Super Rugby Pacific, Every team’s game changer

After months of build-up, Super Rugby Pacific is finally here and we get our first taste of at least one new franchise, Fijian Drua, on Friday night, while fans will be treated to a blockbuster on Saturday between the Crusaders and Hurricanes.

As we countdown to the opening kickoff, we’ve analyzed each team and put together a list of all 12 Super Rugby Pacific game changers. This is a player that can change the flow of the game, who everyone can look to when they need a lineout steal, a sublime line break or a huge pilfer just meters from their tryline with minutes left on the clock. Each team has one, so who’s yours?

Blues: Caleb Clarke

After a disappointing year, Caleb Clarke is ready to hit the ground running and make an impact in 2022. Taking a break from the 15-man game, Clarke struggled to make an impact on the sevens stage and so returns to the Blues for Super Rugby Pacific as one of the biggest X-factors in the game. Jonah Lomu-esque in his ability to bulldoze through defenders and crash over the line, Clarke is a superb finisher and has a highlight reel a mile long. Despite his size, he’s also got plenty of speed and a hot step that’ll leave defenses reeling. In a huge year for the Blues as they chase back-to-back titles, Clarke’s ability to break a game wide open will be particularly important.

Brumbies: Rob Valetini

There’s talent everywhere in the Brumbies squad, but one player they can look to make the biggest impact when it’s needed most is Rob Valetini. A breakout season in 2021, expect him to continue the trend in 2022, especially after his time in the Wallabies set-up at the end of last year. A massive ball-runner, Valetini breaks the line often and has the hands to send out some cheeky offloads, meanwhile his defense is massive, regularly making driving tackles and big cleanouts. His accuracy was off on a few occasions in 2021, but when he’s clinical and on his game he can prove the difference for his team.

Chiefs: Anton Lienert-Brown

There’ll be plenty of player shuffling in the Chiefs backline through 2022, but one player they can count on each week is Anton Lienert-Brown. An elusive ball runner, Lienert-Brown gives the Chiefs an edge in attack, seemingly able to always find the smallest gap to slot through while his offload game is strong and regularly sends his teammates through the line. Facing an injury battle last year, the midfielder will be determined to make his mark this season and with a backline still finding its feet around him he’ll be needed to crack open the defense and get his team on the front foot.

Crusaders: Richie Mo’unga

The Crusaders are the envy of the rugby world with their incredible roster. With firepower at every position, it’s close to impossible to decide on just the one game changing player, but reigning NZ Super Rugby Player of the Year Richie Mo’unga has sneaked out on top through his pure skill and outstanding match awareness. His ability to break a game open has been witnessed across domestic and Test level since his debut in 2016 as he easily pulled the strings as playmaker. A multifaceted threat, his running and kicking game make him one of the best, while his match awareness has created incredible moments like his sneaky grubber restart against the Blues in 2020. The Crusaders will miss his presence early in Super Rugby Pacific.

Fijian Drua: Napolioni Bolaca

An international sevens star, expect Napolini Bolaca to make an impression on the 15s stage and give his Fijian Drua team an edge. World Series Sevens top point scorer in 2019-20, Bolaca has no issues finding the try line and will be a player to keep an eye on as the season progresses. While he’ll likely tussle for the starting No. 10 jersey with Baden Kerr, any minutes Bolaca gets on the field will surely see him making an impact on the match.

Force: Izack Rodda

Not much will be in the Force’s favor this season, with border closures forcing them to set up camp on the Eastern seaboard early in the season, but the signing of Izack Rodda is huge and will give them an edge up front. A menace at the lineout, Rodda’s ability to pinch throws, rip through an opposition maul and use his powerful leg drive to crash through defense will give the Force a big lift on the road. His experience on the international and domestic stage will have him menacing many oppositions and will give his young team an edge at the set-piece.

Highlanders: Aaron Smith

Arguably the best scrum-half in the world, Aaron Smith is a regular standout for the Highlanders and likely will be again in 2022. Smith is known to make cheeky little darts around the side of a ruck to catch the defensive line napping, while his pinpoint accurate passes regularly put his teammates through holes and over the gain line. His defensive skills aren’t lacking either, while he remains a great finisher when given the opportunity. Don’t forget, he’s also pretty good at ruffling feathers, which comes in handy during those tense moments at the pointy end of tight clashes.

Hurricanes: Ardie Savea

The Hurricanes will be up against it early in the season and much will be expected from their leadership group. But if there’s one player they can rely on to lead from the front and make a real difference in a match it’s their captain Ardie Savea. One of the premier back-rowers in Super Rugby Pacific, Savea leads by example with crushing tackles and his relentless workrate. A tackle-busting ball carrier, the flanker gives his team constant forward momentum, while his breakdown efficiency makes him a threat across the park.

Melbourne Rebels: Andrew Kellaway

Returning to the Rebels at the start of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman last year, Andrew Kellaway made an immediate impact and quickly made his way to the Wallabies starting side. An elusive ball runner, Kellaway scored eight tries in his debut season for the Wallabies, but his defense for the Rebels and Wallabies was also phenomenal – a chase down of Crusaders flyer Will Jordan quickly made it to the highlight reel. He’ll feature strongly from the wing again this season with his try-scoring ability likely to be on show from the opening round, as well as his incredible defensive capabilities.

Moana Pasifika: Christian Lealiifano

Entering Super Rugby Pacific for their first season, Moana Pasifika have a mix of international experience alongside journeymen and young potential stars, but it’ll be their experienced fly-half Christian Lealiifano they’ll be relying on to give their side a chance. A former Wallaby and a Brumbies great, Lealiifano has plenty of Super Rugby experience and understands the intensity of the domestic competition, his ability to lead his side around the park and create opportunities for Moana’s backline will be huge for his team. His clutch kicking and player insights will be highlighted when his team comes up against Australian opposition later in the year.

Queensland Reds: Taniela Tupou

There’s plenty of talent throughout the Reds team, especially in the backline, but for the Queenslanders their game changer isn’t in their backs, rather in their front-row. A rampaging ball-runner, Taniela Tupou has endless highlight reels of his tackle-busting carries and smashing tackles as well as some outstanding passing, but over the years his scrummaging has also become another talking point of his game. Once one of his weaker spots, Tupou is becoming a raging force at the scrum and he proved many doubters wrong last year, especially with his efforts on the international stage. Returning to provincial rugby, Tupou’s ability to dominate opposition scrums and bulldoze through defense make him an unstoppable force.

Waratahs: Michael Hooper

Taking a sabbatical last year to head to Japan, Hooper’s absence at the Waratahs was clearly visible with the team losing every match while they lacked a sense of mongrel up front. Returning in 2022, Hooper is a passionate player who leads from the front whether that be through his incredible defensive displays or his ability to punch through the defense to crash over the gain line. While he’ll be absent for the opening rounds through injury, the flanker’s endless motor, amazing skills and courageousness make him the one player you can’t overlook to break the game wide open in the Tahs’ favour.

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