pitch just 6 times for the Crusaders. Now 27, after being previously seen as Aaron Smith's heir apparent, he now finds himself without a Super Rugby contract and his international career over, as Willi Heinz has returned, to go with a future investment in Noah Hotham.

Blake Gibson

Age: 27 years old

Height: 1.86m

Weight: 102kg

Test Caps: Uncapped

Position: Loose Forward

This call here is to be frank, a bit of a shock. A staple of the Blues during the Tana Umaga era and up until 2021, Gibson did enough to earn a call-up to the All Blacks in 2017, to cover a concussed Sam Cane. Though this debut wasn't to eventuate, Gibson was named as the Blues' co-captain for 2019, Leon MacDonald's first year as coach, alongside Patrick Tuipulotu.

Able to keep Dalton Papali'i out of the regular starting lineup until 2021, Gibson was able to end his Blues career on a high by pushing the score out of reach with a try, as they claimed the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman title. With Papali'i's continued improvement, Gibson saw an opportunity at the Hurricanes for 2022.

Ranking 33rd for tackles made, Gibson became a regular starter for the Hurricanes at blindside almost instantly, but is now without a contract for 2023. With Peter Lakai linking up with the team, there still should have been room for Gibson however. Tyler Laubscher has had a tough time with injury, while Reed Prinsep has proven himself a spent force. A real shame to see such talent left un-contracted.

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