The RR outlines the Super rugby rookies set to make an impact on this year’s Super Rugby tournament. With the Australian Conference kick-off this weekend and the rest close behind, the new season offers the chance for a number of rookies, whether massively hyped or under-the-radar, to light up the tournament. Last season it was the brute force of Etzebeth, the work rate of Retallick, the creativity of Goosen and the maturity of Perenara that illuminated the tournament. Who will follow suit this year?
1. Israel Folau (wing), 23, Waratahs
Folau was an absolute phenomenon at rugby league, showcasing his abilities with the Storm and then the Broncos. He had a largely unsuccessful stint with Aussie Rules but the fact remains that he is a premium talent and will present similar defensive challenges to SBW in previous seasons. Folau’s off-loading ability, incredible aerial skills and speed-to-power ratio make him an immediate must watch player. It is often said that it is harder to go from League to Union (than from Union to League) and this may cause him some initial problems. However, if Folau’s desire to achieve with the Waratahs matches his undeniable talent, one cannot fathom anything but a successful season for the big Tongan.
2. Bundee Aki (centre), 22, Chiefs
Few people, outside of the Counties hardcore, would have heard of Bundee Aki this time last year. After an outstanding ITM cup with an all-round enthralling Counties side that lit up the second division, Aki is arguably, at least in Chiefs territory, the most anticipated rookie in Super Rugby (outside of Folau). Aki is relatively new to the centres as his age grade rugby was predominately as a winger; yet based on his ITM cup performances he seems ideally suited. He has a nice mix of speed, power and vision as demonstrated in a number of mouth-watering displays for Counties. SBW’s departure from the Chiefs and Kahui’s history of injury mean that Aki is likely to get a decent crack this year.
3. Ardie Savea (open side flanker) , 19, Hurricanes
Savea’s performances for Wellington have had many heralding the second coming of Michael Jones. Savea is a physical specimen with a great mix of pace and power. He already seems mature beyond his years – a natural leader. Will likely start the season as a benchwarmer or beyond the match-day 22, but as the season progresses we may get a chance to see his prodigious talents. His rise to Super Rugby prominence and eventual All Black stardom would appear more of a question of when than if. One must remember that he is still only just turned 19, so the grand expectations should be slightly moderated this season. But as TJ Perenara showed last season, Savea may be capable of contributing right away.
4. Jan Serfontein (centre), 19, Bulls
Serfontein had a monster 2012 where he was a key member of the Junior Boks team that lifted the World Junior Championship, breaking New Zealand’s four year dominance. Serfontein’s performances caught the eye and he was duly named player of the tournament and eventual IRB Junior World Player of the year. Although he displayed mixed performances for the Blue Bulls in the Currie Cup, not surprising given his age, he seems primed to make a splash in this year’s Super Rugby competition. His style is probably best summarised as uncompromising and power-based. He tips the scales near 100kg, but he also exhibits some finesse and rugby nous which should make him a multi-faceted threat.
5. Pieter-Steph du Toit (blindside flanker), 20, Sharks
Du Toit is the latest name to come off the endless conveyer-belt of talented South African loose forwards. Another member of the victorious Junior Bok team of 2012, his size (6’6, 115kgs) allows him to play either lock or blindside, but it is the latter where most believe he will make his mark. He joins an absolutely loaded Sharks team, not exactly dearth of loose forward or lock talent. But if the rumours from Africa are to be believed, du Toit is probably the most talented of the lot. In similar fashion to Savea, his early season opportunities may be limited but look for him to make his mark when he gets a shot.
5 Honourable mentions:
Kyle Godwin (fly-half), 20, Force
The latest Zimbabwean import for Australian rugby; should get some game time with the Force and looks like a rough diamond in a team short on game changing talent. Played three games for the Force at the end of last season – the arrival of Ebersohn may present a roadblock though.
Charles Piutau (fullback), 21, Blues
Piutau has long been regarded as a star in the making and has excelled at the under-20 and sevens level for New Zealand. Played a couple of games for the Blues last season but it was his scintillating form for Auckland in the ITM Cup which caught the eye.
Timo Swiel (fullback/fly-half), 19, Stormers
Do yourself a favour – YouTube this kid and you will be gobsmacked. One word: ‘Cullenesque’. It is uncertain whether he will see any time this year, but it is fair to say Bok fans are salivating at the talent of this kid.
Dominic Bird (lock), 21, Crusaders
Bird had an impressive ITM Cup which piqued the interest of the Blues who tried to lure him north. He decided to stay with the Crusaders which may hurt his game time as he sits behind Whitelock and Romano. Has good size (6’9) and relishes the rough stuff.
Ofa Tu’ungafasi (prop), 20, Blues
Based on sheer size alone he is an intriguing prospect: 6’5 and 129kgs. Was the starting tighthead for the Junior All Blacks and Auckland ITM cup team last season. May get limited game-time to showcase his talent this year but could emerge as this year’s ‘Ben Tameifuna’.