DYLAN JACK looks back at the opening round of Vodacom Super Rugby Aotearoa and picks out the five most impressive performances.
With a total of 11 tries scored across two games and a nail-biting opener between the Highlanders and Chiefs that went down to the wire, there was plenty to enjoy about the first round of New Zealand’s revamped domestic Super Rugby tournament.
Amid all the action, a number of impressive individual performances stood out. Here are five players who caught the eye during the 160 minutes of rugby played this past weekend:
Marino Mikaele-Tu’u (Highlanders)
The long-term successor to Luke Whitelock – who departed the Highlanders to join French club Pau – Mikaele-Tu’u put in an incredible performance with ball in hand against the Chiefs.
The 22-year-old not only scored one of his team’s tries, but also made 13 carries for a massive 51 metres, making two clean breaks and beating five defenders. Only debutant fullback Vilimoni Koroi made more metres for the Highlanders on Saturday.
Mikaele-Tu’u also contributed on defence as he won a couple of turnovers from the Chiefs lineout and won another in open play.
With All Blacks coach Ian Foster looking for a No 8 to succeed Kieran Read, Mikaele-Tu’u will be keen to build on this performance to put himself in the reckoning.
Hoskins Sotutu (Blues)
Another player who was highly impressive at the back of the scrum, Blues eigthman Sotutu equalled Mikaele-Tu’u’s effort of 51m for his team, while he also made 15 carries, one clean break and two offloads.
Defensively, Sotutu made 12 tackles, missing just two of his 14 attempts and won two turnovers for his team.
The 21-year-old is keeping Akira Ioane out of the starting lineup and may just retain his place in the No 8 jersey for the Blues’ next match against the Chiefs in Hamilton.
Caleb Clarke (Blues)
At this stage of the year, Clarke would have been expected to be in Tokyo for the All Blacks Sevens team. However, the postponement of the Olympic Games until 2021 may well be a blessing in disguise for both the 21-year-old and the Blues.
The son of former All Blacks centre Eroni, Clarke made an immediate impact in his first Super Rugby appearance of 2020. The wing scored one of his side’s three tries against the Hurricanes, finishing off a break from Reiko Ioane, while he ran 105m from 11 carries, beating five defenders.
His back-three teammate Mark Telea also deserves a mention after he beat 10 defenders at Eden Park, the most of any player in round one.
Shaun Stevenson (Chiefs)
While his team ended up on the wrong side of the scoreline against the Highlanders, Stevenson put in yet another solid performance on the right wing for the Chiefs.
The 23-year-old was a constant threat out wide during the match, making 10 carries and beating six defenders with four clean breaks.
The Chiefs have no end to their talent on the wings, with Sean Wainui putting in an efficient performance against the Highlanders, while there is also Etene Nanai-Seturo and Solomon Alaimano in their squad.
Otere Black (Blues)
The pre-match headlines to weekend’s action revolved around Beauden Barrett’s debut for the Blues against his former side, the Hurricanes.
However, it was Otere Black who proved to be the MVP in the match as he went about his business with maximum efficiency. Crucially, Black held his cool to convert all three of the Blues’ tries while adding three penalties to take his side out of reach in the second half.
With Dan Carter also added to the Blues squad and young Harry Plummer knocking on the door to start, the 25-year-old Black would have been under pressure to show that he belonged in the No 10 jersey.
His performance on Sunday certainly showed that coach Leon McDonald should continue to back him at flyhalf.
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