With Super Rugby set to kick off for 2017, Scotty Stevenson picks some rising stars in the New Zealand squads who could light up the competition this season.
Sio Tomkinson – Highlanders
You don’t need to be a madly passionate Highlanders fan (is there any other kind?) to know this team is well catered for in terms of midfield talent. Richard Buckman returns after sitting out 2016, All Black Malakai Fekitoa is a natural first-choice centre, Jason Emery has plenty of miles on the clock and Rob Thompson and Tei Walden both return for another season. Matt Faddes, who was thrust into the side last year as a handy provincial utility and who by the end of the season was the club’s rookie and player of the season, will be keen to prove 2016 was no fluke.
Into this mix comes a 20-year old Otago centre called Sio Tomkinson, who featured in the Highlanders wider training group last season but is yet to be capped for the club. It is only a matter of time. Tony Brown promoted Tomkinson – who has represented New Zealand at Schools and Under-20 level – to the full-time roster this season, and we doubt he will spend another entire year watching from the sidelines. If you want to know what excites us about this kid, have a look at him line up Sam Cane in last year’s Mitre 10 Cup.
Solomon Alaimalo – Chiefs
Northland may be the perennial strugglers of the provincial competition in New Zealand but while team highlights were few and far between in 2016, fullback Solomon Alaimalo put together a handy individual reel that saw him finish in the top 20 in all the key running stats – metres gained, clean breaks and defenders beaten.
It was no surprise that he was handed a contract by the Chiefs at the end of the season – not because the club has a shortage of outside backs, but because it has a history of those outside backs suffering injuries. Consider this: James Lowe, Shaun Stevenson, Sam McNichol, Toni Pulu, Tim Nanai-Williams and Glen Fisiiahi would all have the jump on Alaimalo in terms of experience or position on the pecking order, but not a single one of them has come through a season without time on the medic’s table.
Whether that is down to the combative style of play that the Chiefs have adopted, or the rigours of a tough training workload or just dumb luck, no team has required more outside back cover in the last five seasons. Alaimalo may be a rookie, but odds are he’ll get a shot this year.
George Bridge – Crusaders
Nemani Nadolo has left the building, and Super Rugby, which is tragic news for Crusaders fans but great news for Matt Duffie. Nadolo was the go-to winger for the Crusaders last season, and given this is a club that loves to stick to the game plan, they have wasted no time in searching high and low for a Fijian winger to replace him.
Manasa Mataele may not be Nemani Nadolo, but at least the presence of a Fijian winger in the Crusaders side (Jone Macilai is still there too) makes everyone feel normal. That said, it may be another youngster who steals the march on both of them. George Bridge has been signed for the season and given his history playing for both Canterbury and the NZ under-20 side under coach Scott Robertson, expect him to be given a chance to shine at franchise level.
Bridge is not a power winger in the Vunibaka/Nadolo style, but the 21-year old knows his way to the try line. He scored five tries in eight appearances in Canterbury’s championship run last year and, perhaps even more impressively, made 43 tackles with a 92% success rate.
With both Nadolo and Johnny McNicholl having left the club at the end of the 2016 season, the Crusaders don’t have huge depth on the outside. That bodes well for Bridge who’s elevation to playing 23 seems inevitable, and could signal a less conservative selection policy under Robertson.
Stephen Perofeta – Blues
Dual pivot players have become all the rage in New Zealand rugby, and the blame can be laid squarely at the feet of Beauden Barrett, who is as much at home at fullback (despite his insistence that it is not his preferred position) as he is at first five eighth. Not that anyone is complaining. Fullback-first fives are the ultimate utility back for a coach, and a great pressure valve in high tension moments.
With that in mind, the Blues were quick to snag the signature of teenaged Taranaki fullback Stephen Perofeta, who represented the NZ under-20s last year and is eligible for another world championship this season. Perofeta’s debut season of Mitre 10 Cup was an unqualified success, but one gets the sense we haven’t seen anything yet.
What was most impressive about Perofeta in the domestic championship was his decision-making. He finished the season ranked 8th in running metres, but rarely did he overplay his hand, eschewing the chance to boost his own personal stats, instead focusing on putting the team in good positions. His ability to carry to the line on kick returns was one of the best things about his game.
That is why there is more than a small chance that the Blues have identified Perofeta as a potential franchise five eighth. He has good vision for the game, time on the ball, a kick repertoire and a selfless style of play that signals a starring role. It is doubtful he will supplant Piers Francis or Ihaia West in the short term, but don’t count out a start at 10 at some stage this season.
Wes Goosen – Hurricanes
This was Wes’s first touch in Super Rugby which is a ridiculous first touch if you ask me, or anyone else for that matter. Goosen, South African born and a Wellington Lions squad member, was a WTG prospect for the Hurricanes last season and won his first start after five members of the team were stood down for disciplinary reasons.
Despite the scintillating start to his Super Rugby career, he was largely unused for the remainder of the season, making just one further appearance off the bench. Despite that, coach Chris Boyd elevated Goosen to the senior roster this season and we expect him to be given a few more chances in 2017.
There is good reason for that: Goosen was a superb for the Lions in another tough Mitre 10 Cup season. He led all players in clean breaks, ranked fourth in metres gained and in backline carries and sixth in defenders beaten. And he is still only 21 years old.
It won’t be an easy road to a starting spot for Goosen – Julian Savea, Nehe Milner-Skudder and Old Man Jane have All Blacks pedigree to go with their experience, but Goosen shapes as a ready-made replacement should any of Chris Boyd’s first string attack go down. He’s better than injury cover, though, so don’t be surprised if he is picked on merit alone.
This story was originally published on RugbyPass