Super Rugby Pacific: Your Data-Driven Preview
The latest edition of Super Rugby is almost upon us. True to form, it’s here with a new name, tweaked format and, most excitingly, two brand new teams in Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika.
Since the last regular edition of the competition ended in June 2019, we’ve also bid farewell to the South African sides, Argentina’s Jaguares and Japan’s Sunwolves.
Western Force make their full-time return to the competition to take Super Rugby Pacific’s membership to 12, there will be no conference split but rather just one overall table, each team will play one another at least once and the top eight will contest the playoffs.
Still following? Excellent.
The good news is that’s the admin out of the way. Now for the fun stuff. What should you be looking out for in Super Rugby Pacific 2022?
A whole host of marquee names will be moving back to their respective Australian and New Zealand franchises after varying degrees of time away. They need no introduction but here’s a quartet of Super Rugby returnees who’ve made their way back from Japan:
Oh, how desperately the Waratahs need Mr. Australia himself back following a sabbatical spent playing for Toyota Verblitz.
In his absence they lost all 13 games contested in 2021, picking up just three losing bonus points in the process.
Hooper continued to turn out in green and gold, picking up a second World Rugby Player of the Year nomination for his troubles as well as a record-breaking fourth John Eales Medal.
Whilst the Tahs have been able to blood a host of youngsters in recent times, they have seriously lacked in experience and leadership, something Hooper has in abundance.
In fact, between 2012 and his most recent regular Super Rugby cap in August 2020, no other player made as many appearances in the competition as his 129.
He also ranks second overall in the charts for tackles made (1,396) and turnovers won (132) during that period, whilst amongst forwards he tops the charts for clean breaks (103), defenders beaten (224), and sits third for try assists (17), highlighting what an all-action flanker he is.
It is a severe understatement to refer to his return as a welcome one, but it is, once he’s enjoyed an extended break whilst rehabbing a foot injury.
Another player who has been synonymous with Super Rugby over the past decade is Brodie Retalick. It’s nearing three years since his last appearance for the Chiefs, though he has added another 17 All Black Caps since then.
During his two seasons at Kobelco Steelers, a clutch of promising locks have graduated into the Chiefs’ ranks and who better for them to learn from than Retalick.
His two-year break from NZ domestic rugby gave his body a much-needed rest and having just entered his thirties there should be plenty left in the tank yet for one of the best players of the last 10 years.
He certainly will have enjoyed the more leisurely pace of rugby over in Japan, playing just over 1,000 minutes across 15 games for Kobe Steelers, in which he made 22 clean breaks, beat 39 defenders, managed 28 offloads and won nine turnovers. Between his Super Rugby debut in 2012 and his most recent appearance, he ranks in the top three among his position across nearly every significant category:
Potential Record Breakers
Another pair of familiar All Blacks have also returned ahead of the 2022 season with some all-time Super Rugby scoring records firmly in their sights.
TJ Perenara may have a big battle on his hands to fully re-establish himself as Aaron Smith’s backup, with Brad Weber now firmly in the picture and the emergence of Finlay Christie.
But this could be the season that he breaks the Super Rugby try-scoring record. He is currently on 56, just four behind Israel Folau, with Julian Savea the only other active player in the top 10 with 50.
Perenara helped himself to seven tries in nine games for NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes, his rate of scoring showing no signs of slowing down. Expect more of the same back at his original Hurricanes.
Elsewhere his former Canes half-back partner Beauden Barrett returns from Tokyo Sungoliath to continue his time with the Blues.
Whilst he still has a way to go to overhaul Dan Carter’s eye-watering Super Rugby points total (1,708) there is a good chance he will leapfrog Morné Steyn into second should he retain goalkicking duties all season in the absence of Otere Black. Barrett is just 185 points behind Steyn
One record which he can eclipse is most conversions in the competition’s history, with Barrett just 32 shy of DC’s record.
Having plundered 168 points in just 10 games (677 minutes) in the Japanese Top League, those records may tumble sooner rather than later.
And Then There Were Twelve
Welcome Moana Pasifika and Fijian Drua. Long have there been cries for further Fijian, Tongan and Samoan input to Super Rugby, given everything they have provided the competition and indeed the sport in terms of entertainment and headline players over such a lengthy period.
Now with a pair of licences granted, the hopes are that this will be a big step forward for Pacific Island rugby.
Moana Pasifika will be based out of Auckland, coached by Aaron Mauger, and their existence will give Super Rugby exposure to a number of Samoan and Tonga internationals and a chance to play at the top level outside of sporadic Test Matches.
Captained by Wallabies centurion Sekope Kepu, their squad contains nine Samoan and six Tongan capped players, as well as Kepu’s former international team-mate Christian Lealiifano.
In Fijian winger Timoci Tavatavanawai they have the player who beat the most defenders (47) and made fifth most metres (822) in this year’s NPC competition whilst turning out for Tasman.
A pair of Crusaders’ younger siblings also make the cut in William Havili and Tima Fainga’anuku, brothers of David and Leicester, respectively.
It may take some time to gel given a tough start to their pre-season, limited time together and their first game being postponed due to a COVID outbreak, but they will be a welcome addition.
Over in Fiji, or so it was planned, the Drua make their return having played in Australia’s now defunct National Rugby Championship between 2017-2019, winning the competition in their first season.
Across those three seasons Drua averaged 35 defenders beaten, 14 line breaks and 16 successful offloads per game, highlighting exactly the style of rugby they can be expected to play.
Due to travel restrictions, they have had to move base from Suva to New South Wales. They take a squad nearly exclusively made up of players from the Island, many of whom were part of that NRC team and with barely a shred of Super Rugby experience between them, they will be a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
Their squad contains a pair of Olympic gold medallists in Napolioni Bolaca and Kalione Nasoko as well as a roster stacked full of the usual Fijian flair, including a pair of wingers who may finally get their big break.
Onisi Ratave played three games for Bay of Plenty in New Zealand’s NPC back in August and September, scoring as many tries whilst making 360 metres, beating 16 defenders and making eight clean breaks, his first excursion outside of his native Skipper Cup as he approaches his 30th birthday.
Kitione Ratu meanwhile spent several years trying to break into the Melbourne Rebels setup before a more recent brief stint with Western Force. Having only taken up rugby union in 2014 he starred for both Eastwood in the Shute Shield and Melbourne Rising in the NRC, scoring a combined 16 tries in 28 games, carrying for over 1,600 metres and beating just shy of 100 defenders with over 50 clean breaks.
Can Perth Side be a Force?
Unceremoniously axed from the competition back in 2017 having failed to reach the playoffs in any of their 12 Super Rugby seasons, the Western Force return to the big dance having competed in the Super Rugby AU and Trans-Tasman competitions over the past two years.
They lost all eight games in the 2020 edition of Super Rugby AU, recovering the following year to record four wins before they were brought back down to earth with five successive defeats in the Trans-Tasman competition. However, with eight teams from 12 making this year’s playoffs they may stand a chance of sneaking in.
They’ll have their work cut out despite tempting Izack Rodda back to Australia, with a huge amount of turnover in their backline, but the acquisition of Manasa Mataele from Crusaders should go some way to remedying their losses.
Used sparingly during his time in Christchurch, due largely to their swelling outside back stocks, Mataele used his limited time on the field wisely, often appearing from the interchange to cause havoc against broken defences.
In fact, across the history of the regular edition of Super Rugby, Mataele sits second all-time in terms of his minutes per try rate for players with over 500 minutes, ranking top for clean breaks and third for defenders beaten by the same metric, challenged only by two of his former Crusaders colleagues. While perhaps his former team won’t miss him, the Force have certainly bagged themselves some firepower.
Player Minutes Per Try Minutes Per Clean Break Minutes Per Defender Beaten Manasa Mataele 77 26 23 Will Jordan 57 30 20 Sevu Reece 77 29 21
There are a stack of rookies looking to make their breakthrough in Super Rugby this year, be it a fresh serving of fly-halves in Australia or outside backs looking to be next off the production line in New Zealand.
Given the talent in front of them, appearances may be tough to come by but here’s a winger from each (as it’s a position that definitely needs more love…)
James Turner A.K.A Jimmy the Jet had a brief foray in Waratahs colours last year during a tough loss to the Blues in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.
He wasn’t named in the initial Tahs squad for 2022 but after impressing on a trial deal made the starting team for their final trial match against the Reds so should be back in the mix.
This after tearing it up for Northern Suburbs in last year’s Shute Shield. He needed the fewest carries per clean break (3.6) and per defender beaten (1.7) on average across the competition, whilst racking up 746 metres, 18 breaks and 38 defenders beaten in his eight games.
Across in New Zealand, Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens may have even more work to do to find his way into a talented Blues backline.
He made his only appearance for them thus far in that very same game versus the Waratahs but is very highly revered after a stunning couple of seasons in the NPC.
Over the past two editions, he sits fifth for tries scored with 11, fourth for carry metres with 1,043, second for clean breaks with 34, fifth for defenders beaten with 58 and has won the most turnovers of any back with 14.
The final word must go to the most hotly anticipated addition to this year’s competition, not Jamie Roberts this time, but the one and only RTS Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
He is the latest in a line of superstar Rugby League converts and will hope to make more of a Sonny Bill than Benji Marshall style impact on Super Rugby and indeed New Zealand rugby.
Whilst the 2023 World Cup may be a pipe dream for now whilst he finds his feet and firstly a position, RTS has all the skills to make a big splash for the Blues.
It looks likely that his first assignment will be partnering Rieko Ioane in the centres for the Auckland side which will likely take some time adjusting to for one of the great NRL full-backs, especially after missing out for Auckland in this year’s NPC.
During his time playing for the Sydney Roosters and New Zealand Warriors in which he made 195 NRL appearances, RTS averaged over 188 metres and almost five defenders beaten per game.
Yes, the metric in rugby league is metres carried as opposed to gained, but those are still seriously impressive numbers for a remarkable player who was so consistent for over a decade.
Super Rugby Pacific returns on 18th February. Stay tuned.
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