Every year the five New Zealand Super XV franchises unleash a host of new talent on the world of rugby, and this year looks even more exciting than most. Here’s a quick look at at some of the real rising stars of New Zealand rugby.
The Blues have potential to burn this year, with new coach John Kirwan being forced to blood a truck-load of young players following a disastrous campaign last year and a number of senior players leaving the region.
Charles Piutau has been in the Auckland system for a couple of years now, but really broke out in last year’s ITM Cup, playing a huge role in his side’s journey to the final. The top try-scorer at the 2011 IRB Junior World Cup for New Zealand, the 21-year old product of Wesley College has a default setting which encourages him to attack at every opportunity, ensuring Kirwan’s Blues will pose a threat from anywhere on the field this year. Big, powerful and lightning quick, Piutau is blessed with all the natural attributes needed to make it to the very top level of Rugby, and he could well be seen in a black jersey in coming years.
Tana Umaga inspired his Counties-Manukau Steelers to a captivating win in the ITM Cup’s second tier Championship last year, and their scintillating form earned a number of them Super Rugby contracts. Midfielder Bundee Aki impressed the powers-that-be at the reigning Super XV champion Chiefs so much that Dave Rennie relegated Jackson Willison to the draft, content to risk the veteran of 39 Super Rugby games to secure the services of the 22-year old Aki.
A member of the Chiefs’ wider training group in 2012 Aki has big boots to fill in Hamilton following the departure of the game-breaking Sonny Bill Williams, but with a combination of silky skills, exceptional footwork and raw physicality Aki promises to bring his own style to Rennie’s side as they look to defend their title.
The Canterbury Rugby Union had their eye on Jimmy Tupou some time ago, originally attempting to secure the services of the promising blindside/lock ahead of the 2012 ITM Cup. It was the Steelers who ended up with his signature, with Tupou turning out to be another young player who shone in Umaga’s all-conquering Counties side.
A member of New Zealand’s U20 side which finished runners-up in last year’s IRB Junior World Cup Tupou has been described as a cross between Jonah Lomu and Sonny Bill Williams – size and power mixed with agility, speed and phenomenal ball skills. At 6’5” and 107kg Tupou will fill a vital utility role in Todd Blackadder’s Crusaders squad as the Red and Blacks look to improve on four successive finals appearances without a trophy.
As much as Jamie Joseph has attracted a wealth of experience to his new-look Highlanders squad it is depth which he really needs, and midfielder Jason Emery could be vital if his side is to make the play-offs this year, particularly given the recent injury to All Black Tamati Ellison.
Born in Bay of Plenty Emery soon found himself in the Manawatu, where he ended up being named in the Turbos squad while still at school. Having represented New Zealand Secondary Schools the 19 year-old, whilst reasonably diminutive in stature, has boundless potential, and may well be called in to action on a regular basis as the Highlanders look to add some x-factor to their tradesman-like game plan.
Rounding out my list of players to watch for 2013 is the freakishly gifted Ardie Savea. At just 19 Savea, younger brother of All Black Julian, has already represented New Zealand on the IRB Sevens circuit and played ten times for Wellington in the 2012 ITM Cup, scoring 7 tries in the process.
A 6’3” ball of muscle the loose-forward runs like an outside back and is brutal on defence, offering the ability to cover blindside, openside and number 8. Without doubt Savea is destined for big things in New Zealand rugby, and I’m convinced he will make a huge impact in Super Rugby this year and will thrive in an environment which has been rejuvenated since Mark Hammett cut ties with the likes of Ma’a Nonu and Piri Weepu.
Of course, there will also be some bolters who come from nowhere to impress for the New Zealand sides this year, but the players above have the potential to be genuine superstars of the future, and I can’t wait to seem them cut loose!