OPINION: Super Rugby Form XV
Monday, August 7, 2017 Lynn McConnell
While any selection has to be subjective it cannot be forgotten that the Crusaders gained their success by dominating the tough New Zealand Conference and then went to South Africa to play at altitude to win the title.
That requires teamwork of an outstanding level while also highlighting the relatively easier road their opponents, the Lions, had in reaching the final against consistently weaker opposition throughout the year.
However, that doesn't preclude the Lions impact on the competition being represented among the players competing for places in a tournament side.
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Starting from fullback, there can be little doubt that Chiefs fullback Damian McKenzie deserves top billing. His statistics say it all for his consistency: 242 carries, 80 defenders beaten, 1669m gained, 26 offloads, 35 clean breaks and nearly all of those being the best figures, certainly among his positional rivals. Crusaders fullback David Havili would be his back-up in the position.
On the left wing there are several contenders, Lions wing Courtnall Skosan, Crusaders wing Seta Tamanivalu and Blues wing Rieko Ioane, both of whom scored 10 tries during their campaigns. But the player who proved most consistent from a statistical point of view was Chiefs wing James Lowe. He made 40 clean breaks, beat 52 defenders and made 31 offloads, and that's not forgetting his powerful left boot.
Contenders for the right wing berth did not enjoy quite the try scoring success, although a case could be made for Hurricanes three-quarter Vince Aso, who started the campaign on the wing before moving to centre. Lions supporters could point to Ruan Combrinck, more in a defensive mode than on attack, and he also had a powerful long-range goal-kicking threat to his cause. But Highlander Waisake Naholo was the player who had the most impact in the position, scoring vital tries in key moments.
Centre provides some interesting possibilities. Aso features again after stepping into the role for his side when Matt Proctor was forced out due to injury. Lions centre Lwazi Mvovo is another to be considered along with Chiefs centre Anton Lienert-Brown. And Crusaders newcomer Jack Goodhue is in the mix as well. Goodhue demonstrated enough class to warrant the selection to head off Lienert-Brown who wanted for consistency during the first half of the year.
Second five-eighths comes down to a straight battle between Crusaders linchpin Ryan Crotty and Hurricanes blockbuster Ngani Laumape. Both would warrant a place in the side and their rivalry will be continued for starting places in the All Blacks. Laumape's try-scoring in posting 15 tries for the season is right up there while Crotty's match organisation was evident in the Crusaders' final success. But Laumape edges it for consistency through a season in which Crotty battled with injuries.
Any team that wants to win the Super Rugby title cannot do it without a class five-eighths and it is acknowledged that each of the semifinalists this year had players of the finest quality. Lions No.10 Elton Jantjies dominated the South African sides although he came under pressure from Sharks newcomer Curwin Bosch while in New Zealand, the Highlanders could claim two key performers in Lima Sopoaga and Marty Banks (the most consistent kicker under pressure in New Zealand) while the Chiefs had Aaron Cruden, the Hurricanes Beauden Barrett and the Crusaders Richie Mo'unga. Given he saw his side all the way through to the final success Mo'unga deserves his place.
Halfback was probably a little more clear cut with Hurricanes half TJ Perenara enjoying a stellar season, especially after having to take on a captaincy role in Dane Coles' absence. He played some outstanding rugby across the season. The Lions might have pointed to Ross Cronje as a contender but many would argue that Faf de Klerk was a more influential player while the Crusaders were similarly well served by two top performers in Mitch Drummond and Bryn Hall without either of them achieving the overall command that Perenara demonstrated.
South African Lions Warren Whiteley, and his injury replacement Ruan Ackermann, had strong seasons at No.8 but again it comes back to the New Zealand options, and two in particular after Crusader Kieran Read was unavailable until the last stages of the season, Highlander Luke Whitelock, who enjoyed possibly his finest Super Rugby season to date, and Hurricane Brad Shields, although he could also be considered on the blindside of the scrum. Whitelock takes it for his positional consistency.
Blindside flanker sees Shields in the mix again along with Stormers captain Siya Kolisi, who enjoyed a great year with his side. But it comes down to the players on show in the final where Jordan Taufua, after another strong season, went head to head with Jaco Kriel and the Lion takes it with his leadership capabilities giving him the slightest of edges.
On the open side flank,, Lion Kwagga Smith had to be considered although his early shower in the final meant the question about whether he got the better of Matt Todd was never sufficiently sorted, but in the time they were both on the field Todd had the upper hand and for that reason, and in edging another contender Ardie Savea, Todd takes the call.
As the best two locks in the world it was always going to take a lot to edge Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick, and no-one managed it. Pieter Steph du Toit, Franco Mostert and Eben Etzebeth all had their moments but none managed to gain the advantage. Retallick showed his worth in the quarterfinal against the Stormers to meet the Etzebeth threat, while Whitelock, as he has done consistently in big games, showed his worth when taking key lineout ball when under pressure in the final against the Lions.
Crusaders props Owen Franks and Joe Moody took everything that opponents could throw at them while Wyatt Crockett was probably second best on the loosehead side behind Moody. That's a powerful base for any side while Franks was well backed by Mike Alaalatoa, one of the season's big movers, on the tighthead side. Others making their way into the limelight have been Chief Nepo Laulala and Hurricane Jeffrey Toomaga-Allen.
Hooker was more wide open this season due to Dane Coles' injury issues but in his stead Ricky Riccitelli offered much for the future in stepping into his position. However, the contest really comes down to Crusader Codie Taylor and Lion Malcolm Marx. Taylor stepped up big-time during the season and the Super Rugby tankard was suitable reward for his efforts. Marx became a cornerstone of the Lions pack and that should be reflected in his role with the Springboks in this and future years and with 10 tries thrown into the mix he edges Taylor in this selection.
A possible Investec Super Rugby XV for 2017 is:
1.Joe Moody, 2.Malcolm Marx, 3. Owen Franks, 4.Brodie Retallick, 5.Sam Whitelock (captain), 6.Jaco Kriel, 7.Matt Todd, 8.Luke Whitelock, 9.TJ Perenara, 10.Richie Mo'unga, 11.James Lowe, 12.Ngani Laumape, 13.Jack Goodhue, 14.Waisake Naholo, 15.Damian McKenzie.
Seta Tamanivalu leaving Lions defenders in the dust! Catch more #NZLvSA action Sep 16 with the #AllBlacks! BUY NOW: https://t.co/pAFIcc1H1u pic.twitter.com/mSNVYNm4Ej— Super Rugby (@SuperRugbyNZ) August 6, 2017